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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 comedy.

Radio

With Canada Dry Ginger Ale as a sponsor, Benny came to radio on 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.

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 Program Starring Jack Benny (1942-44). On October 1, 1944, the show became The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny, when American Tobaccomarker'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 old radio episodes from 1956 to 1958 as The Best of Benny for State Farm Insurance, who later sponsored his television program from 1960 through 1965.

Television

The 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 Tobaccomarker'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. The show then ran every fourth week for the next two years. 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. From 1955 until 1960, the show was on every other week, and it was seen weekly after 1960.

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.

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.

The series has yet to receive an "official" DVD release, however public domain episodes have been available on budget DVDs (and VHS) for years.

Format

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 wasn't 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 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.

Racial attitudes

Although Eddie Anderson's Rochester may be considered a stereotype by some (such as his use of the word "boss" when addressing Benny), 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, 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).

Cast

Group photograph of Eddie Anderson, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, Mary Livingstone, Jack Benny, Don Wilson, and Mel Blanc.
  • Jack Benny - Himself
  • Eddie Anderson - Rochester Van Jones, Jack's valet and chauffeur.
  • Don Wilson - Himself
  • Dennis Day - Himself
  • Mary Livingstone - Herself. Although in real life she was Jack Benny's wife, on air (TV or Radio) she only played a 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.
  • Phil Harris - A skirt-chasing, arrogant, hip-talking bandleader who constantly put Jack down (in a mostly friendly way, of course). He referred to Jack as "Jackson." An on-air joke explains this by having Harris say, "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.
  • Mel Blanc - Carmichael the Polar Bear, Professor Pierre LeBlanc, Sy the Mexican, Polly (Jack's parrot) 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.
  • Frank Nelson - The "Yeeee-essss?" man. He was constantly 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 catch phrase was "Hey, bud... c'mere a minute."
  • 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.
  • 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 Bowlmarker. 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!"
  • 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?"/"Because somebody stole my pants, and I can't run around in my underwear!"}.
  • Dale White - Harlow Wilson, supposedly Don's son.
  • Bea Benaderet and Sara Berner - "Gertrude Gearshift" and "Mabel Flapsaddle," a pair of telephone switchboard operators who always traded barbs with Jack 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.


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. 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 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 catch phrase was "Hiya, Buck!"
  • 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 "Hi, Rube!" guy, a hick farmer from the town of Calabasasmarker who always insisted on referring to Jack as "rube."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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


Audio



References

  1. Dunning, John. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press, 1998.
  2. Bishop, Jim. A Day in the Life of President Kennedy


External links




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