Today is the 127th birthday of the TV and radio pioneer Jack Benny. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Jack Benny
AKA: Benjamin Kubelsky
DATE OF BIRTH: 14-Feb-1894
PLACE OF BIRTH: Waukegan, IL
DATE OF DEATH: 26-Dec-1974
PLACE OF DEATH: Beverly Hills, CA
CAUSE OF DEATH: Cancer – Pancreatic
REMAINS: Buried, Hillside Memorial Park, Culver City, CA
FATHER: Meyer Kubelsky
MOTHER: Emma Sachs
WIFE: Sayde Marks (actress, p/k/a Mary Livingstone, m. 24-Feb-1927, until his death)
DAUGHTER: Joan Naomi (adopted)
Benevolent & Protective Order of the Elks
Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame
Golden Globe 1958 Best TV Show
Radio Hall of Fame 1989
Hollywood Walk of Fame 6650 Hollywood Blvd. (motion picture)
Hollywood Walk of Fame 6370 Hollywood Blvd. (television)
Endorsement of American Tobacco Company Lucky Strike cigarettes (1942)
Endorsement of Kraft Foods Jell-O
Endorsement of Texaco
Endorsement of RCA 1965
BEST KNOWN FOR: Jack Benny was an American entertainer, who evolved from a modest success playing violin on the vaudeville circuit to a highly popular comedic career in radio, television and film.
Born Benjamin Kublesky on February 14, 1894, the comedian grew up in Waukegan, Illinois. Although there is now a school named after him in Waukegan (Jack Benny Junior High School), Benny’s education consisted of one term at Central High School. He worked in his father’s haberdashery shop, then at age 16 he got a job playing violin in the orchestra pit of the town’s Barrison Theater. After spending several years on the road with various partners in piano-violin duos he served in the Navy during World War I, where his talent for stand-up comedy was revealed. After his naval stint he created a solo vaudeville act, touring as comic and dancer under name Ben K. Benny, which ultimately got him noticed by the film industry. In 1928 he appeared in the short film Bright Moments and in 1929 headlined in the films Hollywood Revue of 1929 and Chasing Rainbows, and in Medicine Man (1930). With this national exposure in film, Benny became a star.
In 1932 Benny hit the radio waves, featured on his friend Ed Sullivan’s talk show. Two months later, Benny was the host of his own radio program. He starred in a regular radio program from 1932 to 1955, establishing the format and personality he would transfer almost intact to television. According to Benny, comedy was based on seven principles: the joke, exaggeration, ridicule, ignorance, surprise, the pun, and the comic situation. Most of his films capitalized on his radio fame (e.g., The Big Broadcast of 1937), although a couple of pictures, Charley’s Aunt (1941) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) showed that he could play more than one character.
Benny’s radio program spent most of its run on NBC. In 1948, the entertainer, who had just signed a deal with the Music Corporation of American (MCA) that allowed him to form a company to produce the program and thereby make more money on it, was lured to CBS, where he stayed through the remainder of his radio career and most of his television years.
In 1950 Benny advanced to television. Benny made only four television shows in his first season. By 1954-55, he was up to 20, and by 1960-61, 39. The format of The Jack Benny Show was flexible. Although each week’s episode usually had a theme or starting premise, the actual playing out of that premise often devolved into a loose collection of skits.
Benny played a fictional version of himself, Jack Benny the television star, and the program often revolved around preparation for the next week’s show–involving interactions between Benny and a regular stable of characters that included the program’s announcer, Don Wilson, and its resident crooner, Dennis Day. Until her retirement in 1958, Benny’s wife, Mary Livingstone (née Sadye Marks, 1909–1983), portrayed what her husband termed in his memoirs “a kind of heckler-secretary,” a wise-cracking friend of the family and the television program.
The main point of these interactions was to show off Benny’s onscreen character. The Jack Benny with whom viewers were familiar was a cheap, vain, insecure, untalented braggart who would never willingly enter his fifth decade. Despite his conceit and braggadocio, however, Jack Benny’s video persona was uniquely endearing and even in many ways admirable. He possessed a vulnerability and a flexibility few male fictional characters have achieved. His myriad shortcomings were mercilessly exposed every week by his supporting cast, yet those characters always forgave him. They knew that “Jack” was never violent and never intentionally cruel–and that he wanted nothing (not even money) so much as love. The interaction between this protagonist and his fellow cast members turned the Jack Benny Show into a forum for human absurdity and human affection.
“Human” is a key word, for the Benny persona defied sub-categorization. Benny had shed his Jewish identity along with his Jewish name on his way from vaudeville to radio. The character he and his writers sustained on the airwaves for four decades had no ethnicity or religion.
He had no strongly defined sexuality either, despite his boasts about mythical romantic success with glamorous female movie stars and his occasional brief dates with working-class women. In minimizing his ethnicity and sexuality, the Benny character managed to transcend those categories rather than deny them. Beneath his quickly lifted arrogant facade lurked an American Everyperson.
The Jack Benny Show further crossed boundaries by being the only program for decades that consistently portrayed Americans of mixed races living and working side by side. Jack Benny’s ever-present butler/valet/nanny, Rochester (portrayed by Eddie Anderson), had first appeared on the Benny radio program as a Pullman porter but had pleased audiences so universally that he moved into Benny’s fictional household. Unlike the popular African-American radio characters Amos and Andy, Rochester was portrayed by a Black actor, Eddie Anderson, rather than a white actor in blackface.
Rochester’s characterization was not devoid of racism. As Benny’s employee he was, after all, always in a nominally subservient position. Nevertheless, neither Rochester nor his relationship with his employer was defined or limited by race. Like the other characters on the program, Rochester viewed Benny with slightly condescending affection–and frequently got the better of his employer in arguments that were obviously battles between peers. He was, in fact, the closest thing the Benny character had to either a spouse or a best friend.
The complex relationship between the two was typical of the Benny persona and its fictional formula, which relied on character rather than jokes. Benny sustained the persona and the formula, in his regular half-hour program and in a series of one-hour specials, until both wore out in the mid-1960s. He returned to television from time to time thereafter to star in additional specials but never dominated American ratings as he had in the 1950s, when he spent several years in the Neilsen top-20s and garnered Emmy awards year after year.
Offscreen, Benny was apparently ambivalent about television. In his memoirs, Sunday Nights at Seven, posthumously published with his daughter as co-author in 1990, he wrote, “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.” Despite this concern, Jack Benny and American television clearly did well by each other.
Benny died of stomach cancer in Beverly Hills, California, on December 26, 1974.
The Jack Benny Program Jack Benny (1950-65)
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
Apollo 11 (24-Jan-2019) · Himself
The Man (19-Jul-1972)
A Guide for the Married Man (25-May-1967)
Somebody Loves Me (24-Sep-1952) · Himself
You Can Change the World (1951) · Himself
The Horn Blows at Midnight (28-Apr-1945) · Athanael
It’s in the Bag (21-Apr-1945) · Himself
Hollywood Canteen (15-Dec-1944) · Himself
The Meanest Man in the World (1943)
George Washington Slept Here (28-Nov-1942) · Bill Fuller
To Be or Not To Be (6-Mar-1942) · Joseph Tura
Charley’s Aunt (1-Aug-1941)
Love Thy Neighbor (17-Dec-1940)
Buck Benny Rides Again (24-Apr-1940)
Artists and Models Abroad (20-Dec-1938)
Artists & Models (4-Aug-1937)
College Holiday (19-Dec-1936)
The Big Broadcast of 1937 (6-Oct-1936)
It’s in the Air (11-Oct-1935)
Broadway Melody of 1936 (25-Aug-1935) · Bert Keeler
Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (1-Nov-1934)
The Medicine Man (15-Jun-1930)
The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (14-Aug-1929) · Himself