Tuesday, February 12, 2013

February 14: Jack Benny, Sunday Nights At Seven

He was an American comedian who began in Vaudeville, then moved to radio, movies, and television, making America laugh throughout the Great Depression, WW II, the Fifties, and the Sixties by making fun of himself.  He portrayed himself as being a cheap, vain, insecure, untalented braggart who would never willingly be more than 39 years of age.

Meyer and Emma Sachs Kubelsky became the proud parents of Benjamin Kubelsky on February
14, 1894, at Mercy Hospital, Chicago, Illinois. Even though they lived in Waukegan where Meyer ran a haberdashery shop, his mother had insisted that the baby be born in Chicago, because – in her view – it was an honor to be born in a big city.  Both parents were immigrants – Meyer from Poland, Sachs from Lithuania, who settled in America to achieve a better economic life.  They would have one other child – Florence – born in 1900.  Little Benjamin Kubelsky would later change his name to Jack Benny – the name that he will be referred to in this article.

Young Benny did not do well in school.  He was often described as a ‘dreamer’, didn’t do his work, and was ultimately expelled from Central High School.   He also studied violin – he was given a half-size violin for his sixth birthday - and loved playing the instrument.  However, he hated to practice, and his mother’s hope of her son becoming a concert violinist were not to be realized.  Later in life the violin would become one of his comedic trademarks.

He did, however, find a use for his music.  By the time he was fourteen he was playing in local dance bands.  By the time he was sixteen he had a job playing in the orchestra pit of Waukegan’s Barrison Theater. 

In 1911 The Marx Brothers would offer the young violin player his first real travel opportunity.  Minnie Palmer was the mother and business manager of that vaudeville group.  She had a sharp sense of show business values, and wanted Benny to join their small orchestra.  She had enjoyed Benny’s violin playing – and offered him a job and would have paid him $15/week, plus transportation, and room and board.  However, his parents declined the offer, as they didn’t really see much opportunity in making a successful career in show business.

However, Benny persevered, convinced that he could make a career out of show business – plus being attracted the adventure of it all.  In 1912 he joined up with a 45-year-old widow, pianist Cora Salisbury, who needed a partner for her act. They formed the vaudeville duo of “Salisbury and Kubelsky: From Grand Opera to Ragtime”.  However, because of possible confusion with another performer, Benjamin Kubelsky created his first name change and became Ben K. Benny. 

Why did his parents let him go with a 45-year old widow and not the Marx Brothers?  Benny wrote:
“It was obvious from the way Cora looked, dressed, and spoke that she was a decent respectable lady.  She promised Mama that she would take care of me, see that I lived in respectable boarding housed, ate kosher meals, and got plenty of sleep.  She promised to guard me from the ‘loose’ actresses who, my parents were convinced, were lounging around in hundreds of theaters, waiting for the chance to seduce their son.  Mrs. Salisbury coaxed Mama around to the idea that a son with such basic integrity couldn’t be corrupted.  Then Mama got to work on Papa and coaxed him into giving his consent to a trial period of three months.”

After Salisbury retired from the act in 1913, Benny teamed up with Lyman Woods – forming the Vaudeville duo, "Bennie and Woods: From Grand Opera to Ragtime."  They had some success over the next four years – even performing in the famous Palace Theater in New York – although they didn’t do as well there as they had hoped.

By 1917 the US had entered World War I – and Benny joined the Navy.  He had quit the act earlier in the year to return to Waukegan to help take care of his ailing mother – who passed away in November of 1917.

While in the Navy he often entertained his fellow sailors with his violin playing – and one evening in 1918 a legend would be born.  His violin performance was booed by the audience – he was playing “The Rosary”, a classical piece, to a rather unappreciative audience. Benny was advised to start talking by future star PatO’Brien, and he although he had never really ‘talked’ on-stage before, Benny ad-libbed his way out of the potentially tense situation, leaving the audience laughing with such jokes as: 
“I’ve heard you sailors complain about the food. (they groaned in agreement)  Well, I want to tell you that the enlisted men get the same food as Captain Moffett gets. (pause) Only his is cooked!”

After this, he began receiving more comedic spots, earning himself a reputation as both a musician… and a comedian. After the Armistice he went back to Vaudeville, and by 1921 had built a show up around his comedic talking, not his classical violin playing.

Soon, however, Benny has to change his name again… to the now famous “Jack Benny”.  There was another performer and violinist named Ben Bernie who felt Ben K. Benny was too close to his and might confuse the audiences.  How did Benny get the name Jack?  That, too, is from his Great Lakes Naval Station days in the Navy.  To the sailors of the era, “Jack” was a generic term like “fella” or “dude”.  Benny was having dinner with Benny Rubin while he was considering a new name.  A couple of former Great Lakes sailors approached and greeted him as “Jack”.  Rubin then suggested that he use “Jack” as his new first name.  He would now bill himself as "Jack Benny:  Aristocrat of Humor".

In 1926 Benny met and gradually wooed Sadie Marks, a distant cousin of the Marx Brothers.  He had met her twice before, but had ignored her.  But something clicked with Benny on the third meeting, and he avidly pursued her, even showing up at the May Company where she worked as a clerk in the hosiery department – buying more stockings than he could ever use.  His persistence paid off.

They would be married in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony at the Clayton Hotel in Waukegan, Illinois on Friday, January 14, 1927.  The original plan had been to marry on Sunday the 16th, but as Benny wrote:
“We were supposed to get married the next Sunday because there were no Sunday performances, but I was afraid if we waited until Sunday, Sadie might change her mind.  We got married on Friday, January 14, 1927.  We used my mother’s ring because there was no time to buy one.”

In 1934 they would adopt a baby girl – Joan – who would be their only child.

Benny continued to hone his theatrical skills – the pauses, the poses, the timing – and in 1932 decided that he didn’t want to go on the road any more as a part of a theater group.  Instead, he decided to try a new medium: radio.  A friend of his, Ed Sullivan, provided the first opportunity for Benny to test this new medium.  Benny was asked to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in early 1932.  According to Benny’s autobiography concerning this experience:
“My very first radio spiel began: ‘This is Jack Benny talking.  There will be a slight pause while you say, ‘Who cares!’…’.  My five minutes didn’t rise much above that level.”

But someone apparently did care, for on May 2, 1932, Benny played the role of Master of Ceremonies on NBC for the Canada Dry Program.  Later that year the show switched to CBS.  In 1933, Benny was hosting the Chevrolet Program on NBC, and a year later hosted the Jack Benny Program – sponsored by JELL-O.  His innovative commercials for the product would so thrill the company that they guaranteed him his Sunday night at Seven programing slot, which he would have for much of his radio and television career.  Later Benny would gain other sponsors – the longest running was Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Benny’s radio programs were developed around a carefully nurtured character that was actually the opposite of Benny’s true persona:  the character was a miserly, self-centered, bossy tightwad who developed a characteristic and recognizable “Well” when having things not go his way.  His character couldn’t play the violin, and he was eternally 39. 

In reality, his key to success was his self-depreciating humor, and it made his the top radio show of the era.

The shows evolved from general comedy routines and a number of musical tunes to less music and a planned, central skit that would permeate the show time slot.  Benny also attracted – and kept – characters that could be developed over a long period of time:  announcer Don Wilson; tenor DennisDay; the abused but often triumphant servant Rochester; the man of a thousand voices, Mel Blanc; and Benny’s wife who played the role of wisecracking Mary Livingston.  The latter became so identified with her character name that she officially changed her name from Sadie Marks to Mary Livingston.  Band leaders changed – but even they stayed for a number of years.  Phil Harris, Bob Crosby, and Meredith Willson were among the longest staying band leaders, each having a speaking role as well as leading the orchestra.

His radio shows were immensely popular, and the shows continued until 1955, transitioning Benny and his cast into the new media of television.  His popular Jack Benny Program ran from 1950 to 1964.  Benny also had a number of movie roles during the thirties and forties, appearing in 22 motion pictures.

His style, mannerisms, and timing left a legacy that affected the way sitcom actors portrayed their characters through the present time.

Benny passed away due to cancer on December 26, 1974, in Los Angeles, California.  He arranged to have a single red rose delivered to his wife daily until her death nine years later.   Perhaps Benny can be best described through the words of an eulogy given by Bob Hope:
“For a man who was the undisputed master of comedy timing, you would have to say that this was the only time Jack Benny’s timing was all wrong.  He left us too soon.  He only gave us eight years.  God keep him, enjoy him.  We did for eighty years.”

Many of his radio shows and televisions shows are commercially available today, and would provide a great listening and viewing experience for comedy aficionados. 


Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story, by Jack Benny and his daughter, Joan.



Jack Benny: Young Actor        

Jack and Mary     


Saturday, February 9, 2013

January 29: William McKinley, Doomed President

He was a devoted husband, a respected politician, and the third President of the United States to be assassinated. 

William McKinley Jr. was the seventh of eight children sired by William and Nancy Allison McKinley Sr., and was born on January 29, 1843 in the small town of Niles, Ohio.  His father – in practicing the family trade - opened and operated a small iron foundry, and his mother was a devoutly religious Methodist who was a leader in the small town.

The roots of William Jr.’s family tree shows that his forefathers had been early settlers in Pennsylvania, establishing their homes there in the mid-18th Century.  Both of his grandfathers had fought in the American Revolution – on the side of the Colonial patriots.  But the ‘west’ of the day beckoned these early pioneers, and the family moved west to the territory of Ohio, settling in Lisbon – where his father met, wooed, and married Nancy Allison in 1829, eventually moving to and settling in Niles.

As a child William Jr. did what most of the youngsters of the day did… fishing, hunting, ice skating, horseback riding, and swimming, and helping his father in the foundry when he could, as well as the regular family ‘chores’ assigned to him.

However, the type of educational foundation that the McKinley’s wanted for their children was lacking in Niles, so they made a difficult decision. In 1853 William Sr. stayed in Niles to operate the family business, while his wife and children moved to nearby Poland, Ohio, so the children could attend Poland Seminary, a private Methodist school.  Because of this move, and the work-related long-term absences of his father, young William McKinley would be deeply influenced by his mother and his sisters. 

In Poland, he would give up most of the various sports and hobbies that he did, except playing ball, swimming and skating.  As much as he enjoyed the cool water of the stream, McKinley was not a good swimmer.  It was during one of his swimming expeditions that he got in water too deep for him, and had to be saved from drowning by a passerby. 

He also was a constant reader, and was fond of such poets as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier and Lord Byron.

William Jr. would graduate from school, and in 1860 enrolled at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania.  However, he became ill, had to return home, and by the time his health recovered, the family finances had declined to the point that he could not afford to attend school, so he earned money working as a postal clerk, and later as a teacher in a nearby school.

When the American Civil War started, McKinley joined the Twenty-third Ohio Volunteer Infantry.  He started as a private, eventually rising to the rank of brevet major.  As a Second Lieutenant he served on the staff of a future US President and fellow Ohioian, Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, with whom McKinley would form a close bond that would continue throughout his political career.

In 1862, at the Battle of Antietam, McKinley was a Commissary Sergeant in Col. Ewing’s Brigade.  During the battle, he served every soldier in his regiment coffee and food – often placing himself under enemy fire to do so.  His future mentor, Rutherford B. Hayes, stated:

"Early in the afternoon, naturally enough, with the exertion required of the men, they were famished and thirsty, and to some extent broken in spirit. The commissary department of that brigade was under Sergeant McKinley’s administration and personal supervision. From his hands every man in the regiment was served with hot coffee and warm meats.... He passed under fire and delivered, with his own hands, these things, so essential for the men for whom he was laboring."

McKinley served for the entire war.  When the war ended and he was discharged McKinley returned to Ohio, studying law at Albany Law School where he passed the bar exam in 1867.  He began his legal practice at Canton, Ohio.  It was at a Canton picnic in 1869 that two great events occurred in his life:  he met and began courting his future wife, Ida Saxon (marrying on January 25, 1871), and he entered politics, running for county prosecutor on the Republican ticket.

His home life in the early 1870s was rocked by the loss of his two young daughters – Katharine, who died in 1875 at the age of 3; and Ida, who died in 1873 at the age of 4 months.  His wife, suffering from the loss of her two daughters and her mother within a short span of time, suffered depression and developed epilepsy, becoming an invalid who was totally dependent on her husband for her medical and emotional needs - and on pain-killing drugs.  McKinley was compassionate, giving patient devotion and loving attention to his wife.  After he was elected President, McKinley broke tradition, having Ida sit next to him at state dinners instead of opposite of him at the far end of the table, so he could assist her when needed.  McKinley’s friend and supporter Mark Hanna would comment concerning the President’s devotion to his wife: 

"President McKinley has made it pretty hard for the rest of us husbands here in Washington."

In 1876 McKinley ran successfully for the US Congress, serving from 1876-1882, then again from 1884 to 1891.  It was as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1889 that he drafted a strong protective tariff in 1890 – the McKinley Tariff – that was passed by the house, with unexpected results:  Because consumer prices skyrocketed under this Tariff, the angry voters rejected McKinley (and many other Republicans) in the 1890 elections. 

Returning home to Ohio, McKinley – though stunned by his defeat in his race for reelection to the House, ran for Governor of Ohio in 1891.  He won by a narrow margin, a tribute to the people’s respect for his morality and honesty.  He would go on to be reelected in 1894, despite the economic depression of 1893 – and partially because he, too, had been hard hit by the depression.  He had co-signed with a businessman who went bankrupt, and was responsible for the unpaid debt.  Basically, it took all of the McKinley money to pay off his friend’s debt, leaving the McKinley family in the same financial straits as many of their constituents.

As governor, he often supported labor rights during an era when many politicians refused to acknowledge that labor had any rights.  But, he also would use force when labor crossed the line and grew violent during a strike.

By 1896 McKinley was being seriously considered as the Republican candidate for the Presidency.  He had been a successful congressman, was governor of a crucial ‘swing’ state in elections, and was very popular with the voters.  He friend and advisor, businessman Mark Hanna, began a process of advocating McKinley with the Republican leadership so effectively that when the Republican convention was held in St. Louis, McKinley won the nomination on the first ballot.  His opponent: Democrat William Jennings Bryan. 

McKinley would run a ‘front-porch’ campaign.  Realizing that Bryan was an excellent orator that he could not hope to beat in a debate, McKinley decided to stay at home tending to the needs of his wife, and speaking from his porch to various groups that would visit him at his home in Canton, Ohio.  While Bryan went to see the people, the people came to see McKinley.

The 1896 election saw McKinley win by a clear majority.  The same story would be repeated in the 1900 election.

McKinley would follow conservative, protectionist policies at home during his administration, and benefited from the nation’s recovery from the Panic of 1893.  However, he is remembered more for his foreign involvement than for his domestic programs – despite the fact that during his 1897 inaugural address he said:
"We want no wars of conquest. We must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression."

However, a war of conquest did occur – with the SpanishAmerican War of 1898.  In defeating Spain, the Americans became an imperialistic power, gaining naval bases in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.  The Americans soon became embroiled in an intense Imperialism/Anti-Imperialism debate that would continue into the next century.  With the Spanish American War, the United States was no longer just a continental power – the country had far-flung interests and a developing world-wide trade network for the products produced by its burgeoning industry.

Under McKinley the US promoted the Open Door policy for opening up trade ports and opportunities in China for the US, and sent US troops to assist an international force in putting down the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900.  He also sought to begin a canal across Central America linking the Caribbean with the Pacific.

At home, McKinley dealt with the major economic issues of the day: establishing tariff rates to protect American industry; and ending bimetallism by signing the Gold Standard Act of 1900 – making gold the only standard for redeeming paper money became the dominant domestic focus.

In September 1901 McKinley was visiting the Pan-AmericanExposition in Buffalo, New York, promoting American innovation and industry – and what he had hoped would be the cornerstone of his second administration – trade reciprocity between America’s trading markets around the world. 

On September 6th McKinley was shaking hands with a crowd of well-wishers when anarchist Leon Czolgosz took his turn in line and, when he was next to the President, pulled the trigger of a gun he had hidden in his hand with a large bandage.  McKinley was wounded, and it was hopeful that he would recover. However, he suffered a relapse and, on September 14, 1901, he passed away.  Czolgosz was later tried and executed.

The nation mourned McKinley’s death, and he was eventually interred in a massive mausoleum honoring him in Canton, Ohio.  His wife, Ida, who survived him by 6 years, was also interred there, as are the remains of his two infant daughters.

And so a new century was heralded with violence… and would become the century of violence.  McKinley was honored by the people of the day, although he is often forgotten – and underrated - in today’s world.   



19-Year Old Sgt. William McKinley, Giles County HistoricalSociety 

McKinley Monument at Antietam Battlefield, National ParkService  

Mrs. William Mckinley, Vassar Project

1896 Presidential portrait of William McKinley, Wikipedia

1900 McKinley Campaign Poster, Atlantic Monthly

Assassination of McKinley, Culture Magazine