Jack Benny (born Benjamin Kubelsky; February 14, 1894 – December 26, 1974) was an American Comedian, vaudevillian, radio, television and film actor, and Violinist. Recognized as a leading American entertainer of the 20th century, Benny portrayed his character as a miser, playing his violin badly. In character, he would claim to be 39 years of age, regardless of his actual age.
Benny was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in nearby Waukegan, Illinois. He was the son of Meyer Kubelsky and Emma Sachs Kubelsky. His parents were Jewish. Meyer was a saloon owner and later a haberdasher who had emigrated to America from Poland. Emma had emigrated from Lithuania. Benny began studying violin, an instrument that became his trademark, at the age of 6, his parents hoping for him to become a professional Violinist. He loved the instrument, but hated practice. His music Teacher was Otto Graham Sr., a neighbor and Father of Otto Graham of NFL fame. At 14, Benny was playing in dance bands and his high school orchestra. He was a dreamer and poor at his studies, and was ultimately expelled from high school. He did poorly in Business school later and at attempts to join his father's Business. In 1911, he began playing the violin in local vaudeville theaters for $7.50 a week. He was joined by Ned Miller, a young Composer and singer, on the circuit.
The next year, Benny formed a vaudeville musical duo with Pianist Cora Folsom Salisbury, a buxom 45-year-old divorcee who needed a partner for her act. This provoked famous Violinist Jan Kubelik, who feared that the young vaudevillian with a similar name would damage his reputation. Under legal pressure, Benjamin Kubelsky agreed to change his name to Ben K. Benny, sometimes spelled Bennie. When Salisbury left the act, Benny found a new Pianist, Lyman Woods, and renamed the act "From Grand Opera to Ragtime". They worked together for five years and slowly integrated comedy elements into the show. They reached the Palace Theater, the "Mecca of Vaudeville", and did not do well. Benny left show Business briefly in 1917 to join the United States Navy during World War I, and often entertained the troops with his violin playing. One evening, his violin performance was booed by the troops, so with prompting from fellow Sailor and actor Pat O'Brien, he ad-libbed his way out of the jam and left them laughing. He received more comedy spots in the revues and did well, earning a reputation as a Comedian and musician.
In 1921, Benny accompanied Zeppo Marx to a Passover seder in Vancouver at the residence where he met 14-year-old Sadie Marks. Their first meeting did not go well when he tried to leave during Sadie's violin performance. They met again in 1926. Jack had not remembered their earlier meeting and instantly fell for her. They married in 1927. She was working in the hosiery section of the Hollywood Boulevard branch of the May Company, where Benny courted her. Called on to fill in for the "dumb girl" part in a Benny routine, Sadie proved to be a natural comedienne. Adopting the stage name Mary Livingstone, Sadie collaborated with Benny throughout most of his career. They later adopted a daughter, Joan.
Benny also acted in films, including the Academy Award-winning The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Broadway Melody of 1936 (as a benign nemesis for Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor), George Washington Slept Here (1942), and notably, Charley's Aunt (1941) and To Be or Not to Be (1942). He and Livingstone also appeared in Ed Sullivan's Mr. Broadway (1933) as themselves. Benny often parodied contemporary movies and movie genres on the radio program, and the 1940 film Buck Benny Rides Again features all the main radio characters in a funny Western parody adapted from program skits. The failure of one Benny vehicle, The Horn Blows at Midnight, became a running gag on his radio and television programs, although contemporary viewers may not find the film as disappointing as the jokes suggest.
In fact, the radio show was generally not announced as The Jack Benny Program. Instead, the primary name of the show tied to the sponsor. Benny's first sponsor was Canada Dry Ginger Ale from 1932 to 1933. Benny's sponsors included Chevrolet from 1933 to 1934, General Tire in 1934, and Jell-O from 1934 to 1942. The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny was so successful in selling Jell-O, in fact, that General Foods could not manufacture it quickly enough when sugar shortages arose in the early years of World War II, and the company stopped advertising the popular dessert mix. General Foods switched the Benny program from Jell-O to Grape-Nuts from 1942 to 1944, and it was, naturally, The Grape Nuts Program Starring Jack Benny. Benny's longest-running sponsor, was the American Tobacco Company's Lucky Strike cigarettes, from 1944 to 1955, when the show was usually announced as The Lucky Strike Program starring Jack Benny.
Arriving at NBC on March 17, Benny did The Chevrolet Program until April 1, 1934. He continued with sponsor General Tire through the end of the season. In October, 1934, General Foods, the makers of Jell-O and Grape-Nuts, became the sponsor strongly identified with Benny for 10 years. American Tobacco's Lucky Strike was his longest-lasting radio sponsor, from October 1944 through to the end of his original radio series.
In 1937, Benny began his famous radio feud with rival Fred Allen. Allen kicked the feud off on his own show on his December 30, 1936 show, after child Violinist Stuart Canin gave a performance of François Schubert's The Bee credibly enough that Allen wisecracked about "a certain alleged violinist" who should by comparison be ashamed of himself. Benny, who listened to the Allen show answered in kind at the end of his January 3, 1937 show. And the two comedians were off and running.
Starting with the October 24, 1937 radio show, where Jack proudly announced the purchase of his car, a running joke was that Benny drove an old Maxwell automobile, a brand that went out of Business in 1925. Although some details such as the car's body style and its exact model year would vary over the years, what remained constant was that Benny's old car was so worn out that it would barely run, but the miserly Benny insisted he could get a few more miles out of it. Many of the sound effects for the car’s clattering engine came from an actual old motor which the sound effects shop had salvaged from a Los Angeles junkyard. When a sound effects man missed a cue for the automobile engine, Mel Blanc quickly improvised a vocal imitation of a sputtering car engine starting up noisily that was so funny it became a regular feature of the show.
Benny also was caricatured in several Warner Brothers cartoons including Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur (1939, as Casper the Caveman), I Love to Singa, Slap Happy Pappy, and Goofy Groceries (1936, 1940, and 1941 respectively, as Jack Bunny), Malibu Beach Party (1940, as himself), and The Mouse that Jack Built (1959). The last of these is probably the most memorable: Robert McKimson engaged Benny and his actual cast (Mary Livingstone, Eddie Anderson, and Don Wilson) to do the voices for the mouse versions of their characters, with Mel Blanc—the usual Warner Brothers cartoon voicemeister—reprising his old vocal turn as the always-aging Maxwell, always a phat-phat-bang! away from collapse. In the cartoon, Benny and Livingstone agree to spend their anniversary at the Kit-Kat Club, which they discover the hard way is inside the mouth of a live cat. Before the cat can devour the mice, Benny himself awakens from his dream, then shakes his head, smiles wryly, and mutters, "Imagine, me and Mary as little mice." Then, he glances toward the cat lying on a throw rug in a corner and sees his and Livingstone's cartoon alter egos scampering out of the cat's mouth. The cartoon ends with a classic Benny look of befuddlement. It was rumored that Benny requested that, in lieu of monetary compensation, he receive a copy of the finished film.
By 1941, Jack Benny's Maxwell had become such a well-known aspect of popular culture that it was referenced in the Billy Mills song "I'm in Love with the Sound Effects Man" as heard on the June 17, 1941 Fibber McGee and Molly radio show (and later performed on a 1943 recording by Spike Jones). The automobile was also featured in the 1943 Benny film The Meanest Man in the World. Benny and his archaic auto were featured in a series of television and print ads for Texaco from the 1950s through the 1970s. A series of gags were built around the premise that Benny appreciated the value of "Sky Chief" brand gasoline in keeping his car running smoothly, but was too cheap to buy more than one gallon at a time. In the classic cartoon The Mouse that Jack Built Jack Benny has himself and his wife Mary driven by Rochester ... in a sputtering Maxwell car.
The ongoing saga of the Maxwell was initially interrupted after just five years, when on the October 18, 1942 broadcast Jack took his car to a local junkyard and contributed it to the World War II Jun K salvage drive, receiving $7.50 in war stamps in exchange. However much of the radio audience may have remained unaware that the Maxwell was ever gone, because before long Jack was heard traveling around in a decrepit old car again, and by the end of the 1940s his car would once more be specifically identified as a Maxwell.
Mary Livingstone, his wife, was a supporting character, as his wisecracking and not especially deferential female friend. She was not quite his girlfriend, since Benny would often try to date movie stars like Barbara Stanwyck, and occasionally had stage girlfriends, such as "Gladys Zybisco". Don Wilson, the rotund announcer, also appeared on the show. He also announced for Fanny Brice's hit Baby Snooks. Bandleader Phil Harris appeared as a jive talking, alcoholic philanderer whose repartee was profoundly risqué for its time. Boy tenor Dennis Day appeared as a sheltered, naïve youth who often got the better of his boss. This character was originated by Kenny Baker whom Day replaced. Singer Larry Stevens replaced Dennis Day from November 5, 1944 to March 10, 1946, while the latter served in the Navy.
In the 1946 Christmas episode, for Example, Benny buys shoelaces for Don, and is unable to make up his mind whether to give Wilson shoelaces with plastic tips or metal tips. After exchanging them repeatedly, Mel Blanc is heard screaming insanely, "Plastic tips! Metal tips! I can't stand it anymore!" A variation in 1948 was with an expensive wallet, but repeatedly changing the greeting card, prompting Blanc to shout, "I haven't run into anyone like you in 20 years! Oh, why did the governor have to give me that pardon!?" Benny then realizes that he should have gotten Don a wallet for $1.98, whereupon the store clerk responds by committing suicide. Over the years, in the Christmas episodes, Benny bought and repeatedly exchanged cuff links, golf tees, a box of dates, a paint set (water colors or oils), and a gopher trap. In later years, Benny would encounter Mel Blanc's wife (played by Jean Vander Pyl) or the clerk's Psychiatrist at the store, and drive them crazy as well.
On the advice of MCA's Lew Wasserman, Jack Benny formed a holding company, "Amusement Enterprises" (a tax break major entertainers usually enjoyed in those years), which allowed him to bundle his entire program and personnel into a single commodity. The company also gave Benny the opportunity to produce and package other radio programs (including his 1947 summer replacement series starring Jack Paar), and invest in other entertainment ventures, including the production of a 1949 feature film, The Lucky Stiff, starring Dorothy Lamour, and the 1948 Broadway version of Mister Roberts, starring Henry Fonda. While Benny was top of the heap on NBC, CBS czar william S. Paley cast a hungry eye upon the Comedian. Paley apparently had good reason to believe Benny could be had. In the summer of 1948, he successfully negotiated a deal with Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, buying their holding company, which owned the Amos 'n' Andy radio show (and the rights to those characters), moving the entire "package" from NBC to CBS that fall: he then learned that NBC balked at buying a "Jack Benny" package deal when "Jack Benny" was not the star's real name. Paley reached out to Benny and offered him a deal that would allow that package-buy.
According to Benny himself, Mary Livingstone got the biggest laugh he ever heard on the show, on the April 25, 1948, broadcast. The punchline was the result of the following exchange between Don Wilson and noted opera singer Dorothy Kirsten:
To sweeten the deal for a very nervous sponsor, Paley also agreed to make up the difference to American Tobacco if Benny's Hooper rating (the radio version of today's Nielsen ratings) on CBS fell to a certain level below his best NBC Hooper rating. Benny's CBS debut on January 2, 1949 bested his top NBC rating by several points while also pumping up the ratings of the show that followed, Amos 'n' Andy. NBC, with its smash Sunday night lineup now broken up, offered lucrative new deals to two of those Sunday night hits, The Fred Allen Show and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. Benny's bandleader and his singing Actress wife now starred in their own hit sitcom, meaning Harris was featured on shows for two different networks.
When the Jack Benny Program began appearing on television in 1950, a 1916 Maxwell Model 25 Tourer became one of the production's standard props. Benny's Maxwell later became a 1923 Tourer. In addition to its being on the program, Benny would often make public appearances in Maxwells. He drove a Maxwell onto the stage in one of his last television specials.
Benny's television program relied more on guest stars and less on his regulars than his radio program. In fact, the only radio cast members who appeared regularly on the television program as well were Don Wilson and Eddie Anderson. Day appeared sporadically, and Harris had left the radio program in 1952, although he did make a guest appearance on the television show (Bob Crosby, Phil's "replacement", frequently appeared on television through 1956). A frequent guest was the Canadian-born singer-violinist Gisele Mackenzie.
Benny was able to attract guests who rarely, if ever, appeared on television. In 1953, both Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart made their television debuts on Benny's program. One guest star on the Jack Benny show was Rod Serling who starred in a spoof of The Twilight Zone in which Benny goes to his own house..and finds that no one knows who he is!
On March 28, 1954, Benny co-hosted General Foods 25th Anniversary Show: A Salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein with Groucho Marx and Mary Martin. In September 1954, CBS premiered Chrysler's Shower of Stars co-hosted by Jack Benny and william Lundigan. It enjoyed a successful run from 1954 until 1958. Both television shows often overlapped the radio show. In fact, the radio show alluded frequently to its television counterparts. Often as not, Benny would sign off the radio show in such circumstances with the line "Well, good night, folks. I'll see you on television."
Benny was profoundly shaken by Allen's sudden death from a heart attack in 1956. In a statement released on the day after Allen's death, Benny said, "People have often asked me if Fred Allen and I were really friends in real life. My answer is always the same: You couldn't have such a long-running and successful feud as we did, without having a deep and sincere friendship at the heart of it." Allen himself wrote, "For years people have been asking me if Jack and I are friendly. I don't think that Jack Benny has an enemy in the world. ... He is my favourite Comedian and I hope to be his friend until he is forty. That will be forever."
As a gag, Benny made a 1957 appearance on the then-wildly popular $64,000 Question. His category of choice was "Violins", but after answering the first question correctly Benny opted out of continuing, leaving the show with just $64; host Hal March gave Benny the prize money out of his own pocket. March made an appearance on Benny's show the same year.
When Benny moved to television, audiences learned that his Verbal talent was matched by his controlled repertory of dead-pan facial expressions and gesture. The program was similar to the radio show (several of the radio scripts were recycled for television, as was somewhat Common with other radio shows that moved to television), but with the addition of visual gags. Lucky Strike was the sponsor. Benny did his opening and closing monologues before a live audience, which he regarded as essential to timing of the material. As in other TV comedy shows, canned laughter was sometimes added to "sweeten" the Soundtrack, as when the studio audience missed some close-up comedy because of cameras or microphones in their way. The television viewers learned to live without Mary Livingstone, who was afflicted by a striking case of stage fright. Livingstone appeared rarely if at all on the television show. In fact, for the last few years of the radio show, she pre-recorded her lines and Jack and Mary's daughter, Joan, stood in for the live taping, with Mary's lines later edited into the tape replacing Joan's before broadcast. Mary Livingstone finally retired from show Business permanently in 1958, as her friend Gracie Allen had done.
In 1960, Benny was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame with three stars. His stars for television and motion pictures are located at 6370 and 6650 Hollywood Boulevard, respectively, and at 1505 Vine Street for radio. He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1988 and the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1989. He was also inducted into The Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame.
After his broadcasting career ended, Benny performed live as a stand up Comedian and returned to films in 1963 with a cameo appearance in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
In due course the ratings game finally got to Benny, too. CBS dropped the show in 1964, citing Benny's lack of appeal to the younger demographic the network began courting, and he went to NBC, his original network, in the fall, only to be out-rated by CBS's Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. The network dropped Benny at the end of the season. He continued to make occasional specials into the 1970s, the last one airing in January 1974.
In his unpublished autobiography, I Always Had Shoes (portions of which were later incorporated by Jack's daughter, Joan Benny, into her memoir of her parents, Sunday Nights at Seven), Benny said that he, not NBC, made the decision to end his TV series in 1965. He said that while the ratings were still very good (he cited a figure of some 18 million viewers per week, although he qualified that figure by saying he never believed the ratings services were doing anything more than guessing, no matter what they promised), advertisers were complaining that commercial time on his show was costing nearly twice as much as what they paid for most other shows, and he had grown tired of what was called the "rate race". Thus, after some three decades on radio and television in a weekly program, Jack Benny went out on top. In fairness, Benny himself shared Fred Allen's ambivalence about television, though not quite to Allen's extent. "By my second year in television, I saw that the camera was a man-eating monster ... It gave a performer close-up exposure that, week after week, threatened his existence as an interesting entertainer."
Benny made one of his final television appearances July 20, 1973 on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Benny was preparing to star in the film version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys when his health failed in 1974. In fact, he prevailed upon his longtime best friend, George Burns, to take his place on a nightclub tour while preparing for the film. Burns ultimately had to replace Benny in the film as well and went on to win an Academy Award for his performance.
In October 1974, Benny cancelled a performance in Dallas after suffering a dizzy spell, coupled with numbness in his arms. Despite a battery of tests, Benny's ailment could not be determined. When he complained of stomach pains in early December, a first test showed nothing, but a subsequent one showed he had inoperable pancreatic cancer. Benny went into a coma at home on December 22, 1974. While in a coma, he was visited by close friends including George Burns, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson and John Rowles. He died on December 26, 1974 at age 80. At the funeral George Burns, Benny's best friend for more than fifty years, attempted to deliver a eulogy but broke down shortly after he began and was unable to continue. Bob Hope also delivered a eulogy in which he stated, "For a man who was the undisputed master of comedy timing, you would have to say this is the only time when Jack Benny's timing was all wrong. He left us much too soon." He was interred in a crypt at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California. Benny's will arranged for a single long-stemmed red rose, to be delivered to his widow, Mary Livingstone, every day for the rest of her life. Livingstone died nine years later on June 30, 1983.
Despite his failing health, Benny made several appearances on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast in his final eighteen months, roasting Ronald Reagan, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, in addition to himself being roasted in February 1974. His roasting of Lucille Ball was his last public performance, and aired on February 7, 1975, several weeks after his death.
Upon his death, his family donated to UCLA his personal, professional, and Business papers, as well as a collection of his television shows. The university established the Jack Benny Award in his honor in 1977 to recognize outstanding people in the field of comedy. Johnny Carson was the first award recipient. Benny also donated a Stradivarius violin (purchased in 1957) to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Benny had commented, "If it isn't a $30,000 Strad, I'm out $120."
When the price of a standard first-class U.S. postal stamp was increased to 39 cents in 2006, fans petitioned for a Jack Benny stamp to honor his stage persona's perpetual age. The U.S. Postal Service had issued a stamp depicting Jack Benny in 1991, as part of a booklet of stamps honoring comedians; however, the stamp was issued at the then-current rate of 29 cents.
Benny teamed with Fred Allen for the best-remembered running gag in classic radio history, in terms of character dialogue. But Benny alone sustained a classic repertoire of running gags in his own right, including his skinflint radio and television persona; regular cast members' and guest stars' reference to his "baby blue" eyes, always sure to elicit a self-satisfied smirk or patently false attempt at modesty from Benny; perpetually giving his age as 39; and ineptitude at violin playing, most frequently demonstrated by futile attempts to perform Rodolphe Kreutzer's Étude No. 2 in C major. In fact, Benny was a fairly good Violinist who achieved the illusion of a bad one, not by deliberately playing poorly, but by striving to play pieces that were too difficult for his skill level. In one of his show's skits, Benny is a USO performer in the Pacific when playing his violin when he comes under fire; Benny still plays his violin when two Japanese surrender to him–all the other enemy Soldiers committed suicide rather than endure listening to Benny's terrible music!
Benny even had a sound-based running gag of his own: his famous basement vault alarm, allegedly installed by Spike Jones, ringing off with a shattering cacophony of whistles, sirens, bells, and blasts, before ending invariably with the sound of a foghorn. The alarm rang off even when Benny opened his safe with the correct combination. The vault also featured a guard named Ed (voiced by Joseph Kearns) who had been on post down below before, apparently, the end of the Civil War, the end of the Revolutionary War, the founding of Los Angeles, on Jack's 38th birthday, and even the beginning of humanity. In one appearance, Ed asked Benny, "By the way, Mr. Benny ... what's it like on the outside?" Benny responded, "... winter is nearly here, and the leaves are falling." Ed responded, "Hey, that must be exciting," to which Benny replied (in a stunningly risqué joke for the period), "Oh, no—people are wearing clothes now." In one episode of the Benny radio show, Ed the Guard actually agreed when Jack invited him to take a break and come back to the surface world, only to discover that modern conveniences and transportation, which hadn't been around the last time he'd been to the surface, terrorized and confused him. (Poor Ed thought a crosstown bus was "a red and yellow dragon".) Finally, Ed decides to return to his post fathoms below and stay there. The basement vault gag was also used in the cartoon The Mouse that Jack Built and an episode of The Lucy Show.