Do you remember the first celebrity you ever met? Jack Benny was mine. It occurred in July 1969, when I was a month away from turning 14 years old and my family was staying in a hotel in Niagara Falls, N.Y. -- a town where Jack Benny was performing. We ran into him just outside the hotel; I think I may have shook his hand and my younger brother got his autograph. I also recall seeing him having breakfast in the hotel restaurant the next morning.
At the time, all I knew about him was that he had been on TV, where I had occasionally seen his show in its final years, and before that had been on radio, or so my parents told me. I knew he had sort of a vain, skinflint image. but realized it was part of the act.
It wasn't until college a few years later that I saw "To Be Or Not To Be" and admired his acting (not to mention Carole Lombard's beauty) in this Ernst Lubitsch classic. Shortly after that, in late December 1974, Benny died (at age 80, more than twice the "39" he'd long humorously claimed he was), and in reading the obituaries and appreciations, I finally got to understand what he was all about.
Yes, Benny made his share of movies, but like, say, Frank Sinatra, you don't define him by his film work. Benny's genius is best explained by his long-running radio show. (By the 1950s, he made the transition to television, but he never quite felt as home there.)
Benny -- born Feb. 14, 1894 -- had some success in vaudeville in the 1920s, then signed a movie deal with MGM that never quite panned out (although he played the master of ceremonies in "The Hollywood Revue Of 1929"), began on radio in 1932. His first lines were, "This is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say, 'Who cares?"
Benny wasn't the first radio comic, but he was the first to develop the conventions of what we now know as classic radio, and later television, situation comedy (although in Benny's case, "character comedy" might be the better description). It took him a few years, but by 1936, when he moved the show from New York to Los Angeles, he had developed the format radio audiences would enjoy for nearly two more decades.
Unlike some other comics, Benny never minded being the comedic foil. He developed a persona -- petty and cheap -- vastly unlike what he was in real life, and built a cast around him with well-developed personalities: "girlfriend" Mary Livingstone (his real-life wife), rotund announcer Don Wilson, a naive boy singer (first Kenny Baker, then Dennis Day), a sassy bandleader (Phil Harris) and a wisecracking black valet-chauffeur, Rochester van Jones (Eddie Anderson). Over the years, the Rochester character shed many of the racial stereotypes associated with black domestics.
Here's a photo of the cast when the show was at its peak of popularity in the 1940s. From left are Eddie Anderson, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, Mary Livingstone, Jack Benny, Don Wilson and "man of a thousand voices" Mel Blanc.
Benny paid his writing staff well, and many of them stayed with him for years.
Jack and his crew came up with many ideas to retain the public's interest. One was a long-running "feud" with fellow radio comic Fred Allen (who was actually a longtime friend). They'd disparage each other's program, and sometimes appeared on the other show to keep the insults going. Below are Benny and Allen with their wives, Livingstone and Portland Hoffa, in 1937, not long after the "feud" took flight:
Many film stars guested on the Benny show, but Lombard wasn't one of them. (Had she lived, however, she likely would have appeared on his program to help promote "To Be Or Not To Be.") But they'd known each other before filming began in 1941, as the following two pictures show. The first shows them with Fred MacMurray, and judging from Fred's mustache, it was probably in the fall of 1937, when "True Confession" was being filmed. The second picture includes Clark Gable.
Benny's style proved influential; Johnny Carson and Kelsey Grammer have both labeled him such. You can see much of Benny in how Grammer portrayed Frasier Crane. (It's interesting that arguably the two best sitcoms of the '90s, "Frasier" and "Seinfeld," had roots in classic radio, as Jerry Seinfeld has long credited Abbott and Costello's clever wordplay as an influence.)
Fortunately, most of Benny's work is preserved for future generations. Hundreds of his radio programs are available in the mp3 format, and can be picked up on eBay for extremely low prices. They're well worth a listen. (For a sample program, including both East Coast and West Coast versions, go to http://benny.crispy.com/special_exhibits/east-west_comparison.html.)
Oh, and one more thing: Benny's hometown of Waukegan, Ill., named a junior high school (now a middle school) after him. The school's teams are called the "39ers."