February 14, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Benjamin Kubelsky was born today in 1894; the son of Meyer Kubelsky and Emma Sachs, Jewish immigrants who had immigrated to America from Poland and Lithuania respectively, who first arrived in Chicago, then later settled in Waukegan, Illinois. There was no way young Benny could ever have known while a small boy growing up in this relatively small town, that one day a Middle School would bear his name there. Well, not the name Kubelsky… but his old first name, Benny — now his last name. When christened the Jack Benny Middle School in 1961, the former Benny Kubelsky was sixty-five and one of the most beloved men in show business, with a career at that point that spanned almost fifty years.
For a high school drop out, the school naming was a significant milestone in Benny’s career that was filled with them. He was one of the first and most successful radio stars when that medium supplanted vaudeville and provided comedians, singers and musicians with a new and better platform of audiences that totaled in the millions. Benny mastered the art of performing on the radio, where the measure of a performer was taken by how forcefully they could make people listen. Benny’s pauses were funnier than almost anything he ever said and, to his credit, he figured this out when almost no one else did. He owned the nature of his comedy and he never varied the delivery or his persona until the day he died. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Benny was also, in my estimation, a very underrated film actor. He used to always kid himself about giving the worst performance of all time in 1945’s The Horn Blows at Midnight, but I really enjoy that film. In fact, in the days before renting DVD’s or DVR’ing, I used to stay up late every New Year’s Eve when I was a kid because that film would always air on local WNBC starting at around 1:00 a.m.
His performance in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, as the egotistical and not really all-that-talented Polish actor, Joseph Tura, proves Benny’s prowess as an actor. Not only holding his own against Carole Lombard, a comedic whirlwind if there ever was one, he carries the role off (roles really, as he plays more than one) with deft aplomb.
But it was Jack Benny’s skill at playing a version of himself that made him the star that he was. He began his life onstage at a very young age with his violin in hand culling his routine over thousands of hours until he perfected the character of Jack Benny: the narcissist, the callow ladies’ man — the miser. Starting in vaudeville, then short films in the early days of talkies, followed by radio, Broadway, film and finally a brilliant television series, The Jack Benny Program, which debuted on CBS in 1950, and in one form or other, didn’t leave the air until 1964. They are as funny today as they ever were, as are the radio broadcasts, which were on the air for twenty-three years. If you’ve never seen or heard either of these iterations, you owe it to do so. The writing is as good (if not better) than anything on air right now. The comedy is timeless, which is about as difficult a thing to pull off as there is.
What made Benny so unique was his delivery. Countless comedians have tried, some have actually come close, but none have ever usurped Benny’s place at the top. He was Johnny Carson’s favorite comedian, worshipped by Albert Brooks and paid homage throughout the 11-year run of Frasier by way of Kelsey Grammer’s use of a Jack Benny “take” on every episode.
In 1963, Benny performed on Broadway at the now demolished Ziegfeld Theatre in a show called (what else?) The Jack Benny Show. Jerry Adler, better known today as an an actor (the avuncular killer Hesh Rabkin on The Sopranos and the addled Howard Lyman on The Good Wife), he was once the premier stage manager of the fifties and sixties and worked on Benny’s Broadway show. When I spoke with him for my book Up in the Cheap Seats, we hit on the subject of that production:
“When the show was coming together I had to fly up to Toronto to meet Jack, where he was performing. My first glimpse of him was backstage in his dressing room and I was stunned to meet this old man. I didn’t see how this guy would be able to do eight shows a week. While we set up the show, Jack never rehearsed. We used another guy in his place to set the movement and the lights, but we never had Jack. So the very first time we’re going to do the show, I’m in the wings and I get a tap on the shoulder from this old man — Jack — and he says, “Let me know when you want me to go out.” And when the moment comes, I make the announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, Jack Benny,” I turn to him, tap him on the shoulder… and suddenly there appears… Jack Benny! He shed thirty years in an instant. And it was like that every night.
His big gag was that he would come out and talk about his violin playing and explain he was really a virtuoso and only played a Stradivarius, the finest and most expensive instrument in the world. ‘Would you like to hear me play?,’ he’d ask, and the audience would applaud. That would be my cue to toss the violin out from the wings while Jack would watch it smash to the floor into a million pieces. He would look out to the house and the laugh would last ten minutes, I swear to God. They would scream. That’s the kind of performer he was.
And the last night of the show, I threw it and it bounced. Nothing broke. Of course, Jack’s take caused pandemonium. And I still have that fake Stradivarius, signed by Jack.”
We were denied one final performance from Jack Benny. He had been cast opposite Walter Matthau in 1975’s The Sunshine Boys, the Neil Simon comedy that wound up being one of the year’s highest grossing films. He was replaced by his best friend, George Burns, who went on to win the Academy Award for his performance. I have little doubt in my mind, that Benny would have given an equally satisfying performance and the nostalgia factor that boosted Burns to victory would most probably have assured Benny the Oscar as well.
At Benny’s funeral, Bob Hope summed it up when he said, “Jack Benny was stingy to the end. He gave us only eighty years.”
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing. https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/