Meyer and Emma Sachs Kubelsky became the proud parents of Benjamin Kubelsky on February14, 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.