The Jack Benny Program

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The Jack Benny Program
Jack Benny Cast.jpg
Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, and Eddie Anderson (Rochester) in a group portrait.
Other names The Jack Benny Show
The Canada Dry Program
The Chevrolet Program
The General Tire Revue
The Jell-O Program
The Grape Nuts Flakes Program
The Lucky Strike Program
Genre Comedy
Running time 30 minutes
Country USA
Language(s) English
Home station NBC (Blue) (05/02/32-10/26/32)
CBS (10/30/32-1/26/33)
NBC (Red) (03/03/33-09/28/34)
NBC (Blue) (10/14/34-06/21/36)
NBC (Red) (10/04/36-12/26/48)
CBS (01/02/49-05/22/55)
TV adaptations The Jack Benny Program (1950-1965)
Starring Jack Benny
Mary Livingstone
Eddie Anderson
Phil Harris
Dennis Day
Kenny Baker
Mel Blanc
Announcer Don Wilson
Writer(s) Harry Conn, Al Boasberg, William Morrow, Edmund Beloin, Hugh Wedlock Jr., Howard Snyder, George Balzer, Sam Perrin, Milt Josefsberg, John Tackaberry, Al Gordon, Hal Goldman
Producer(s) Hilliard Marks (1946-'55)
Air dates May 2, 1932 to May 22, 1955
No. of episodes 931
Opening theme Love in Bloom/The Yankee Doodle Boy
Ending theme Hooray for Hollywood

The Jack Benny Program, starring Jack Benny, is a radio-TV comedy series that ran for more than three decades and is generally regarded as a high-water mark in 20th-century American comedy.[1]

Cast[edit]

Group photograph of Eddie Anderson, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, Mary Livingstone, Jack Benny, Don Wilson, and Mel Blanc
  • Jack Benny - Himself. Protagonist of the show, Benny is a comic, vain, penny-pinching miser, insisting on remaining 39 years old on stage despite his actual age, and often playing the violin badly.
  • Eddie Anderson - Rochester Van Jones, Jack's valet and chauffeur. Early in the show's run, he often talked of gambling or going out with women. Later on, he generally complained about his lack of salary.
  • Don Wilson - Himself. Don generally opened the show and also did the commercial. He was the target of Jack's jokes, mostly about his weight.
  • Dennis Day - Himself. Dennis was always in his early 20s no matter how old he actually was. He was sweet but not very bright. When called upon, he could use a wide variety of accents, which was especially useful in plays. He usually sang a song about 10 minutes into the program. If the episode was a flashback to a previous time, a ruse would be used such as Dennis singing his song for Jack so he could hear it before the show.
  • Sadie Marks - Mary Livingstone. Although Sadie Marks, in real life, was Jack Benny's wife, Mary Livingstone was a very sarcastic, but well-meaning friend to Jack. Sometimes she was presented as a date, sometimes as a love interest and sometimes she was just there. Her role changed from plot to plot and she was never a steady girlfriend for Jack. In one episode, Fred Allen summarized Mary's role as "a girl to insult (Jack)." Marks later legally changed her name to "Mary Livingstone" in response to the character's popularity.
  • Phil Harris - A skirt-chasing, arrogant, hip-talking bandleader who constantly put Jack down (in a mostly friendly way, of course). He referred to Mary as "Livvy" or "Liv", and Jack as "Jackson". An on-air joke explains this by saying, "It's as close to 'jackass' as I can get without being fired or getting into trouble with a censor." Spun-off into The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show with his wife, actress Alice Faye. Harris left the radio show in 1952 and his character did not make the transition to television.
  • Mel Blanc - Carmichael the Polar Bear, Professor Pierre LeBlanc, Sy the Mexican, Polly (Jack's parrot), The Maxwell and many other assorted voices. An occasional running gag went along the lines of how the various characters Mel portrayed all looked alike. He was also the sound effects of Jack's barely functional Maxwell automobile—a role he played again in the Warner Brothers cartoon The Mouse that Jack Built. Another participating voice actor was Bert Gordon.
  • Frank Nelson - The "Yeeee-essss?" man. He was always the person who waits on Jack wherever he was, from the railroad station, to the clerk in the store, to the doorman, to the waiter. Frank always delighted in aggravating Jack, as apparently, he was constantly aggravated by Jack's presence.
  • Sheldon Leonard - A racetrack tout (originated by Benny Rubin) who frequently offered unsolicited advice to Benny on a variety of non-racing-related subjects. Ironically, he never gave out information on horse racing, unless Jack demanded it. One excuse the tout gave was "Who knows about horses?" His catchphrase was "Hey, bud... c'mere a minute." He also participated with Benny in producing the longest laugh (that's the claim, anyway) in radio history. Leonard was a holdup man who approached Benny demanding "your money or your life." The long laugh resulted from Benny NOT responding at all; finally, Leonard said "Well!?" Benny responded "I'm thinking it over!"
  • Joseph Kearns - Ed, the superannuated security guard in Jack's money vault. Ed had allegedly been guarding Jack's vault since (variously) the founding of Los Angeles (1781), the American Civil War, the American Revolutionary War, or when Jack had just turned 38 years old. Burt Mustin took over the role on television following Kearns' death in 1962. In the 1959 cartoon The Mouse that Jack Built, Mel Blanc played the part of Ed the Guard (who asks if the US had won the war, then asks what would be done with the Kaiser). Kearns also played other roles, that of Dennis Day's father, that of a beleaguered IRS agent, and often of a clerk when it wasn't necessary to have Frank Nelson antagonize Jack.
  • Artie Auerbach - Mr. Kitzel [who originally appeared on Al Pearce's radio show in the late 1930s, where his famous catch phrase was, "Hmmmm... eh, could be!", and several years later as a regular on The Abbott & Costello Show], who originally started out as a Yiddish hot dog vendor selling hot dogs during the Rose Bowl. In later episodes, he would go on to lose his hot dog stand, and move on to various other jobs. A big part of his schtick involved garbling names with his accent, such as referring to Nat King Cole as "Nat King Cohen", or mentioning his favorite baseball player, "Rabbi Maranville". He often complained about his wife, an unseen character who was described as a large, domineering woman who, on one occasion, Kitzel visualized as "...from the front, she looks like Don Wilson from the side!" He often sang various permutations of his jingle, "Pickle in the middle and the mustard on top!" Kitzel was often heard to say, "Hoo-hoo-HOO!" in response to questions asked of him.
  • Bob Crosby - In 1952, Crosby replaced Phil Harris as the bandleader, remaining until Benny retired the radio show in 1955. In joining the show, he became the leader of the same group of musicians who had played under Harris. Many of his running jokes focused on his apparent inability to pronounce "Manischewitz," his own family, and the wealth and lifestyle of his older brother, Bing Crosby.
  • Benny Rubin - Played a variety of characters on both the radio and television versions. His most memorable bit was as an information desk attendant. Jack would ask a series of questions that Rubin would answer with an ever-increasing irritated, "I don't know!" followed by the punchline {among them: "Well, if you don't know, why are you standing behind that counter?"/"I gotta stand behind something; somebody stole my pants; I missed a payment and they nailed my shoes to the floor!"}.
  • Dale White - Harlow Wilson, played the son of Don & Lois Wilson on TV.[2] His catchphrase, "You never did like me!", is usually uttered when he and Jack end up embroiled in an argument, though he once said it to his own mother.
  • Verna Felton as "Mrs. Day," Dennis' frighteningly domineering mother. She often came to near blows with Jack in her efforts to prevent him from taking advantage of Dennis, and she was often portrayed as working various masculine jobs like a plumber, trucker or karate instructor. Although she cares deeply for her son, Dennis' zany behavior aggravate her to no end, and the show has alluded to her hilariously myriad attempts at killing and abandoning him.
  • Bea Benaderet and Sara Berner - "Gertrude Gearshift" and "Mabel Flapsaddle," a pair of telephone switchboard operators who always traded barbs with Jack (and sometimes each other) when he tried to put through a call. Whenever the scene shifted to them, they would subtly plug a current picture in an insult such as "Mr. Benny's line is flashing!" "Oh, I wonder what Dial M for Money wants now?" or "Mr. Benny's line is flashing!" "I wonder what Schmoe Vadis wants now?"
  • James Stewart and his wife, Gloria - Themselves. Recurring guest stars on the television series playing Benny's often imposed upon neighbors, in roles similar to those performed on radio by Ronald and Benita Colman (see below), although re-tailored for Stewart's on-screen persona.[1]

Earlier cast members include:

  • Ronald Colman and his wife, Benita - Themselves. Not actually members of the cast, they were among Benny's most popular guest stars on the radio series, portraying his long-suffering next-door neighbors. On the show, the Colmans were often revolted by Jack's eccentricities and by the fact that he always borrowed odds and ends from them (at one point, leading Ronald to exclaim, "Butter? Butter, butter!!! Where does he think this is, Shangri-La???"). Dennis Day often impersonated Ronald Colman. In real life, the Colmans lived a few blocks away from Benny's home.
  • Kenny Baker - The show's tenor singer who originally played the young, dopey character replaced by Dennis Day
  • Andy Devine - Jack's raspy-voiced friend who lived on a farm with his ma and pa. He usually told a story about his folks and life around the farm. His catchphrase was "Hiya, Buck!"
Sam Hearn as Schlepperman in 1935.
  • Schlepperman (played by Sam Hearn) - A Jewish character who spoke with a Yiddish accent (his catch phrase- "Hullo, Stranger!"). He would return again as the "Hiya, Rube!" guy, a hick farmer from the town of Calabasas who always insisted on referring to Jack as "rube."[citation needed]
  • Mr. Billingsly - Played by writer and bit player Ed Beloin, Mr. Billingsly was a boarder who rented a room in Jack's home. Mr. Billingsly was a polite but very eccentric man. He appeared in the early 1940s.[citation needed]
  • Larry Stevens - Tenor singer who substituted for Dennis Day from November 5, 1944 to March 10, 1946, when Dennis served in the Navy. He returned as a guest star and substituted for Dennis in a few episodes.[citation needed]
  • Mary Kelly - The Blue Fairy, a clumsy, overweight fairy who appeared in several storytelling episodes. Kelly had been an old flame of Jack's, who had fallen on hard times. Benny was unsure of whether to give Kelly a regular role and instead appealed to friend George Burns who put her on his show as Mary "Bubbles" Kelly, best friend to Gracie.[citation needed]
  • Gisele Mackenzie - Singer and violin player, she guest starred seven times on the program. Benny was co-executive producer of her NBC series The Gisele MacKenzie Show (1957–1958).
  • Blanche Stewart - A variety of characters and animal sounds[1]
  • Barry Gordon - Played Jack Benny as a child in a skit where Jack played his own father.

Radio[edit]

Benny was part of a USO show entertaining US troops in Korea. Here he relaxes between shows.[3]

Jack Benny first appeared on radio as a guest of Ed Sullivan in 1932.[4] He was then given his own show later that year, with Canada Dry Ginger Ale as a sponsor —The Canada Dry Program, beginning May 2, 1932, on the NBC Blue Network and continuing there for six months until October 26, moving the show to CBS on October 30. With Ted Weems leading the band, Benny stayed on CBS until January 26, 1933.[1]

Arriving at NBC on March 17, Benny did The Chevrolet Program until April 1, 1934. He continued with The General Tire Revue for the rest of that season, and in the fall of 1934, for General Foods as The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny (1934–42) and, when sales of Jell-O were affected by sugar rationing during World War II, The Grape Nuts Flakes Program Starring Jack Benny (Later the Grape Nuts and Grape Nuts Flakes Program)[5] (1942–44). On October 1, 1944, the show became The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny, when American Tobacco's Lucky Strike cigarettes took over as his radio sponsor, through the mid-1950s. By that time, the practice of using the sponsor's name as the title began to fade.

The show returned to CBS on January 2, 1949, as part of CBS president William S. Paley's notorious "raid" of NBC talent in 1948-49. There it stayed for the remainder of its radio run, which ended on May 22, 1955. CBS aired repeats of previous 1953-55 radio episodes from 1956 to 1958 as The Best of Benny[1] for State Farm Insurance, who later sponsored his television program from 1960 through 1965.

Television[edit]

The Jack Benny Program
Jack Benny Show, 1963
Jack Benny as Robinson Crusoe with Dennis Day as an island native, 1963.
Format Variety
Starring Jack Benny
Composer(s) Mahlon Merrick
No. of seasons 15
No. of episodes 260 (List of episodes)
Production
Running time 24-25 minutes
Production company(s) CBS Television (1950-1955)
J&M Productions, Inc. (1955-1965)
Distributor MCA Television (1954-1965 filmed episodes)
Broadcast
Original channel CBS (1950-1964)
NBC (1964-1965)
Picture format Black-and-white
Audio format Monaural
Original run October 28, 1950 (1950-10-28) – April 16, 1965 (1965-04-16)

Jack Benny made his TV debut in the 1949 season.[6] There is a kinescope of his later November 1949 TV appearance on the intermittent Jack Benny Program special appearances of the time. Benny ran shorter runs in his early seasons on TV into the early 1950s, as he was still firmly dedicated to radio. The regular and continuing Jack Benny Program was telecast on CBS from October 28, 1950, to September 15, 1964, and on NBC from September 25, 1964, to September 10, 1965. 343 episodes were produced. His TV sponsors included American Tobacco's Lucky Strike (1950–59), Lever Brothers' Lux (1959–60), State Farm Insurance (1960–65), Lipton Tea (1960–62), General Foods' Jell-O (1962–64), and Miles Laboratories (1964–65).

The television show was a seamless continuation of Benny's radio program, employing many of the same players, the same approach to situation comedy and some of the same scripts. The suffix "Program" instead of "Show" was also a carryover from radio, where "program" rather than "show" was used frequently for presentations in the non-visual medium. Occasionally, in several live episodes, the title card read, "The Jack Benny Show". During one live episode, both titles were used.

The Jack Benny Program appeared infrequently during its first two years on CBS TV. Benny moved into television slowly: in his first season (1950–1951), he only performed on four shows, but by the 1951-1952 season, he was ready to do one show approximately every six weeks. In the third season (1952–1953), the show was broadcast every four weeks. During the 1953-1954 season, The Jack Benny Program aired every three weeks. From 1954-1960, the program aired every other week, rotating with such shows as Private Secretary and Bachelor Father. Beginning in the 1960-1961 season, The Jack Benny Program began airing every week. It is also worth noting that the show moved from CBS to NBC prior to the 1964-65 season. During the 1953-54 season, a handful of episodes were filmed during the summer and the others were live, a schedule which allowed Benny to continue doing his radio show. In the 1953-1954 season, Dennis Day had his own short-lived comedy and variety show on NBC, The Dennis Day Show.

The Jack Benny Program was shot in Hollywood at Desilu Studios. with an audience brought in to watch the finished film for live responses. Benny's opening and closing monologues were always filmed in front of a live audience. However, from the late 1950s until the last season on NBC, a laugh and applause track was also used for "sweetening" the audience reactions.

In Jim Bishop's book A Day in the Life of President Kennedy, John F. Kennedy said that he was too busy to watch most television but that he made the time to watch The Jack Benny Program each week.[7]

Ending[edit]

In his unpublished autobiography, I Always Had Shoes (portions of which were later incorporated by Jack's daughter, Joan, 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 18,000,000 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 [the alternate sponsors during his final season in 1964-65 were State Farm Insurance and Miles Laboratories (Alka-Seltzer, One-a-Day) 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 "rat race." Thus, after some three decades on radio and television in a weekly program, Jack Benny went out on top.

Syndication and DVDs[edit]

The radio series was one of the most extensively preserved programs of its era, with the archive almost complete from 1936 onward (including the 1932 premiere). As with the radio shows, most of the television series has lapsed into the public domain, although several episodes (particularly those made from 1961 onward, including the entire NBC-TV run) remain under copyright. During his lone NBC season, CBS aired repeats on weekdays and Sunday afternoons. 104 episodes personally selected by Benny and long time manager Irving Fein were placed into syndication in 1965 by Universal/MCA television. Telecasts of the shows in the late evening were running as late as 1966.

Four early 60's episodes were rerun on CBS during the summer of 1977. Edited 16mm prints ran on the CBN network in the mid 1980s. Restored versions first appeared on the short lived HA! network in 1990. As of 2011, the series has run on Antenna TV, part of a long term official syndication distribution deal.[8] The public domain television episodes have appeared on numerous stations, including PBS, while the radio series episodes have appeared in radio drama anthology series such as When Radio Was.

Public domain episodes have been available on budget DVDs (and VHS) since the late seventies. MCA home video issued a 1960 version of the classic "Christmas Shopping" show in 1982 and a VHS set of ten filmed episodes in 1990. In 2008, 25 public domain episodes of the show, long thought lost, were located in a CBS vault. The Jack Benny Fan Club, with the blessing of the Benny estate, offered to fund the digital preservation and release of these sealed episodes. CBS issued a press statement that any release was unlikely.[9] June 2013 saw the first official release of 18 rare live Benny programs from 1956 -1964 by Shout Factory. This set, part of Benny's private collection at the UCLA film and television library, included guest shots by Jack Paar, John Wayne, Tony Curtis, Gary Cooper, Dick Van Dyke, Rock Hudson, Natalie Wood, President Harry Truman and the only TV appearance with long time radio foe Ronald Colman.

Ratings[edit]

While Benny has Bing Crosby up a tree, thanks to Rochester's hammock invention, he uses the opportunity to bargain with Bing for a lower appearance fee, 1954.
Benny as composer Stephen Foster and Connie Francis as his wife who nags him to write a successful song, 1963.

1950-51: ?
1951-52: #9
1952-53: #12
1953-54: #16
1954-55: #7
1955-56: #5
1956-57: #10
1957-58: #28
1958-59: ?
1959-60: ?
1960-61: #10
1961-62: ? (opposite #2, "Bonanza")
1962-63: #12
1963-64: #12
1964-65: ? (opposite #3, "Gomer Pyle")

Format[edit]

Main article: Jack Benny

Whether on television or radio, the format of the Jack Benny Program never wavered. The program utilized a loose show-within-a-show format, wherein the main characters were playing versions of themselves. There was not really a fourth wall, per se. The show would usually open with a song by the orchestra or banter between Benny and Don Wilson. There would then be banter between Benny and the regulars about the news of the day or about one of the running jokes on the program, such as Benny's age, Day's stupidity or Mary's letters from her mother. There would then be a song by the tenor followed by situation comedy involving an event of the week, a mini-play, or a satire of a current movie. Some shows were entire domestic sitcoms revolving around some aspect of Benny's life (spring cleaning, or a violin lesson).[1]

Racial attitudes[edit]

Although Eddie Anderson's Rochester may be considered a stereotype by some, his attitudes were unusually sardonic for such a role, and Benny treats him as an equal, not as a servant. In many routines, Rochester gets the better of Benny, often pricking his boss' ego, or simply outwitting him. The show's portrayal of black characters could be seen as advanced for its time; in a 1956 episode, African-American actor Roy Glenn plays a friend of Rochester, and he is portrayed as a well-educated, articulate man[10] not as the typical "darkie stereotype" seen in many films of the time. Glenn's role was a recurring one on the series, where he was often portrayed as having to support two people on one unemployment check (i.e., himself and Rochester). Black talent was also showcased, with several guest appearances by The Ink Spots and others.

Audio[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Dunning, John. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press, 1998.
  2. ^ Dale White
  3. ^ "Jack Returns from a USO Tour". September 16, 1951. Retrieved March 22, 2014. 
  4. ^ C. Sterling (2003), Encyclopedia of Radio, pp. 250–254, ISBN 978-1-57958-249-4 
  5. ^ Benny, Jack. "Jack is mad at Phil". The Grape Nuts and Grape Nuts Flakes Program Starring Jack Benny. otr.net. Retrieved 10/09/2011. 
  6. ^ April 4, 1949 Life Magazine article "Benny Tries TV", with photo and review
  7. ^ Bishop, Jim. A Day in the Life of President Kennedy
  8. ^ Antenna TV - Shows
  9. ^ CBS permanently seals Jack Benny Television Masters
  10. ^ In this episode, he knows how to tell a fine violin: "How Jack Found Mary". The Jack Benny Program. Season 5. 31 October 1954. CBS. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cX5uLZ7zESY&t=04m31s.

External links[edit]