Thursday, April 1, 2004

“…that suave comedian, dry humorist, and famous master of ceremonies…”

The first broadcast in RS’ Ultimate Jack Benny Collection is, in fact, Jack Benny’s first regular broadcast—the May 2, 1932 debut of The Canada Dry Program. (Benny’s premiere radio appearance was on a March 19, 1932 broadcast of Ed Sullivan’s Broadway’s Greatest Thrills.) Benny fans will certainly be surprised, puzzled and amused listening to this first show, since Benny presides as “master of ceremonies” over what is essentially a musical showcase featuring the talents of maestro George Olsen, his orchestra, and his wife Ethel Shutta (pronounced shu-tay). Benny’s remarks after being introduced by show announcer Ed Thorgensen are particularly memorable:

JACK: Uh, thank you, Mr. Thorgensen—that’s pretty good from a man who doesn’t even know me…ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking…and making my first appearance on the air professionally…by that I mean, I’m finally getting paid—which, of course, will be a great relief to my creditors…

There are seven musical numbers on this program, among them I Beg Your Pardon, Mademoiselle and I Found a Million-Dollar-Baby in a Five-and-Ten-Cent Store. They pretty much crowd out the comedy, though Jack rises to the occasion when he needs to make sure the program keeps moving along:

JACK: That was I Love a Parade, ladies and gentlemen…the kind of a number that grips and thrills you…gives you that great feeling of patriotism, and makes you glad that you’re an American…personally, it didn’t bother me very much because I took a nap while the boys were playing it…

Even though Benny’s role on the broadcast is fairly limited, there are a few brief flashes of the comic conventions that would later hallmark Benny’s future shows. Jack’s predilection for ribbing the sponsor is present and accounted for; he describes Canada Dry’s Ginger Ale as “you drink it, like it, and don’t wanna hear about it.” After later reading a bit of commercial copy he cracks: “Gee, I thought I did that pretty swell for a new salesman—I suppose nobody will drink it now.” (The Canada Dry company was not amused by Benny’s levity in pushing its product, which is why they let him go in January 1933.) Jack also introduces his first “cheap” joke, though it is not directed at himself but rather at maestro Olsen, commenting that “he paid the check with a five-dollar bill that was in his pocket so long that Lincoln’s eyes were bloodshot.”

The Canada Dry Program was a twice-weekly (Mondays and Wednesdays) half-hour head over the Blue network until October 26, 1932; it then moved to CBS (Sundays and Thursdays) on October 30 and run until the comedian’s novel approach to the commercials got him yanked on January 26, 1933. Fortunately for Benny, he had started to receive a lot of positive press as a comic on the rise, and he was hired by Chevrolet in March 1933 to headline a program on NBC. Sadye Marks—a.k.a. Mrs. Jack Benny—joined him on The Chevrolet Program, becoming the first member of Jack’s classic “stooge” ensemble. She had made her debut on the Canada Dry Program on August 3, 1932 as Mary Livingstone, a young Benny fan from Plainfield, NJ—and later would change her name legally to that of her character.

Chevrolet gave Benny his walking papers on—ironically—April 1, 1934 (the sponsor apparently wasn’t crazy about Benny and writer Harry Cohn expanding the comedy on the program at the expense of the music), and the comedian joined forces with General Tire for a Friday night program that introduced the second member of Benny’s longtime cast, announcer Don Wilson. Jack then began his eight-year association with Jell-O on October 14, 1934, and the second program on the Radio Spirits box set introduces yet another Benny cast member, bandleader-comedian Phil Harris, from October 4, 1936.

Harris was a headliner at the famed Coconut Grove, a popular Hollywood nightspot, when an RKO comedy three-reeler, So This is Harris!, brought him to the attention of both Jack and George Burns. (Burns was planning to sign Phil to his program, but Benny beat him to the punch.) Although Harris was supposedly Jack’s orchestra leader, he was in reality nothing more than window-dressing (he was hired for his personality more than his musicianship) since the show’s musical direction was really handled by Mahlon Merrick. The October 4, 1936 show is astonishing to listen to, simply because the trademark Harris persona—that of the brash, “incomparable vulgarian”—is surprisingly subdued:

JACK: Say, Phil—you don’t mind if I describe you to our listeners, do you? After all, they will be interested…
PHIL: No, but…uh…well, don’t build me up too much…

My jaw dropped after hearing this exchange—this is a guy who couldn’t pass a mirror without drawling “Ohhhhhhhh you dawg!!!” I have since heard that Benny’s writers created the Harris personality—the swaggering, vain playboy with a fondness for fast clothes, fast cars and fast liquor—after noticing that it was hard to distinguish Jack’s voice from Phil’s. Toward the end of the show, as Don Wilson does the final Jell-O commercial, I laughed when I heard a snatch of “Rose Room”—a musical number that would later become the theme of Phil Harris’ later 1948-54 sitcom with wife Alice Faye.

I was also fascinated by Mary Livingstone’s persona in this broadcast, which borders on a Gracie Allen-like screwball quality. As Mary later explained:

When I first went on radio, the character I portrayed was that of a dumb girl. But when Kenny [Baker] came along, the writers made him dumb, too. It didn’t take Jack long to discover that two dopes weren’t as funny as one. That’s when I became Jack’s smart-aleck girlfriend.

Tomorrow: Jack feuds with comedian Fred Allen, and is introduced to “Rochester.”

No comments:

Post a Comment