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Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story.

Sure, there have been three previous Jack Benny biographies, as well as many magazine articles. But none answers the questions that George Burns asks in his foreword to Sunday Nights at Seven: What was it like growing up with a famous father? Was life in the Jack Benny household a barrel of laughs? What was Jack like out of the public eye when he let his hair down? ("That's where Jack and I were different," Burns writes. "He could let his hair down; I just took mine off.")

The questions could be answered, of course, by none other than Joan, the Bennys' only daughter. And she does it with a candor that, injected with Benny's own account of his "39"-year life span, promises vaudeville, early-radio, and TV buffs a most enjoyable experience.

Other biographies only took a shot at the real Jack benny - but there's no guesswork here. In going through Benny's effects, Joan discovered a strange bundle of papers that turned out to be a 400-page autobiography of the man who held American radio audiences enthralled for 23 years on Sunday nights at seven. The complete, fascinating, often hilarious record from struggling vaudeville performer to top TV entertainer was never published because Sadie Marks, his wife (who became Mary Livingstone), took offense at the inclusion of his former girlfriends.

At first look, Jack Benny did not lead the life that best-selling books are made of: no hardship, no tragic clown, no scandal, no drugs, no leap to stardom, no catastrophies, and only one wife. So what was left to make this the readable, pass-along volume it's sure to be? You'll find it in Joan's very special childhood, the memories and the anecdotes, the happiness and the humor, all skillfully blended with a stereoscopic view of family doings and undoings never before recorded.

Young Benjamin Kubelsky was not the stuff of which successful men are made. He hated school, he hated violin lessons, he didn't care for sports, and he thought courting girls was not worth the effort, as it required long walks. He was thus in "107th heaven" when school officials finally kicked him out of high school, his violin teacher gave up on him, and Waukegan Business College dumped him before he could say "double entry." As a last resort, his father took him into the haberdashery business. Benny hated that too.

As Benny recalled, one day a man came in and handed him a dollar. He thanked the man, who then left.

"What did you sell, Benny?" his Papa yelled out.

"Nothing - some man just came in and handed me a dollar on his account."

"So - what was his name?"

"Do you have to know their names?" Benny asked.

"Dear God," his father said, looking at the ceiling toward heaven. "Tell me, what did I do so terrible to deserve this?"

The one wish of Benny's mother, that he would become a concert violinist, looked hopeless. At age 17 he was playing in a theater pit orchestra for the handsome salary of $7.50 a week. When Arthur, Julius, Milton, and Leonard, billed as the Marks Brothers (later to become the Marx Brothers - Harpo, Groucho, Zeppo, and Chico), offered Benny $15 per to travel with them, the parents said no. Benny's mother wouldn't even come to see his "cheap fiddle act in vaudeville," because she thought show business was immoral.

As for the morals of vaudeville women, Benny's father left no doubt. "In front of Mama I can't tell you my honest opinion of such women. They paint their faces and smoke cigarettes and curse. Such things you wouldn't believe."

Even Benny's name would have a rough time.

Finally granted a trial period of three months in vaudeville, Benny went on the road playing his violin under his real name of Benjamin Kubelsky. Jan Kubelik, a concert pianist, threatened to sue unless Kubelsky changed his name. So Benny became Ben Benny. Later Ben Bernie, who was also doing a fiddle act, invited Ben Benny to choose another name or go to court. But why "Jack" Benny? It's an interesting account. You'll have to read it.

Jack's metamorphosis from fiddle player to comedian began during boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station (where he became Benjamin Kubelsky all over again). His development is credited to an Irishman later known in the movies as Pat O'Brien. You'll have to read that too.

Only Benny himself could do justice to his several "infatuations" before meeting Sadie Marks, a hosiery saleslady, whom he would marry "once and for all" - and who would become his radio partner as Mary Livingstone. And only Benny could unblushingly write of walking across the street to talk to Greer Garson, his secret love, and falling flat on his face after stepping on "the only mound of horse manure seen on Roxbury Drive in 50 years."

There is Jack Benny's movie contract at $1,000 a week, for which he didn't make movies. There are his Broadway successes at $1,500 a week. Then he learned that Sam 'n' Henry, a small-time vaudeville act at a top salary of $200 a week, were being paid $5,000 a week for a 15-minute radio show as Amos and Andy and ... well - you know Jack Benny.

For his radio debut on Ed Sullivan's gossip and interview radio program, however, Benny wasn't paid penny one. His five-minute spiel began: "This is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight, pause while you say, |Who cares?'"

One listener who did care turned out to be the president of the agency representing Canada Dry Ginger Ale. Jack Benny was off and running.

Benny's claim that "everything good that happened to me happened by accident" could well be argued. His salvation of an endangered product called Jell-O can be credited to a talent whose radio show tuned in America Sunday nights at seven for all of 23 years.

Jack Benny's development from a $7.50-a-week fiddle player to an accomplished concert violinist (he performed at Carnegie Hall) came from practicing two to three hours a day on his $16,000 Stradivarius. He let the doors in the house - designed to shut out the sounds - slam where they may. Isaac Stern, the famed violinist, who once played with Benny during this time, afterward confided to Joan, "He didn't know the notes that well, but he played in the general vicinity."

In Benny's pages of the book, he regales us with his most hilarious radio and TV scripts. He goes behind the scenes in acquiring his old Maxwell car and meeting Eddie Anderson, who became Rochester, his butler. He records his running fictitious feud with fellow radio comedian Fred Allen, and even includes this devastating bit:

The mayor of Waukegan had declared a Jack Benny Day, named a junior high school after him, and planted a tree to be known as the Jack Benny tree. Three months later the tree died. "How can they expect a tree to live in Waukegan," Allen asked on his next radio program, "when the sap is in Hollywood?"

To know Jack Benny, you had to be there, as the saying goes. And Joan Benny certainly was. She gives us a daughter's-eye view of not one but two Jack Bennys - the world-famous comedian and violinist, and a doting father who couldn't say no, be it a powder blue Pontiac convertible; a red Christmas tree; or 80 young people, besides movie and vaudeville stars, at a birthday party.

"I lived a charmed, enchanted life," Joan Benny sums it up, "from those early Sunday nights at seven through a lifetime of love and laughter."

After the laughter ended, on December 27, 1974, Bob Hope said in his eulogy, "For a man who was the undisputed master of 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 80 years."

Joan disagrees. "He didn't get old or doddering, grow deaf or blind, or lose his memory. Not him. He went out a star."

After conquering American audiences on stage, radio, television, and the big screen, Benny had still been apprehensive about taking his show to England. How would he be received by these people of reserved humor?

Not to worry. Of the many enthusiastic reviews, one headline read: "Oh good, Mr. Benny, oh very good."

In reviewing Sunday Nights at Seven, can we say more?
COPYRIGHT 1990 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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