Tuesday, February 14, 2012
BORN ON THIS DAY: JACK BENNY
Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky on February 14, 1894, in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in neighboring Waukegan, Illinois. He was the son of Meyer Kubelsky and Emma Sachs Kubelsky. Meyer was a Jewish saloon owner, later to become a haberdasher, who had emigrated to America from Poland. Emma had emigrated from Lithuania. Benny began studying the violin, an instrument that would become his trademark, when he was just six, with his parents' hopes that he would be a great classical violinist. He loved the violin, but hated practice. By age 14, he was playing in local dance bands as well as in his high school orchestra. Benny was a dreamer and a poor student and he was expelled from high school. He did equally badly in business school and at his father's trade. At age 17, he began playing the instrument in local vaudeville theaters for $7.50 a week. He was joined by Ned Miller, a young composer and singer, on the vaudeville circuit. They became life-long friends and Miller eventually joined the cast of The Jack Benny Program in the 1960s.
In 1911, Benny was playing in the same theater as the young Marx Brothers, whose mother Minnie was so enchanted with Benny's musicianship that she invited him to be their permanent accompanist. The plan was foiled by Benny's parents, who refused to let their son, then 17, go on the road, but it was the beginning of his long friendship with Zeppo Marx. Benny's future wife Mary Livingstone was a distant cousin of the Marx Brothers.
The following year, Benny formed a vaudeville musical duo with pianist Cora Salisbury, a buxom 45-year-old widow who needed a partner for her act. This provoked famous violinist Jan Kubelik, who thought that the young vaudeville entertainer with a similar name (Kubelsky) would damage his reputation. Under pressure from Kubelik's lawyer, 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 re-named the act "From Grand Opera to Ragtime". They worked together for five years and slowly added comedy elements to the show. They even reached the Palace Theater, the "Mecca of Vaudeville", but bombed. Benny left show business briefly in 1917 to join the U.S. Navy during World War I, and he 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 got more comedy spots in the revues and was a big hit, and earned himself a reputation as a comedian as well as a musician.
Shortly after the war, Benny started a one-man act, "Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology". But then he heard from another lawyer, this time that of Ben Bernie, another patter-and-fiddle performer who also threatened to sue. So Benny adopted the common sailor's nickname Jack. By 1921, the fiddle became more of a prop and the low-key comedy took over.
Benny had several romantic encounters, including one with a dancer, Mary Kelly, whose devoutly Catholic family forced her to turn down Benny's proposal because he was Jewish. Benny was introduced to Mary Kelly by Gracie Allen. Some years after their split, Kelly resurfaced as a dowdy fat girl and Jack gave her a part in an act of three girls: one homely, one fat and one who couldn't sing. This lasted until, at Mary Livingstone's request, Mary Kelly was let go.
In 1922, Jack accompanied Zeppo Marx to a Passover seder where he met Sadye (Sadie) Marks, whom he married in 1927 after meeting again on a double-date. She was working in the hosiery section of the Hollywood Boulevard branch of the May Company and Benny would court her there. Called on to fill in for the "dumb girl" part in one of Benny's routines, Sadie proved a natural comedienne and a big hit. Adopting Mary Livingstone as her stage name, Sadie became Benny's collaborator throughout most of his career. They later adopted a daughter, Joan.
In 1929, Benny's agent Sam Lyons convinced MGM's Irving Thalberg to catch Benny's act at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. Benny was signed to a five-year contract and his first film role was in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. His next movie, Chasing Rainbows, was a flop and after several months, Benny was released from his contract and returned to Broadway in Earl Carroll's Vanities. At first dubious about the viability of radio, Benny was eager to break into the new medium. In 1932, after a four-week nightclub run, he was invited onto Ed Sullivan's radio program, uttering his first radio spiel "This is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say, 'Who cares?'...". The rest as they say is entertainment history...