At work, I’m not known for my technical savvy. When something breaks (well, more often, it’s not broken; I just don’t know how to work it), I turn to those more inclined to understand this crazy fast-paced, world of swiping and Insta-chatting: my students. (Special thanks to Alyssa and her dad, who keep on helping even though she graduated years ago!) I tend to come upon technological advancements very late. Heck! I should’ve started a blog years ago, but I had no idea how you go about it. (Hint: it’s easy to set up, harder to write, and much harder to write well . . . but I keep trying!)
So you’ll forgive me if I am really late to the podcast party. My young colleagues at school – the Angels – have been telling me about them for years, and I kept thinking, “But . . . isn’t that just . . . radio?” Well, podcasters, it kind of is! But recently, I’ve been increasing my walking time in order to remove this unsightly belly reflect on the beauty of the world in troubled times. And I decided that instead of music, I would get into this podcast thing.
My Angels and me.
If you follow me at all, you know that I spend the bulk of my time talking about classic mysteries. Well, there’s damned little to find concerning the Golden Age in the podcast world. This is my cue to plug Dan and JJ’s infrequent but invaluable London-based (grrrr!) podcast about locked room mysteries, The Men Who Explain Miracles. It fills me with enraged jealousy warms my heart to hear them expound upon Carr and his ilk in the comfort of JJ’s study. But they’re just getting started and have only a half dozen or so episodes to their name. Other than that, there’s not much.
So I started looking for podcasts to whet my other interests, and, amidst the various programs about theatre, politics and humor, I discovered a handful of great sites that play old radio shows. One that hits my sweet spot twice over is called OTR Detective – The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio. OTR is where I bought a lot of old radio shows on cheap MP3s – one of the greatest deals I’ve ever found. Here you’ll find hundreds of broadcasts, most with multiple episodes featuring Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, Johnny Dollar, Mr. Keen, and dozens more.
Then there’s Radio Retropolis, where Jim Romanovich plays a show (he seems to favor a select few, including Suspense, The Shadow, Dragnet, the Superman serial, and Father Knows Best) and then offers some cool commentary on what we’ve just heard. I recently listened to a bunch of early Suspense episodes here because John Dickson Carr was one of the shows most frequent writers – but only for a short while. Romanovich explained what caused the rift between the author and the show’s producers. In one wartime episode, he wanted to make his villain Italian, but the creators insisted that Italians would be offended . . . but Germans would not. Carr made the change – and left the show.
But far and away my favorite podcast these days is called This Day in Jack Benny. This really charming guy named John Henderson has been listening to Benny’s show since he discovered it playing on a late-night radio station when he was a teen. As he grew up, he came to realize what I have known for some time: Jack Benny was the funniest man who ever lived. Each podcast contains an episode from Benny’s lengthy and remarkable career on radio (1932 – 1955), after which he switched fully to television (1949 – 1965). From what I can tell, Henderson doesn’t play them in chronological order per se, although some storylines might get a run. Instead, he picks an episode and then opens with delightful explanations of the various topical references we’re going to hear. I already knew about a lot of them – famous people, movies, products – but almost every time, John has something new for me to learn. And he does it with the most infectious sense of wonder and joy.
I’m older than John, but like him I grew up with a sense of Jack Benny. He was on TV when I was a young kid. I watched the show and liked it, but it wasn’t my favorite. I loved goofy sitcoms and Perry Mason. You can understand why one of my favorite episodes of Jack Benny was this one:
Even at nine years old, though, I thought the man himself was hilarious. That deadpan face, the mincing walk, the stinginess and the ego. There were some standard gags featured on the show, including the guarded vault (with a moat) in Benny’s basement, the terrible violin playing (Benny was better – maybe not much better, but better – than he played on his show) and, most pleasing, the repartee between the host and his “gang”: Mary Livingstone (actually his wife in real life), tenor Dennis Day, announcer Don Wilson, Mel Blanc (of Bugs Bunny fame) in a variety of roles, and best of all, Eddie Anderson as Rochester, Benny’s all-knowing valet.
Rochester, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, Mary, Jack, Don Wilson and Mel Blanc
What I didn’t realize until many years later was that the television program was actually a pale shadow of the brilliant radio series that had preceded it. And while Benny fit in just fine with episodic sitcom TV, he had actually helped invent the formula over the airwaves as far back as the late 1930’s.
There are so many resources you can go to in order to find out about Jack Benny that I have no intention of giving you a full history here. I’ve just received in the mail my copy of a marvelous book I heard about on This Day in Jack Benny: it’s an almost scholarly treatise by Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley about Benny’s work and its influence on media entertainment: Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy. From this book, I intend to learn a lot more.
But today I listened to Henderson’s most recent episode, in which he let himself be interviewed by his wife about why he put this program together (Answer: he wants his kids to know about this marvelous comic), and I immediately thought about singing Benny’s praises here. I hit up Wikipedia, and just before the article talked about the cast, the site posted this message:
This section may contain an excessive amount of intricate detail that may interest only a particular audience. Please help by spinning off or relocating any relevant information, and removing excessive detail that may be against Wikipedia’s inclusion policy.
Wow! Just . . . wow! It has always been challenging find myself fascinated with things that are not currently in fashion. (Those of us who often experience this call ourselves “old souls.” Other people have less flattering words for it . . . ) And it seems that the Wikipedia producers are concerned that this relatively brief article would be irrelevant to the modern world. Thus, I ask your forgiveness for a few more paragraphs full of irrelevance. All I can say is if you have not listened to Jack Benny, you have not lived.
And if you are interested in listening to his show, I have good news for you: in a world where half the movies of the 1930’s that I wish I could watch were made of flammable celluloid and are lost to the ages, and where most of the authors of classic mysteries have not been published in decades and cost a fortune to buy – if you can get a hold of their work – the Jack Benny Radio Show is one of the best-preserved treasures of the more recent past. Benny kept copies in the family home, carefully catalogued by his daughter Joan. And most of these are readily available for listening on John’s podcast and other online sources for free!
Benny’s ultimate shtick took a while to gel – longer than Jell-O, his sponsor from 1934 to 1942. But first he was an emcee for Canada Dry, and through the 1930’s, he honed his program from a variety show to a situation comedy featuring his inimical cast of players: first Livingstone, then Don Wilson, then his first ditzy tenor, Kenny Baker, then bandleader Phil Harris, then Rochester. Dennis Day would replace Baker in 1939 and, except for a stint in the Navy, remain with Benny for the rest of his radio and TV career in addition to having his own radio and TV programs.
So would Anderson, and the evolution of Rochester is a lovely example of the slow diminishment of racial stereotyping in media. After WWII, Benny’s horrified reaction to the Holocaust caused him to rethink the way Rochester was written. Most of the traits typical of black characters were eliminated or restructured for Anderson to play. In addition, the two men were openly good friends for life. When they traveled, if Anderson was not welcomed in a hotel, Jack and Company would check out. When Anderson suffered a mild heart attack, Benny’s concern and attention were palpable. And when Benny died, Anderson wept.
Yeeeeesssss, it’s Frank Nelson!
Other people gravitated to Benny’s show and never left, most notably Mel Blanc and the fabulous Frank Nelson, both playing a variety of roles but never leaving in doubt who was behind the many characters they played. For Nelson it was easy: whether he played a waiter or a floorwalker or any number of bureaucrats who Benny was destined to run afoul of, he was always Frank Nelson, with the most distinctive voice. (He plays the district attorney in the clip above.) Mel Blanc’s versatility was put to brilliant use, including as Benny’s car (the Maxwell), as his polar bear, as his parrot, as his outraged violin teacher, as a deranged store clerk, as a Mexican bandit named Sy (“sí”), and as a harried employee of Benny’s named . . . Mel Blanc.
To be honest, I am not as big a fan of the 1930’s Benny shows. Most of the humor was derived from various parodies of the latest films and novels, from frequent guest shots by Andy Divine, and by frequent adventures featuring my least favorite alter-ego, Buck Benny. What did work from pretty much the start was the badinage between Benny and his gang, as the star honed his on-air persona as a self-impressed, stingy and insecure anti-hero. Benny always made himself the butt of everyone else’s jokes; he himself wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Things started to pick up for me in 1939 when Dennis Day came onto the show. It wasn’t so much the callow naif he played (and continued to play even into his 50’s). It was his mother, played by Verna Felton, who got me to chuckle out loud as I listened in the car. Mrs. Day became Jack’s arch nemesis that season, loudly complaining how her talented boy had sold himself short by working for Benny. Their battles, the gradual build-up of Rochester’s character, the tapering off of Andy Devine’s bucolic humor and increasingly more sophisticated situational humor helped the show, although I am not a big fan of the writers at this time, Ed Beloin and Bill Morrow. As the decade shifted, the show started to travel frequently to military bases, where Jack and Company would entertain the troops to wonderful effect.
(My mom remembers seeing Benny on a personal appearance in San Francisco. He opened the show in drag, as was his wont – he had once played Charlie’s Aunt – and my mom said he had beautiful legs!)
During the latter part of the 1942-43 season, Jack Benny caught a cold, yet refused to give up on a series of personal appearances despite his doctor’s wishes. As a result, he became ill enough that he had to miss hosting the show for five weeks. For four of those weeks, the guest host was none other than Orson Welles, and even the corny team of Beloin and Morrow found great inspiration in the gang working with this self-proclaimed genius (Verna Felton played his secretary) and with Benny’s return (and subsequent insecurities about returning after Welles had dazzled the gang).
If you’re going to give Benny a try, you should start with 1943-44 season. It was with the hiring of a new writing team – Sam Perrin, Milt Josefsberg, George Balzer, and John Tackaberry – that things really started to crackle on the Jack Benny program. This was the season when Mel Blanc really took off as a regular on the show. Other hilarious appearances were made by actresses Sara Berner and Butterfly McQueen. Jack made a movie in real life called The Horn Blows at Midnight. Despite some success in the film industry, this movie never took off at the box office. Since Benny’s radio character was a man with an overblown vision of his own box office star power, the relative failure of the real film only served as fodder for some of the best comedy of the season.
The writers really found their voice the following season, which coincided with Dennis Day’s departure for the Navy. The search for a new singer brought many laughs (although Larry Stevens, Day’s replacement, was a stiff). In episode 2, Frank Nelson appeared in a radio commercial spot for Sympathy Soothing Syrup. (“Backwards it’s spelled ‘Yhtapmys’.”) This had appeared twice in the previous season, showing an increase in gags reincorporated for the best purposes. From then on, Nelson’s roles on the show got bigger and funnier.
So did Mel Blanc’s, as when he premiered the famous train announcer (“Anaheim, Azusa, and Cucamonga”). Bea Benaderet and Sara Berner also began a long-running stint as the show’s phone operators, Mabel Flapsaddle and Gertrude Gearshift. This was also the season that marked the return of one of the funniest running gags of the 30’s: the rivalry between Benny and his arch-enemy (but really a good friend), fellow radio star Fred Allen.
From 1943 till the end of the decade, the show, sponsored now by Lucky Strike cigarettes, was hilarious, with established characters who constantly reinvented themselves through brilliant new storylines and gags that would run a whole season. Benny also had a million guest stars, including Frank Sinatra, whom he numbered one of his close friends, Fred Allen, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Barbara Stanwyck . . . the list is endless. My favorite guests of all were Ronald and Benita Colman, who on the show were Benny’s next door neighbors. Colman, a serious actor, showed his comic chops in a series of hilarious episodes over several years. My favorite storyline is when Jack borrowed the Oscar Colman had just won (I think it was for A Stolen Life) and was robbed on the way home. (When the robber pulled a gun and said, “You’re money or your life,” Benny replied, “I’m thinking it over.”) It took weeks to resolve that crisis, and it was done in a satisfying manner that gave Colman the last laugh.
Like most great shows, Jack Benny lasted longer than it should have. First Phil Harris left, then Mary Livingstone let her stage fright take over and literally phoned in her performances from home. Benny was focusing his energies more and more on television, and even he could see that radio’s days were numbered. Some of the gags got stale, although there were also some great new stories right up till the end, as well as some of the old stories that were literally recycled.
To those of you who read this and already know what I’m talking about, let me just say that an episode a day of Jack Benny has been surprisingly effective as an antidote – or at least a soporific – for the madness that plays out on my news channel every day. For anyone here who thinks old radio is for the birds and has little to no idea who Jack Benny was, I say . . . well, I have a lot of responses that come to mind, including “You don’t know what you’re missing” and “Shame on you.”
If you’re interested and you don’t want to appear uncool, a great way to start would be with the This Day in Jack Benny podcast. You can walk down the street with a smile on your face, listening to Jack and the gang filtered through the knowledgeable enthusiasm of John Henderson. People will think you’re listening to music, but you’ll be getting a taste of something so much better.