I'm Sarah Long.
And I'm Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program PEOPLEIN AMERICA. Today, we tell the story of Jack Benny. He was one ofAmerica's best-loved funnymen during the twentieth century.
Jack Benny was one of the most famous names in show business formore than fifty years. He started as a serious musician, before hediscovered he could make people laugh.
Jack Benny became famous nationwide in the Nineteen-Thirties as aresult of his weekly radio program. His programs were among the mostpopular on American radio, and later on television.
Jack Benny won the hearts ofAmericans by making fun of himself. He was known not as someone whosaid funny things, but as someone who said things in a funny way.
Jack Benny was born in Chicago, Illinois, on February fourteenth,Eighteen-Ninety-Four. His parents, Meyer and Emma Kubelsky, werereligious Jews. They had moved to the United States from easternEurope. They named their first child, Benjamin.
Benjamin Kubelsky and his family lived in Waukeegan (pronouncewaw-KEE-guhn), Illinois. Benjamin was a quiet boy. For much of thetime, his parents were busy working in his father's store. As achild, Benjamin, or Benny as his friends called him, learned to playthe violin. Benny was such a good violin player that, for a time, hewanted to become a musician.
While in school, Benny got a job as a violin player with theBarrison Theater, the local vaudeville house. Vaudeville was themost popular form of show business in the United States in the earlyNineteen-Hundreds. Vaudeville shows presented short plays, singers,comedians who made people laugh and other acts.
Benny worked at the Barrison Theater -- sometimes during schoolhours. He left high school before completing his studies. The pianoplayer for the theater was a former vaudeville performer named CoraSalisbury. For a short time, she and Benny formed their ownperforming act. Later, he and another piano player had their ownact.
At first, Benny changed his name to Ben K. Benny. However, thatname was similar to another actor who played a violin. So, he chosethe name Jack Benny.
The United States entered World War One in Nineteen-Seventeen.Benny joined the Navy and reported to the Great Lakes Naval Station.He continued using his violin to perform for sailors at the navalstation.
In one show, he was chosen more for his funny jokes than for hisskill with the violin. That experience made him believe that hisfuture job was as a comedian, not in music.
After leaving the Navy, Benny returned to vaudeville. Hisperformances won him considerable popularity during theNineteen-Twenties. He traveled across the country with otherwell-known performers, including the Marx Brothers.
In Nineteen-Twenty-Seven, Benny married Sadie Marks, a sales girlfrom the May Company store in Los Angeles. Missus Benny soon becamepart of the traveling show. She used the name Mary Livingstone(pron: living-stun).
Jack Benny appeared in a few Hollywood films, but then leftCalifornia and moved to New York. He had a leading part in theBroadway show, Vanities.
Benny made his first appearance on radio in Nineteen-Thirty-Two.He was invited to appear on a radio show presented by newspaperreporter Ed Sullivan. Benny opened with this announcement:
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking. There will bea short break while you say, who cares?"
However, many listeners did care. Within a short period, Bennyhad his own radio show. It continued for twenty-three years.
ANNCR:"The Jack Benny Program鈥?
" 鈥?starring Jack Benny, with Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris,Rochester, Dennis Day, and yours truly, Don Wilson鈥?
Jack Benny developed a show business personality that had all thequalities people dislike. He was known for being so stingy herefused to spend any of his money, unless forced to do so. He alwayswas concerned about money. For example, he would put on a jeweler'sglass to examine the diamond on a wealthy woman he had just met.
In another example, a robber points a gun at Benny.
ROBBER: "This is a stick-up."
BENNY: "Mister, put down that gun."
ROBBER: "Shut up. I said this is a stick-up. Now, come on. Yourmoney or your life."
ROBBER: "Look, bud. I said, your money or your life!"
BENNY: "I'm thinking it over."
On his shows, Jack Benny often spoke of his appearance,especially his baby blue eyes. As he grew older, he always claimedto be thirty-nine years old.
Benny was known as a comedian with great timing. He seemed toknow the perfect time to tell a joke and when to remain silent. Theway he looked at other actors and his use of body movements wereworld famous. He also was skilled at using his violin to make peoplelaugh.
Jack Benny was one of the first comedians who was willing to letother people share some of the laughs. He rarely made jokes thathurt other people. Instead, he would let the other actors on theshow tell jokes about him.
Many of the actors in Benny's show became almost as famous as hewas. They would criticize Benny's refusal to replace his ancientautomobile. They made fun of the pay telephone that he added to hishouse.
This is a telephone discussion between Benny and his trustedemployee, Rochester.
ROCHESTER: "Hello, Mister Benny. This is Rochester鈥?
BENNY: "Rochester, I'm in the middle of the program."
ROCHESTER: "I know, boss, but this is very important. The manfrom the life insurance company was here about that policy you'retaking out and he asked me a lot of questions."
BENNY: "Well, I hope you answered them right."
ROCHESTER: "Oh, I did. When he asked me your height, I saidfive-foot, ten."
BENNY: "Uh, huh."
ROCHESTER: "Your weight, one-hundred-sixty-four."
BENNY: "Uh, huh."
ROCHESTER: "Your age, thirty-nine."
BENNY: "Uh, huh."
ROCHESTER: "We had quite a roundtable discussion on that one."
BENNY: "Wait a minute, Rochester. Why should there be anyquestion about my age?"
ROCHESTER: "Oh, it wasn't a question. It was the answer we hadtrouble with."
Jack Benny said, "The show itself is the important thing. As longas people think the show is funny, it does not matter who tells thejokes." He also made fun of the paid announcements broadcast duringhis radio show that were designed to sell products. They oftenprovided some of the funniest moments in the show. Most performersnever would make fun of the businesses that helped pay for the show.
Over the years, Jack Benny did well financially. InNineteen-Forty-Eight, he moved his show from the NationalBroadcasting Company to the Columbia Broadcasting System. As part ofthe agreement, C-B-S paid more than two-million dollars to a companyin which Benny had a controlling interest.
Much later, the Music Corporation of America bought Benny'sproduction company. Benny received almost three-million dollars inM-C-A stock shares.
In real life, he was the opposite of the person he played in hisshow. He was known to be very giving and someone people liked havingas their employer. He also could play the violin very well.
Jack Benny entered the new medium of television inNineteen-Fifty. Five years later, he dropped his radio program tospend more time developing his television show. At first, hisappearances on television were rare. By Nineteen-Sixty, the Bennyshow was a weekly television program. It continued untilNineteen-Sixty-Five.
Benny appeared in about twenty films during his life. A fewbecame popular. But most were not. In Nineteen-Sixty-Three, Bennyreturned to Broadway for the first time since Nineteen-Thirty-One.He performed to large crowds.
Jack Benny received many awards during his lifetime. Thepublication Motion Picture Daily voted him the country's best radiocomedian four times. In Nineteen-Fifty-Seven, he won a special awardfrom the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for the bestcontinuing performance. He also won the Academy's television awardfor the best comedy series in Nineteen-Fifty-Nine.
Perhaps the one honor that pleased him most was that his hometownof Waukeegan named a school for him. This is was special honor for aman who had never finished high school.
Jack Benny continued to perform and to do a few televisionspecials after his weekly series ended. He died of cancer onDecember twenty-sixth, Nineteen-Seventy-Four. His friend, comedianBob Hope, spoke at the funeral about the loss felt by Benny'sfriends and fans. He said "Jack Benny was stingy to the end. He gaveus only eighty years."
MUSIC: "Love in Bloom"/David Rose and His Orchestra
This Special English program was written by and produced byGeorge Grow. I'm Sarah Long.
And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another PEOPLEIN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.