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by William H. Benson

February 13, 2003

      “I was seventeen years old the first time I saw Jack,” Johnny Carson said.  “I hitchhiked to California, and went to see one of his radio show tapings at CBS.  I was fresh out of high school, and about to go into the service.  But first, I wanted to see Hollywood–and Jack Benny.”

     Born Benjamin Kubelsky on February 13, 1894 to recent Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, Jack grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, just north of Chicago along Lake Michigan.  At age six his parents gave him a violin, and although he hated the long hours of practice, he had some talent.

     He dropped out of high school his sophmore year, and at age eighteen he took to the vaudeville circuit with his violin, never looking back.  Eventually he began to work jokes in with his violin playing, and his career steadily progressed through the years as a standup comic, then on to radio and  television, into the movies, and even performing in Las Vegas.  All of America loved Jack Benny for all of his thirty-nine years.

      Even President Kennedy said that when he wanted to relax he watched Jack Benny.

      For fifteen years Jack had his own television show, and a steady stream of guests showed up to enjoy Jack’s zany style of comedy.  Marilyn Monroe appeared only once as a special guest on a television show ever and that was in 1953 on Jack’s show.  Rod Serling from Twilight Zone, Ann-Margaret, Jimmy Stewart, Bobby Darrin, and even Billy Graham came on as Jack’s guests.

     And then there was the night that a young Carol Burnett played the part of Jane while Jack played an over-the-hill Tarzan.  Instead of swinging through the jungle on a grape vine, he was confined to a porch swing.  At one point Jane told Tarzan, the King of the Jungle, to yell, and out came a pathetic whimper.  So Carol Burnett playing the part of Jane cut loose with her famous Tarzan yell, startling Jack and the audience, and she has done that yell hundreds of times since. 

     Jack’s comedy was a combination of gags, jokes, and actions that blended together.  There was the violin, the stingy jokes, the idea that he was forever thirty-nine, and his petulant outcry–“Now cut that out!”.  Even his walk seemed funny.  Then there was the way he would hold up a hand and gently slap his face in a moment of astonishment.

     But what brought out the biggest laughs was the Look, that moment when the joke was on him and he realized it; he would then stare blank-faced into the camera and out into the audience.  Now on paper the Look does not sound funny, but the way he did it made it funny.

     In 1959 Jack called former President Truman and asked him to appear on his show, and Truman agreed.  Not even a former President could say “No” to Jack Benny.  Actually, Jack took his show and his cameramen to Kansas City where he toured Truman’s Presidential Library, and Harry was a most gracious host.  And Jack was most dignified.

     Then, just before the close of the show the two of them went back to Harry’s office, and Harry instructed his secretary not to disturb them.  Then, Jack and Harry closed the door behind them, but then the secretary walked over and opened it slightly so that the audience could hear off camera what they were doing–playing music.  Harry was on the piano, and Jack had his violin.  Together they were playing a  duet–Tea for Two.

     As a fund-raiser Jack enjoyed playing his violin with symphonies and orchestras across the nation.  He would begin the performance by walking out with his violin and tell a few jokes and get the audience on his side.  Then, when it was time to play the music he would look around and realize that he had forgotten his bow.  And then there was the dumbfounded Look, and the audience would roar.


     Jack Benny’s birthday is Thursday, February 13th, and he would have been thirty-nine plus seventy.  Valentine’s Day is Friday, and President’s Day is next Monday.  They all just seem to go together.  Jack Benny, the lighthearted loveable court jester, could get all of America laughing and then reach over, pick up his violin and bow, and play Tea for Two with a former President.