jack-benny-programOn this day in 1950, popular radio personality Jack Benny moves to television with The Jack Benny Show. The TV version of the show ran for the next 15 years. Jack Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky in 1894. His father, a Lithuanian immigrant, ran a saloon in Waukegan, Illinois, near Chicago. Benny began playing violin at age six and continued through high school. He began touring on the vaudeville circuit in 1917. In 1918, he joined the navy and was assigned to entertain the troops with his music but soon discovered a flair for comedy as well. After World War I, Benny returned to vaudeville as a comedian and became a top act in the 1920s. In 1927, he married an actress named Sadye Marks; the couple stayed together until Benny’s death in 1974. Benny’s success in vaudeville soon won him attention from Hollywood, where he made his film debut in Hollywood Revue of 1929. Over the years, he won larger roles, notably in Charley’s Aunt (1941) and To Be or Not to Be (1942). Movies were only a sideline for Benny, though, who found his natural medium in radio in 1932.

In March 1932, then-newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan, dabbling in radio, asked Benny to do an on-air interview. Benny reluctantly agreed. His comedy, though, was so successful that Benny was offered his own show almost immediately, which debuted just a few months later. At first a mostly musical show with a few minutes of Benny’s comedy during interludes, the show evolved to become mostly comedy, incorporating well-developed skits and regular characters. In many of these skits, Benny portrayed himself as a vain egomaniac and notorious pinchpenny who refused to replace his (very noisy) antique car and who kept his money in a closely guarded vault. His regulars included his wife, whose character, Mary Livingstone, deflated Benny’s ego at every opportunity; Mel Blanc, who used his famous voice to play Benny’s noisy car, his exasperated French violin teacher, and other characters; and Eddie Andersen, one of radio’s first African American stars, who played Benny’s long-suffering valet, Rochester Van Jones. The program ran until 1955. In the 1950s, Benny began experimenting with television, making specials in 1950, 1951, and 1952. Starting in 1952, The Jack Benny Show aired regularly, at first once every four weeks, then every other week, then finally every week from 1960 to 1965. Benny was as big a hit on TV as on the radio. Despite the stingy skinflint image he cultivated on the air, Benny was known for his generosity and modesty in real life. He died of cancer in Beverly Hills in 1974.


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