By Peter Hummers on April 14, 2022
We can gain some perspective on today’s TV by revisiting two of the best comedy shows of the 1950’s, both helmed by ex-vaudeville radio stars who understood the ramifications of having cinemas in living rooms, which was unthinkable before the 1940’s. Even in the 1950’s, the heyday of these two shows, there were still many variety shows, dramas and soap operas only on the radio.
“Your money or your life! Well?” “I’m thinking!”
Benjamin Kubelsky had modest success in Vaudeville, a theatrical light entertainment that consisted of a group of unrelated acts—comedy, music, animal acts, dramatic readings—on a common bill.
As a teenager Kubelsky played violin on the Chicago vaudeville circuit and came to the attention of the great world-famous violinist Jan Kubelik, who took exception, not wanting to be confused with this crude entertainment, so under legal pressure, Kubelsky took the stage name Ben K. Benny before he came under pressure from an established “fiddle and patter” act, Ben Bernie, so Kubelsky began to use a common sailors’ nickname, and Jack Benny was born.
His fiddle became more of a prop for his standup routine (which was not uncommon—Henny Youngman also rarely appeared not holding a violin) and made friends with Gracie Allen (see below) and Zeppo Marx. Gracie introduced Jack to dancer Mary Kelly, who turned down his marriage proposal under pressure from her Catholic family, but Zeppo introduced him to violinist Sadie Marks (not related to the Marx family), whom Jack did marry. She became his partner in comedy for most of his career under the name Mary Livingstone.
In 1932 Jack appeared on radio with The Jack Benny Program and his star took off. It became very popular, featuring sophisticated humor and intricate scripts from writers that Jack often gave credit to on-air. After an ad for the show’s sole sponsor, Jack would do a monologue, being joined gradually by a singer, usually a tenor; his wife, Mary Livingstone and other guests; and then join a skit dealing with Jack’s fictionalized home life, with an ad worked into it. The TV show ran along the same lines. Jack’s persona was that of a deadpan vain and wealthy miser who hoarded his money, including coins, in his mattress. (A hilarious episode involved Jack appearing on guest star Groucho Marx’s TV quiz program You Bet Your Life in disguise to make some money and freezing when offered a prize for revealing “Jack Benny’s real age.”)
The TV show ran sporadically in 1950 (Jack concentrated on his radio show until 1955) then weekly from 1960 until 1965; despite steady viewership numbers, his relationship with CBS was contentious, and when they moved him from after the popular Red Skelton Hour to behind the new Beverly Hillbillies‘ spinoff Petticoat Junction, he took the show to NBC, but advertisers complained that air time was costing twice as much as before. Jack, who had been doing it since 1932 on radio and TV, quit the “rat race.”
Eddie Anderson, who played Jack’s valet Rochester, was the first black man to have a recurring role in a national radio show, which was significant because in the day, black roles were not uncommonly spoken by white actors. Nowadays Rochester might be considered a stereotype, but his attitude was unusually sardonic, habitually cracking wise at Jack’s expense. He followed Jack to his TV show, and guest stars included Humphrey Bogart, Jack Paar, John Wayne, Tony Curtis, Gary Cooper, Dick Van Dyke, Rock Hudson, Natalie Wood, and even President Harry Truman. The TV and radio shows are still widely available, and still hilarious, even if you weren’t 16 in 1965.
Vaudevillians George Burns and Gracie Allen were among the guests on The Jack Benny Program, George playing the Devil in one episode. His wife Gracie Allen played a ditz on their own show, which was more a sitcom than variety show, and these stereotypes endured: George was the cynical observer of his wife’s crazy antics, sharing them through the fourth wall with the audience, standing outside the proscenium arch. At times he engineering the situations for his enhanced enjoyment. In later episodes George’s den was depicted, equipped with a television, on which he watched her and their neighbors’ follies with great satisfaction.
The fourth wall was an untamed frontier. When a new actor replaced neighbor Blanche’s (Bea Benaderet) husband Harry, George walked onstage, froze the action, and said to Blanche, “This is Larry Keating and he is going to be your husband now.” Benederet and Keating chatted briefly, complimenting each other on their previous work, George saying that no one will believe they are married if they are going to be so nice to each other. After a cue from George, the scene continued where it had paused as if nothing had happened. The new Harry enters and Blanche hits him in the head with a catalog for spending $200 to buy an iron deer.
Otherwise it was what sitcoms were to become for a while—the straight-man husband wrangling his eccentric wife. But Gracie Allen took eccentricity to another level. In one episode neighbor Blanche came into Gracie’s kitchen, to find her putting jars of boiling water into the freezer. Gracie explained, “You never know when you’ll need boiling water.” Benaderet said in 1966 that Gracie “was probably one of the greatest actresses of our time.”
One running gag of the show involved a closet full of hats belonging to various visitors to the Burns household, who would slip out the door unnoticed and leave their hats behind rather than face another round with Gracie, whose logic could unman the most learned professor. Another was George’s weekly “firing” of announcer Harry Von Zell after he turned up aiding, abetting, or otherwise not stopping the mayhem prompted by Gracie’s craziness.
The show received 11 Emmy nominations and was consistently near the top (along with The Jack Benny Program) in ratings, when Gracie Allen bowed out, exhausted from playing “Gracie” for so long. George told The New York Times, “She had been working all her life, and her lines were the toughest in the world to do. They didn’t make sense, so she had to memorize every word. It took a real actress. Every spare moment—in bed, under the hair dryer—had to be spent in learning lines. Do you wonder that she’s happy to be rid of it?” George did one more season by himself and pulled the plug, doing the odd movie and being a celebrity until his death at 100 years of age in 1996. Gracie had died of a heart attack in 1964.
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