3 November: Benny’s big moment

Benny and Livingstone in a lighthearted moment; 1940 proved a big year for the comic couple. (Photo: NBC.)

Benny and Livingstone in a lighthearted moment; 1940 proves a big year for the comic couple. (Photo: NBC.)

In some ways, the 1940-41 season proves to be the first season of the rest of Jack Benny’s broadcasting life.

Oh, sure, Benny will finish the season at number one, both on Sunday nights and for the season as a whole. (His ’40-41 Hooper rating: 30.8, more than double the Sunday night average and a fraction short of double the whole-season average.) And he got a nice enough bump up from the success of bringing his on-again, off-again Western spoofs into the feature film hit Buck Benny Rides Again the previous summer.

But if it’s the victor to whom the spoils go, Jack Benny in 1940-41 will become a very spoiled young man. When came the late-season assurance that The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny will indeed finish number one, NBC will blow Benny and company to a huge black-tie bash paying tribute to his first ten years on network radio—a roast-like soiree featuring Rudy Valle as the sort-of roastmaster and Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Burns & Allen, Jim and Marian Jordan (a.k.a. Fibber McGee & Molly), and Georgie Jessel among the roasters.

It will be during that little block party that the perk of perks is dropped on the genial star: NBC adds a ten-year option onto Benny’s contract which gives Benny the ownership of the show and the freedom to sell it to the highest-bidding sponsor. Note the preceding phrasing, however: this isn’t exactly the same as selling it to the highest-bidding network. A distinction that will prove to have intriguing consequences for both NBC and Benny before the 1940s end.

In due course, Benny will learn the hard way that NBC has no taste for dealing with the production companies stars formed post-World War II, such as Benny’s Amusement Enterprises. (Those companies were formed, among other reasons, from the stars’ bids to keep more of their income when onerous World War II taxes—earners making $70,000 per year or higher faced income taxes as high as 90 percent—went unmodified immediately after the war.)

But he’ll determine something even more distasteful: NBC’s apparent corporate attitude that listeners tune into NBC because it is NBC, not because of the performers or programming it features. Those, of course, will marry to the bombshell NBC will drop on Benny in 1948, while negotiating a new contract with its number one radio star. NBC’s legal team will include the one-time judge who humiliated Benny in court over a nebulous smuggling charge in the late 1930s, going out of his way to dress the comedian down as a common crook at every actual or alleged opportunity.

The ultimate loyalist, Benny will take that as so craven a display of disloyalty that, when CBS’s Bill Paley comes a-calling, Benny will leave NBC and join CBS, sending the to-be-fabled CBS talent raids into overdrive and legend alike.

That, of course, is long enough in the future. For now, however, NBC and Jack Benny are the happiest and most profitable of radio marriages.

 

TUNE IN TODAY . . .

The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: Jack’s Halloween Party (NBC, 1940)

Jack (Benny) plans to be a hula girl for his Halloween soiree, amusing Mary (Livingstone) no end, while Dennis (Day) turns up as a sailor, Don (Wilson) turns up as a skeleton, Phil (Harris) turns up as an umpire, and Mary dons one of Jack’s old vaudeville costumes. It isn’t exactly one of the best shows in Benny’s long and distinguished career, but it has its moments.

Announcer: Don Wilson. Music: Mahlon Merrick, Phil Harris Orchestra. Writers: Ed Beloin, Bill Morrow.

Further Channel Surfing . . .

Comedy

A Date with Judy: High School Hot Licks Get a Job (ABC, 1949)—Louise Erickson, John Brown, Richard Crenna, Myra Marsh, Dix Davis, Fred Holland. Prodding reluctant Oogie to turn his raucous jazz band professional—just to get them out of the house, until Judy finds her candidate to sponsor them on radio. Oy! Writer: Aleen Leslie.

Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: Late Night with Hack (It’s on the tip of our tongue, 1959)—“After Hours” with Hack Park and an audience of conventioneers; Wally Ballou’s sketch title; a continuing interview with a visiting scientist on the alien ship; a home listener wins a visit from the Bob & Ray Trophy Train with ten cents off. Charming. Writers, we have it on less than reliable authority: Bob Elliott, Ray Goulding.

Crime Drama

Broadway is My Beat: The Laura Burton Murder Case (CBS, 1950)—Larry Thor, Jack Kruschen, Clayton Post, Betty Lou Gerson, Jody Gilbert, Lawrence Dobkin, Charles Calvert. A baby food fortune heiress found dead in a small waterfront hotel resembles a likewise-strangled girl found dead in an alley while the heiress’s husband, a former stevedore now the prime suspect, was in prison prior to their marriage. Stay with it. Writers: Morton Fine, David Friedkin.

Drama/Dramatic Anthology

Lux Radio Theater: A Woman’s Face (CBS, 1942)—The Joan Crawford film vehicle may sound a little more chilling in a radio adaptation: On trial for murder, Anna Holm flashes back to her life as an embittered blackmailer driven by her disfigurement until her condition is corrected and a harsh romantic choice looms. Soapish but engaging. Host: Cecil B. DeMille.

 

Fantasy

Quiet, Please: Take Me Out to the Graveyard (Mutual, 1947)—Ernest Chappell. A cab driver’s unnerved, little by little, by passengers dying in his cab—en route to visiting graveyards. You’d be unnerved, too. Writer/director: Wyllis Cooper.

 

Mystery/Thriller

The Clock: Wilbern (Series premiere; ABC, 1946)—Hart McGuire, Ozzie Winden, Lynne Murphy, Lloyd Burrell, Max Ryan, Richard Meekle, Alan Trevor, Albert Garcia. Modest Wilbern Cook is driven—by colleagues’ relentless gags about faithful wives turned dangerously unfaithful—to spy on and consider death for his faithful and tolerant wife . . . who does harbour a secret, though not the one he thinks. You could do worse than launch a series like this. Writer: Lawrence Klee.

 

World War II

Daytime Radio Newspaper: (CBS, 1943)—Bernadine Flynn. The Vic & Sade co-star anchors this program (sponsored by Vic & Sade sponsor Crisco) which highlights human interest stories amidst the peaks of World War II, from civilian infantry training in England to testing Naples’s electrical grid prior to ending its wartime blackout. Intriguing period piece. Headline news with Durward Kirby (yes, the future Candid Camera co-host) precedes.

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