Benjamin Kubelsky (February 14, 1894 - December 26, 1974), better known as Jack Benny, was a comedian, vaudeville performer, film actor, and one of the most prominent early stars of American radio and television. Often cited for his impeccable comic timing, Benny was an influential innovator, a major architect of the form of standup comedy and situation comedy.
Kubelsky grew up in Chicago and Waukegan, Illinois. He began studying the violin, an instrument that would become his trademark, when he was six. By fourteen he was playing in local dance bands, as well as in his high school orchestra, until he failed school and left for a career in vaudeville. In 1911, he was playing in the same theater as the young Marx Brothers, whose mother was so enchanted with Benny that she invited him to be their permanent accompanist. The plan was foiled by Benny's parents, who refused to let their son, then seventeen, go on the road, but it was the beginning of his long friendship with Zeppo Marx.
The following year, Benny formed a vaudeville musical duo with pianist Cora Salisbury. This provoked famous violinist Jan Kubelik, who thought that the young vaudeville entertainer with a similar name (Kubelsky) would damage his reputation. Finally, Bejamin Kubelsky agreed to change his name to Ben K. Benny (sometimes spelled Bennie). He also found a new pianist, Lyman Wood. He left show business briefly in 1917 to join the Navy during World War I, but even then, he often entertained the troops. One evening, he was booed by the troops, so he began telling Navy jokes on stage. He was a big hit, earning himself a reputation as a comedian as well as a musician.
After the war, Benny returned to vaudeville and changed his first name to Jack. He had several romantic encounters, including with a dancer, Mary Kelly, whose devoutly Catholic family forced her to turn down Benny's proposal because he was Jewish. In 1922, he accompanied Zeppo Marx to a Passover seder in Vancouver, where he met Sadie Marks, whom he eventually married in 1927. As Mary Livingstone, she was his collaborator throughout much of his career.
A minor vaudeville star, Benny became an enormously successful national figure with The Jack Benny Program, a weekly radio show which ran from 1932 to 1955, and was consistantly among the most highly-rated programs during most of that run. Benny's program centered around the character of "Jack Benny," a fictional version of Benny who was a successful comedian and who also displayed a virtual encyclopedia of human failings: the Benny character was cheap, petty and vain, and the program introduced a stable of colorful characters who made Benny their foil. Staples on the show were Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, who played Benny's African-American valet, "Rochester," and who became nearly as popular as Benny himself; rotund announcer Don Wilson, the butt of endless "fat" jokes; Mary Livingstone, Benny's real-life wife who played his wisecracking lady friend on the show; bandleader Phil Harris, whose tales of drinking and womanizing were risqúe for the time; and tenor Dennis Day, portraying a young fool whose double-entendres coyly suggest homosexuality. Other cast members included Frank Nelson, the remarkably versatile Mel Blanc, and many of Benny's celebrity friends, including Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles, James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, Bing Crosby and many others. Ronald Colman and his wife Benita appeared frequently in the 1940s as Benny's neighbors. Benny was also notable for employing a small group of writers, most of whom stayed with him for many years, in contrast to other radio or television comedians, such as Bob Hope, who would change writers frequently. Though not credited, historical accounts (like those by longtime writer Milt Josephson) indicate that Benny's role that was essentially that of both head writer and director of his radio programs.
In 1937 Benny began his famous radio "feud" with rival comedian Fred Allen, who complained about the way Benny played violin. In fact, the two of them were really close friends. A typical Benny and Allen episode, in this case on Fred's radio show, was a satire of "Queen for a Day" re-titled "King for a Day". In it, Allen plays host and eventually showers Benny with a ton of worthless prizes in honor of him being named King for a Day. The grand prize is a pants pressing from a local dry cleaning company. The hilarity builds as Jack's shirt is being taken off. Then, his pants are pulled off to the shock of the audience. The laughter was so loud and chaotic at the chain of events that Fred's announcer, Kenny Delmar, was cut off the air amidst the wild laughter while trying to read the credits...Fred's show had ran over-time yet again!
Famous for his carefully timed pauses, one of the most famous silences in radio came when Benny was accosted by a robber who demanded, "Your money or your life!" After an extended pause, the robber reiterated the threat. Benny, ever the cheapskate, replied, "I'm thinking it over!"
Benny also acted in movies, including the Academy Award-winning The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and notably, Charley's Aunt (1941) and To Be or Not to Be (1942). The failure of one Benny vehicle, The Horn Blows at Midnight, became a running gag on his program.
During his early radio show, Benny adopted "Love in Bloom" as his theme song, opening every show. The song later became the theme of his television show too.
Jack's sponsors were many: Canada Dry Ginger Ale: 1932-1933; Chevrolet: 1933-1934; General Tire: 1934; Jell-O from 1934-1942; Grape Nuts Flakes from 1942-1944; and finally Lucky Strike from 1944-1955. The commercials were incorporated into the body of the show; the sponsors were often the butt of jokes.
The Jack Benny Show ran on television from October 28, 1950 to 1965). Actually, during his first two years on TV, he appeared infrequently, then the next two years every fourth week. From 1955-1960 he appeared every other week and from 1960-1965 he was seen weekly. When Benny moved to television, he revealed that his verbal talent was matched by his assortment of facial expressions and physical gestures. The program was similar to the radio show—many radio scripts were recycled for TV—with the addition of visual gags.
CBS dropped him in 1964 and he went to NBC in the fall of '64 only to be out-rated by "Gomer Pyle, USMC" on CBS. NBC dropped his show at the end of the '64- '65 season, though he continued to make periodic TV specials into the 1970s.
Toward the end of his career, Benny returned to film, appearing in It's a Mad, Mad World in (1963). He also continued to perform live as a stand-up comedian. He was cast in the film of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, but he was forced to give up the role, when he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He died in 1974. He was interred in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.