My very special guest today is Laura Leff, the President of the International Jack Benny Fan Club.
She has a vast amount of knowledge about Jack Benny and the long-running series, his films and his TV show.
I am honored to have her here at the OTR Buffet. She and I conducted an e-mail interview this past week.
OTR Buffet: Thank you so much for doing this interview. How did you get involved with JackBenny.org? And please tell us something about the website, too.
Laura Leff: I originally started the International Jack Benny Fan Club on January 1, 1980, when I was ten years old. Although I was involved in the early forms of the Internet in the late 80s (the Bitnet, just to prove it), I didn't start the Web site until September of 2000. This change was probably the most "disruptive technology" in the history of the club, as we went from word-of-mouth referrals and publicity through hobby journals and newsletters to being instantly available to anyone with a Web browser. It took us 16 years to get our first 500 members. Now I get a new member every day or two.
The Web site is a collection of information about Jack Benny and the club's various offerings and services. We try to provide the most reliable and accurate information on Jack Benny, with enough entertainment to engage the casual surfer and enough depth to please the more informed researcher. There is an active Forum with extensive discussions on Jack and his coworkers which has attracted experts in related topics, such as the Sportsmen Quartet. Plus, we have a monthly chat on all things Benny.
OTR Buffet: I have recently listened to the 1937-38, 1938-39 seasons. I was amazed how much emphasis was put on "Buck Benny". Andy Devine aside, I thought the whole Buck Benny thing is something that simply doesn't hold up very well at all today. I know there was a Buck Benny film but didn't that come after the radio skits? How did Buck Benny originate and what are your personal thoughts about the whole series of skits?
Laura Leff: There are a lot of people who would disagree with you about Buck Benny not holding up well today! The "Buck Benny Rides Again" film came out in 1940, and is generally considered to be one of the best film versions of a radio program. Gisele MacKenzie told me that Jack just loved playing that character, and did so under other names (including a television program with her where the same basic character was called "The Cactus Kid") even into the 1960s with the renewed popularity of the Western genre. The first Buck Benny skit was performed on 11/15/36, and was done 13 times through 11/14/37 (plus one on 4/7/40). This was not a new concept for the show to reuse the same basic premise for many skits, with variant spoofs of "Grand Hotel" being done a few times in the early-mid 30s, or "Who Killed Mr. Stooge" running pretty consecutively from 6/15/34 to 8/3/34 (not to mention its innumerable progeny over the years, such as "Who Killed Mr. X", "Murder at the Racquet Club", "The Murder of Malcom Smith", etc., etc., etc.). If you're writing a comedy show week after week, it's easier to build on something you've already got that's well-received rather than try and invent something completely new every single week and wonder if it will work. And Jack was an incredibly efficient comedy recycler, using and re-using moderately refreshed scripts with new characters across radio and television.
OTR Buffet: The feud between Jack and Fred Allen is notorious and started about the same time Buck Benny did, as far as I can tell. It became one of the best and long-running gags (for both comedians) in the history of radio. Can you tell us any cool trivia about the feud and what are your thoughts about Benny vs. Allen?
Laura Leff: The Benny-Allen feud officially started on 12/30/36 with Stuart Canin playing "The Bee" on Fred Allen's "Town Hall Tonight" program. However, precursors of it can be seen all the way back to 7/14/35. On this program, Jack plays Ebenezer Benny to Fred's Zeke Allen in a skit called "The Hills of Old Kentucky" about feuding families in the Ozarks. On 4/5/36, Jack parodies Fred's program as "Clown Hall Tonight" complete with clothespin on his nose. However, it was Canin's appearance that sparked the week-by-week byplay between the two that is considered "the feud." I am often asked about how they got along in real life, and it's a short answer: they were excellent friends with a strong respect for each other's relative talents. While Allen was one of the best ad libbers with a sharp, sardonic, intelligent wit, Jack was the master of timing and honing his shows and lines to comedic perfection.
OTR Buffet: I always thought it would have been fun to have a feud between Mary Livingstone and Portland Hoffa but Portland always seemed so nice. On the other hand, I'm guessing Mary had a temper somewhere.
Laura Leff: They did that on the 7/14/35 program. Part of the problem in this is that a feud between women quickly turns into a catfight, which may or may not be funny. Also, the characters of Mary and Portland were closer to the "dizzy dame" realm at this point. Portland never really got away from that, and Mary in the late 40s would have probably slapped Portland right in her annoyingly flute-y throat. To be quite candid about it, I don't think either of them had quite the comedic range and confidence beyond their well-defined character to carry it off.
OTR Buffet: Dennis Day was such a great comedian that history seems to have covered the great job that Kenny Baker did on the show. Kenny was definitely "Dennis Day lite" in the acting department but I have always thought it is a shame that Kenny never got his just due. Would you care to talk about Kenny?
Laura Leff: Kenny definitely defined that character of the "timid tenor" in the mid-late 30s, and I have heard professional singers comment that Kenny's voice is actually more impressive to them than Dennis'. No question that Dennis was an excellent singer and I've even heard him carry off Pagliacci, but Kenny could have done opera professionally as a career. I think also Dennis' longer tenure on the show gave him more opportunity to show the range of his abilities, including a mind-blowing mimicry ability (especially with Ronald Colman).
OTR Buffet: The popularity of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson gave breaks to dozens of other actors after him. He is kind of like the Jackie Robinson of radio, if you will. Do you know if Rochester was in radio before doing the Benny show and do you have any idea how Benny found him?
Laura Leff: Rochester was cast as a train porter via an open audition in early 1937. He had done a lot of movies before Benny, the first one being "What Price Hollywood" in 1932, so he was already a seasoned actor. Not sure if he was in radio specifically--considering that he was auditioning for a role of a few lines, chances are good that he was, but likely on a show that hasn't been logged to the depth of finding him in such small, uncredited roles.
OTR Buffet: I've read plenty that Benny really hated being typecast as greedy, stingy, etc. He was really very generous in real life, wasn't he?
Laura Leff: Yes, he was. It wasn't that he "hated being typecast" as stingy...he knew that this character had made him millions over the years. What was more frustrating was that people tended to confuse the character with the man. He noted that (quote approximate), "Being cheap never cost anyone else so much money." He always felt he had to overtip in order to reinforce the difference Jack Benny the character and the person. And he gave very substantial amounts of money to many charities, and often donated his time to the various symphony orchestras for which he raised $6M with his concerts.
OTR Buffet: In the late 1930's, there is a recurring character who is always knocking at the door and bothering Benny. He's been described as being bald and Jack always asks him, "Who are you, anyway?" I have no idea who this guy is and it's driving me crazy. Can you shed any light on this?
Laura Leff: This was Harry Baldwin, who was indeed bald in real life. He was also Jack's personal secretary, and a very good one, as I'm indebted to him for his organization of Jack's scripts and personal notes on various supporting character actors (and even the occasional salary that Jack needed to pay them). I personally call him the "door guy" because he's always knocking on the door for his blackout exchange with Jack.
OTR Buffet: The Benny show was blessed with "extra talent" - that is to say, both the bandleader (Phil Harris) and his singer (Day) were both talented comedians. I can think of no other radio show so rich in talent in those two musical departments. The writers exploited this strength to the hilt. What can tell us about Harris and Day before they left the show?
Laura Leff: Dennis pretty much never left the show, and appears with varying regularity all the way through the end of the regular television series. Harris' departure has a wide variety of explanations. Harris himself told me that he was looking to slow down and Alice wanted to focus on raising the family. Writer Al Gordon said that when Jack sold his production company, Amusement Enterprises, to CBS (a much longer story), Harris wanted a part of the proceeds. When Jack declined, Harris left the show. Other explanations point to the fact that Jack had moved to CBS, and since Harris followed immediately on NBC and had to be written out of the second half of the show when the two were done live on the same day, it was too inconvenient for everyone. In any event, Harris appeared on a later television program and one of Jack's color specials, so there was no lasting enmity with his departure.
OTR Buffet: Mel Blanc was also very talented; but while he was on many other shows (including his own) I hesistate to call him funny on any of them except on the Benny show. It's pretty obvious that Benny and Blanc had a very good comedic relationship. What can you tell us about Blanc, his relationship with Benny and do you have any special Mel Blanc memories?
Laura Leff: Jack and Mel were very good friends, and would often go out together with their wives much like Jack and Mary would with George Burns and Gracie Allen. I think the story that speaks best to their relationship is the fact that after Mel's near-death car crash on Sunset Boulevard, Jack would visit him every day. Even though Mel was in a full body cast, Jack would come over and say to Estelle (Mel's wife), "Is Mel home?" to introduce some levity. And there is a television program (sadly not currently in circulation) with Mel's first appearance after the crash where Jack is handing out Christmas gifts to the cast. Mel is clearly in a wheelchair and somewhat subdued, but this is never mentioned. Jack does note that Mel is back after his accident, and they go through a number of the legendary characters voiced by Mel, which he demonstrates. Even though they're doing comedy, Jack's affection for Mel and pleasure at having him on the show blooms off the screen.
OTR Buffet: It seems to me that one of the charms of the show is all of the messed up lines by Mary. Jack was always kidding her about that, especially since she started the show just as a fill-in, I believe. I'd like for you to talk a bit about her and what she meant to the show.
Laura Leff: You may be thinking of Jack's vaudeville stage act where Mary's first performance was standing in for an actress who had taken ill. Her first appearance on the radio show was on 7/27/1932 as a fan from Plainfield, NJ. Her role on the show probably shows the widest progression over time, from her becoming Jack's secretary in 1932, a heartwarming scene of them privately declaring their affection for each other in the fall of the same year, then her evolution into more of a man-chasing dizzy dame, followed by the transition to a more sardonic, ego-puncturing character in the 1940s most typified by her interruption of Jack's comments on opera with "Oh shut up!" While she probably got the most performance coaching from Jack--partially because she hadn't "grown up in the business" and partially because of their time together on and offstage--her character is like one of the flavors of a complex sauce. Even if you can't nail it down, if you take it away, then the whole dish becomes different.
OTR Buffet: Over the run of the show, there are lots of very strong and funny characters that really never got their just due, including Andy Devine, Sam Hearn as Schlepperman, Mr. Kitzel, the telephone operators, Rochester and Baker (and I know I am leaving out a lot.) What can you tell us about these people and in your opinion, who was the funniest of these "bit-parters?"
Laura Leff: The one the most people would want to add to your list is Frank Nelson ("Yessssss?"). And I wouldn't put Rochester as a "bit parter"...he was credited at the top of the show for much of the run, so I consider him as main as Phil, Dennis, or Don. One of the most unique things about Jack was that he knew how to give other people the laughs, and didn't have to be "The Comedian" on his own show. So it paves the way for so many wonderful supporting characters. As far as who was the funniest...that's all a matter of taste.
OTR Buffet: Jack Benny made a lot of films but really, most of them are not very good. However, at least two of his films are fantastic in my opinion: "To Be or Not to Be" and "The Horn Blows at Midnight." These films are in a different class altogether than the rest of Benny vehichles, yet the cast still panned the films constantly (although not so much "To Be or Not to Be" because Carole Lombard had died.) What's you assessment of Jack's film career?
Laura Leff: Some of Jack's early 30s vehicles are less than impressive, but don't rule out the majority of them. I'm extremely fond of "Man About Town" from 1939, and many of the Paramount comedies have such wonderful casts that although they may not have much story, they're fun to watch no matter who is on screen. "To Be or Not To Be" was definitely never panned by anyone, and Jack often said it was his best movie--and it definitely was, between Lubitsch creating the character for Jack, his exquisite direction, and everyone's exceptional performances. I'd recommend giving "Buck Benny Rides Again" another whirl. I'm a little less enthusiastic about "Charley's Aunt" because it takes Jack a bit far afield from his comedic character (so does "To Be or Not to Be", but that role was crafted for Jack), although it's still a fun outing.
People's opinions on "Horn" vary all over the place...some like it, some don't. It was very unusual for its time because it's so thoroughly fantasy with some supernatural thrown in, and I've personally never felt a huge connection between Jack and physical comedy, such as the crazy scene near the end with him in a giant coffee cup being drenched by a neon coffee pot. Many people note that the Ford Theatre one-hour radio play is much better than the movie. I tend to concur. Putting it on radio obviously takes out the physical comedy aspect, and the dream ending is changed completely to something that really captures the zeitgeist of post-WWII America. But again, it's all a matter of taste.
OTR Buffet: This may be the hardest question of all! Do you have a favorite couple of episodes from the radio show and what do you think makes them so special?
Laura Leff: My personal favorite episode of the radio show is 12/30/45, and it's mostly for sentimental reasons. First off, it was one of the shows I was able to hear early in my developing affection for Jack. But it is Jack's speech at the end that, like above with the Ford Theatre, is truly moving and speaks to an America that is still treating its wounds from WWII and hoping for a better future. It's a sentiment that rings true today in so many ways.
You asked for a couple, so I'll give you the show that most people tell me is their personal favorite as the other: 4/9/50. In this episode, Frank Fontaine plays a bum (John L.C. Silvoney, who effectively becomes Crazy Guggenheim on Jackie Gleaon's show in later years) who asks Jack for a dime, and Jack gives him 50 cents because he only has that coin. The rest of the show is spent in various ruminations and astonishment over Jack's sudden generosity. It's a wonderful show, and you even get a Dennis Day - Colman impersonation in it.
OTR Buffet: Do you listen to any other old-time radio shows and if so, what are your favorites?
Laura Leff: Between my work to "pay the mortgage," running the club, and working on my current book, I don't have a lot of time for other things. But I do enjoy other shows--primarily comedies of Jack's contemporaries. On a recent long drive I listened to some Fred Allen "Town Hall Tonight"s, and played a Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (where Jack is Santa Claus) during dinner with a dear friend on Christmas Eve. I enjoy Burns & Allen and Abbott & Costello for all the clever verbal interplay. I also seem to be one of the few people who really loves the Al Jolson-Oscar Levant exchanges on Kraft Music Hall.
OTR Buffet: It really was a pleasure and an honor having you on the Buffet. Thank you again for the interview.
Laura Leff: Absolutely. Thanks for asking!