Jack Benny (born Benjamin Kubelsky, February 14, 1894 – December 26, 1974) was a comedian, vaudeville performer, film actor, and one of the most prominent early stars of American radio and television. Often cited for his impeccable comic timing, Benny was an influential comedy innovator, a major architect of the modern forms of standup comedy and situation comedy. A cultural arts center, called the Jack Benny Center, was created in his memory in his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois.
Benny grew up in Chicago and Waukegan, Illinois, the son of a Jewish saloon keeper. He began studying the violin, an instrument that would become his trademark, when he was six. By fourteen, he was playing in local dance bands as well as in his high school orchestra. After he found an opportunity to play the instrument in local theaters for $8 a week, he quit school and eventually began a career in vaudeville.
In 1911, he was playing in the same theater as the young Marx Brothers, whose mother was so enchanted with Benny that she invited him to be their permanent accompanist. The plan was foiled by Benny’s parents, who refused to let their son, then seventeen, go on the road, but it was the beginning of his long friendship with Zeppo Marx.
The following year, Benny formed a vaudeville musical duo with pianist Cora Salisbury. This provoked famous violinist Jan Kubelik, who thought that the young vaudeville entertainer with a similar name (Kubelsky) would damage his reputation. Finally, Benjamin Kubelsky agreed to change his name to Ben K. Benny (sometimes spelled Bennie). He also found a new pianist, Lyman Woods. He left show business briefly in 1917 to join the Navy during World War I, but even then, he often entertained the troops. One evening, he was booed by the troops, so he began telling Navy jokes on stage. He was a big hit, earning himself a reputation as a comedian as well as a musician.
After the war, Benny returned to vaudeville and changed his first name to Jack. He had several romantic encounters, including with a dancer, Mary Kelly, whose devoutly Catholic family forced her to turn down Benny’s proposal because he was Jewish. In 1922, he accompanied Zeppo Marx to a Passover seder where he met Sadie Marks, whom he eventually married in 1927. As Mary Livingstone, she was his collaborator throughout much of his career. They had an adopted daughter, Joan.
Benny had been only a minor vaudeville star, but he became an enormously successful national figure with The Jack Benny Program, a weekly radio show which ran from 1932 to 1955, and was consistently among the most highly-rated programs during most of that run. Benny’s program centered around a fictional version of himself: a successful comedian who was cheap, petty, and vain. The program introduced a stable of colorful characters who made Benny their foil. Staples on the show were Eddie Anderson, who played Benny’s African-American valet, “Rochester Van Jones” (and who became nearly as popular as Benny himself); rotund announcer Don Wilson, the butt of endless “fat” jokes; Mary Livingstone, Benny’s real-life wife, who played his wisecracking lady friend on the show; bandleader Phil Harris, whose tales of drinking and womanizing were risqúe for the time (although in reality, the band was led by Mahlon Merrick); and tenor singer Dennis Day, who portrayed a naïve, sheltered young man. (Day was preceeded by another dim-witted tenor, Kenny Baker. Baker appeared from 1935 to 1939, leaving to join – ironically – the Fred Allen Show.) Other Benny cast members included Frank Nelson and the remarkably versatile Mel Blanc, who provided several characters’ voices, as well as the famous sound of Benny’s aging auto, an early century Maxwell that always seemed on the verge of collapse.
The show featured sketch-like “situations” from the fictional Benny’s life (Jack hosts a party, Jack and Mary go Christmas shopping, and so on), with Harris and Day providing musical interludes. The program, which had been broadcast from New York, moved to Los Angeles in 1936, and its new show-biz locale allowed for frequent guest appearances by Benny’s celebrity colleagues, including Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, Bing Crosby and many others. Orson Welles, Burns and Allen and other stars guest hosted several episodes in March and April of 1943 when Benny was seriously ill. Ronald Colman and his wife Benita Hume appeared frequently in the 1940s as Benny’s neighbors.
In the early days of radio, the airtime was owned by the sponsor, and Benny made a point of incorporating the commercials into the body of the show; the sponsors were often the butt of jokes. Benny’s radio programs were sponsored by Canada Dry Ginger Ale from 1932 to 1933, Chevrolet from 1933 to 1934, General Tire in 1934, and Jell-O from 1934 to 1942. The Jack Benny Program was so successful in selling Jell-O, in fact, that General Foods could not manufacture it fast enough, and had to stop advertising it. General Foods switched the Benny program from Jell-O to Grape Nuts and Grape Nuts Flakes from 1942 to 1944. Benny’s longest-running sponsor, however, was the American Tobacco Company, specifically Lucky Strike cigarettes, from 1944 to 1955.
Benny was notable for employing a small group of writers, most of whom stayed with him for many years. This was very much in contrast to other successful radio or television comedians, such as Bob Hope, who would change writers frequently. Historical accounts (like those by longtime Benny writer Milt Josefsberg) indicate that Benny’s role was essentially that of both head writer and director of his radio programs, though he was not credited in either capacity.
In 1937 Benny began his famous radio “feud” with rival comedian Fred Allen, who complained about the way Benny played violin. In fact, the two were close friends. A typical Benny and Allen episode, in this case on Fred’s radio show, was a satire of “Queen for a Day” re-titled “King for a Day”. In it, Allen plays host and eventually showers Benny with a ton of worthless prizes in honor of him being named King for a Day. The grand prize is a pants pressing from a local dry cleaning company. The hilarity builds as Jack’s shirt is being taken off. Then, his pants are pulled off to the shock of the audience. The laughter was so loud and chaotic at the chain of events that Fred’s announcer, Kenny Delmar, was cut off the air amidst the wild laughter while trying to read the credits—Fred’s show had run over the allocated time yet again!
Benny was famous for his carefully timed pauses; one of the most famous laughs in radio came when he was accosted by a robber who demanded, “Your money or your life!” After an extended pause, the gunman reiterated the threat. Benny, ever the cheapskate, snapped, “I’m thinking it over!”
During his early radio shows, Benny adopted a medley of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Love in Bloom” as his theme song, opening every show. The latter song later became the theme of his television show as well.
Television and Movies
The Jack Benny Show ran on television from October 28, 1950 to 1965. The show appeared infrequently during its first two years on TV, then ran every fourth week for the next two years. From 1955 to 1960 it appeared every other week, and from 1960 to 1965 it was seen weekly. When Benny moved to television, audiences learned that his verbal talent was matched by his assortment of facial expressions and physical gestures. The program was similar to the radio show—many radio scripts were recycled for TV—with the addition of visual gags. Lucky Strike cigarettes was the sponsor.
CBS dropped his show in 1964, and he went to NBC in the Fall, only to be out-rated by Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C on CBS. NBC dropped his show at the end of the season, though he continued to make periodic TV specials into the 1970s.
Benny also acted in movies, including the Academy Award-winning The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and notably, Charley’s Aunt (1941) and To Be or Not to Be (1942). The failure of one Benny vehicle, The Horn Blows at Midnight, became a running gag on his program.
Benny also was caricatured in several Warner Brothers cartoons including Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur (1939, as Caspar the Caveman), Slap-Happy Pappy (1940, as Jack Bunny), Malibu Beach Party (1940, as himself), and The Mouse That Jack Built (1959). The Mouse That Jack Built is particularly special in that Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, Eddie Anderson and Don Wilson performed the actual voice work for their mouse caricatures (while Mel Blanc reprised his role as The Maxwell); the cartoon ends with a live action appearance of Jack Benny as he awakens from a dream.
Toward the end of his career, Benny returned to film, appearing in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in (1963) and preparing to star in the film version of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. He also continued to perform live as a stand-up comedian. However, in October 1974, he cancelled a performance in Dallas, TX after suffering a dizzy spell and a feeling of 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. Choosing to spend his final days at home, he was visited by celebrities such as Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson. Two days after his death, he was buried in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.
His wife Mary passed away in nine years later and was buried alongside her husband.
- Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone Benny, Hilliard Marks with Marcia Borie, Doubleday & Company, 1978, 322 p.
- Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story, Jack Benny and Joan Benny, Warner Books, 1990, 302 p.
- The Internet OTR Digest (Email Old-Time Radio Discussion list)
- International Jack Benny Fan Club
- Jack Benny Middle School
- The Jack Benny Show Discussion Phorum
- The Jack Benny Center for the Cultural Arts