Jack Benny: Forever 39
By Nicole Rapp
Valentine’s Day in 1894 marked the birth of the 20th century’s most beloved American comedian, Jack Benny. Though the decades of Benny’s career, he entertained audiences with his hosting capabilities and is comedic monologues and violin performances. With his gentle humor and miserly persona he achieved unbroken popularity on radio and television. Benny’s anti-hero, money pinching, and effeminate act should not have been humorous according to the social and political climate of the time. However, Benny’s comedic timing and slow takes became fine-tuned and designed to garner attention and laughter throughout the many years of performing in vaudeville. Benny’s talent would eventually lead to many different entertainment endeavors that would reward him with loyal audiences that would span decades.
Benjamin Kubelsky, whom the world knows as Jack Benny, was raised in the small town of Waukegan in Illinois. Benny’s father, Meyer Kubelsky immigrated to the United States from Lithuania in 1889. Smuggled out of the country under a shipment of bottles, Meyer determined to make a new life. Deciding to settle outside of Chicago, Meyer wanted to follow his father’s profession as abusinessman running a tavern and a wine shop in honor of him. Saving every penny from working in the Chicago sweatshops and then as a door-to-door merchant, Meyer eventually was able to purchase a saloon with billiard parlor in Waukegan. In 1893 Meyer was encouraged to find a wife, so he headed to Chicago to a matchmaker. After being introduced to Emma Sachs and courting her, Meyer married her that same year. Ten months later Jack Benny was born, and eventually in 1904 came his sister Florence. Eventually Meyer sold his saloon to open a haberdashery.
On Benny’s sixth birthday, he was given a violin by his parents and would practice every night, eventually becoming a reasonably proficient musician. It was recommended that Benny be sent to the Chicago School of Music but the transportation to and from the school was too expensive for the Kubelskys. As Benny’s talent grew, the local community of Waukegan agreed that he was a prodigy and the citizens of the town unified to raise a generous fund to send Benny to a European conservatory to study. However Benny turned down the opportunity to perfect his craft abroad, much to his parent’s dismay, and instead he would perform at weddings and other social functions on weekends. Benny also continued playing violin during school and he became first violin of the Waukegan Township High School Orchestra. When he turned fourteen he began playing with other musicians that were years older than he. Soon he would perform with orchestras at local Waukegan theaters.
Despite his musical talent he lacked the ability to focus on his education. In fact he hardly went to school. While in the ninth grade, deciding to go to class more regularly, he was disruptive and frequently cracked jokes and pulled pranks. One of his most memorable escapades to avoid studying one winter was by placing Limburger cheese behind the radiator. The stench that filled the room and the melted cheese that covered the heater earned him a trip to the principal’s office. By the second semester he was flunking all his classes and his attendance was poor. Benny and his parents were called to the principal’s office to receive the news that he had been expelled. With this disappointing blow he had no choice but to work.
Feeling like a failure after being thrown out of school, Benny was put to work at his father’s haberdashery. Unfortunately after a few mismanaged sales to customers without credit, he was fired by his own father. Promptly Meyer insisted that he attend Waukegan Business College in Illinois, which he again failed. Despite his inability to be successful in school, he turned to his talent for playing violin and earned a job in the band pit at the Barrison Theater, the top vaudeville house in Waukegan. The leader of the band was the pianist Cora Salisbury who took an interest in him. As a motherly figure, Cora would encourage him to become a member of the American Federation of Musicians. As a previous vaudeville performer herself, Cora believed that he had the potential future in vaudeville. At the same time another female figure would enter Benny’s life who would be a pivotal character that steered him into show business performing. Minnie Palmer was the mother of the Marx Brothers and traveled and managed the boys’ vaudeville act. While performing in the small midwestern town at the Barrison Theater in 1911 Minnie’s instinctive ability to find talent focused on Benny playing in the pit.
Minnie asked the boy to travel and perform with her group, at double salary, with travel expenses covered. Of course when Benny brought the opportunity up to his parents, they refused to let him leave home.
At the end of 1911 Barrison Theater closed leaving Benny and Cora out of a job. Cora decided to return to vaudeville and wanted Benny to be her partner. Together the two musicians created a piece of material called “From Grand Opera to Ragtime”. Of course the challenge was to convince the Kubelskys to let their son follow his heart. After Cora successfully convinced Benny’s parents to part with their only son, the duo hit the road. For the first three weeks the pianist and violinist team performed a high class act on the Vaudeville circuit, gaining each performance in popularity. The act was a hit, getting attention across the midwest where an established violinist by the name of Jan Kuelsky took note. Kuelsky went to his attorney to complain about the similarities between his name and Kubelsky. The attorney contacted the young Benny to cease using his last name and then reported the infraction of the performer’s birth name to the arbitration board of credits’ authority office of the Western Vaudeville Circuit. From this point on, Benny avoided the conflict with Kuelsky by changing his own stage name to Ben K. Benny. Salisbury and Benny would continue their act, consistently playing up to five times a day in small-time theaters in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Ohio.
Benny performed with Cora for almost two years until her mother became ill in 1912. Still striving for stardom he continued the same piece of material with a piano player named Lyman Woods but decided to change the spelling of his name. The duo’s performance would be fashioned “Bennie and Woods: From Grand Opera to Ragtime” with many of the songs recycled from Cora’s act. At this point the men were earning three hundred and fifty dollars a week playing at nicer theaters in big time cities such as Boston and San Francisco. In 1917 Benny and Woods were booked at “the ne plus ultra of vaudeville” the Palace in New York. Unfortunately, the two bombed and shortly after dissolved their partnership. Later that year Benny enlisted in the navy and while at boot camp began fine-tuning his comedic abilities.
During a makeshift entertainment night at the boot camp Benny decided to play “The Rosary” which was welcomed with boos. With a good sense of timing, Benny paused and cracked a one liner bringing down the house. This first encounter with laughter planted a seed in him so that he pursued his comedic development. Performing in the Navy’s Great Lakes Revue for two weeks Benny playing the role of Izzy, an admiral’s disorderly orderly, and he was a great hit. After Armistice Day in 1918 was announced Benny was free to return to vaudeville. For the first time performing on his own Benny arranged a few jokes, played some comedic bits on the violin, and sang in a rough untrained baritone voice. In 1919 Benny was continuously getting booked to perform in the number two spot in all the same circuits as he had before the war for the Western Vaudeville Time, the Gus Sun Time, the Poli Time, and the Loew Time. Running into a name dispute again in 1921, this time conflicting with Vaudeville star Ben Bernie, Benny would change his stage name for the last time to the more common household name of Jack Benny.
Benny was married for forty-eight years to Mary Livingstone and had a daughter by adoption. They lived a fabulous life in Beverly
Hills, California. Jack Benny’s astounding ability to develop an entertainment persona proved a real boon to his career. He presented himself as a cheap, surrounded himself with a stock company of other entertainers who were terrific at what they did. Other entertainers such as Al Jolson would not want anyone around them to show them up. Benny wanted everyone around him to be outstanding and he featured all of them at their best. As his radio show took off in popularity, followed by great television success whether in specials, half hour sitcom or hour format, Benny became an entertainment classic. He told jokes and acted, occasionally also making movies in the thirties and forties but sticking mostly to television when he became established there. His persona of being miserly and lying about his age became running jokes with him. His material was always clean and wholesome.
He was a master of the slow joke. He told jokes so slowly that they ate up a great deal of entertainment time on radio or television and on the talk-show circuit on programs such as Merv Griffin or the Johnny Carson show he could eat up a whole time slot between commercials with one elaborate story filled with pauses that would make the audiences laugh on the way to the punch line even more than at the end. He spent a great deal of time explaining the premises of his stories, punctuating his dialogue with phrases such as “you see”. Complementing this approach were his retinue of stars. He was a pioneer in performing with black artists such as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, whom he gave abundant opportunities to sing and do eccentric vaudeville dancing to as Rochester played his valet and chauffeur on the show, piloting a never seen Maxwell car that was always falling apart.
There was also Gisele McKenzie with whom he frequently clowned on his tv show and with whom he played humorous violin duets. For years there were rumors of an affair between the two, so often did she co-star on his tv show. Irish singer Dennis Day provided song stylings for the Benny show and Dennis developed into a comedic foil as an idiotic innocent often insulted by Benny. He also gave a home to old-time vaudeville comedians who often added their particular specialties to the programs. These included the likes of Mel Blanc, noted for playing anabsurd Mexican character who would only say the word si if asked any question and Benny Rubin, once a comedic vaudeville and film star and now on leaner days. Even Jack’s wife Mary Livingston, appeared occasionally with him although much of the time Jack had a skirt-chasing aspect to his media persona as well. Even his announcer Don Wilson was often brought into the show as an actor. Benny’s ability to surround himself with talent and to give them every opportunity to look great on his shows made his shows big hits and also garnered himself the reputation as one of the most beloved entertainers in show business. For many decades he was the best friend of George Burns of Burns and Allen fame and Burns was the one comedian who made Benny collapse with laughter all the time even though Burns was essentially a straight man for Gracie Allen. But Benny admired timing and Burns had a fabulous sense of when to speak and what to say to enhance laughter for someone else and Benny was the same.
On December 26, 1974 Benny passed away at age 80. Up until the day he died, Jack Benny never lost his timing and always gave the audience what they wanted which made them love him.
Fuller-Seeley, Kathryn H. “Becoming Benny: The Evolution of Jack Benny’s Character Comedy from Vaudeville to Radio.” Studies in American Humor, vol. 1, no. 2, 2015., pp. 163-191.
Livingstone, Mary, Hilliard Marks, and Marcia Borie. Jack Benny, Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y, 1978.
Museum of Television and Radio (New York, N.Y.). Jack Benny: The Radio and Television Work, Harper Perennial, New York City, N.Y, 1991.