26 December: Jumpin’ Jack’s flash


Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone reherse, March 1948. The year would prove to be a turning point in Benny's long radio career. (Photo: NBC.)

Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone reherse, March 1948. The year would prove to be a turning point in Benny’s long radio career. (Photo: NBC.)

Saying farewell to the network that’s been his radio home since 1932 isn’t exactly easy for Jack Benny, no matter how gracious he is about it publicly. But considering how frequently shows changed networks previously, and often as not at their sponsors’ behest, Benny’s pending jump is a very big deal, indeed.

For one thing, Benny’s sense of loyalty is only one of radio’s worst kept secrets. Until now, his image included the thought that he’d rather slit his own throat than change networks, considering the fortunes he’s been making for NBC as well as for himself.

It takes nothing short of abject disaster or deep betrayal to shake Benny, the word seems to have been. With Jack Benny, once you were in, you were in, wherever your paths took you in the future. If he was your friend, he was your friend for life. His purse—contrary to his radio character as a vain skinflint—was just about yours, too; there was almost no more thoughtful or generous being in the business this side of Fred Allen, who was known among his friends as a man who’d give anyone a handout at a moment’s notice.

Unfortunately for one and all, betrayal is just what NBC committed during negotiations for a new deal with Benny during 1948.

Benny probably could have found a way to deal with NBC’s refusal to deal through his production company, Amusement Enterprises, a company Benny established partially to produce other programming and partially to ease the tax burden under which he and numerous high-earning Americans—even well past World War II, the reason for the tax burden in the first place—paid as high as 90 percent a year on annual earnings over $70,000.

What cut Benny to his soul, however, was who turned up on NBC’s side of the negotiations: one Jack Cahill, once upon a time the prosecutor in what amounted to a kind of show trial involving Benny and George Burns as co-defendants a decade earlier.

The root of the case was a trip to Europe on which Benny and Burns took their wives/co-stars, Mary Livingstone and Gracie Allen. While there, Benny and Burns bought their ladies some choice jewelry. Seeking to get it into the United States without paying a small fortune in duties, the two comedians happened to meet a man who convinced them he could get the jewels to the States by way of diplomatic channels.

Unfortunately, the man turned out not to be any kind of diplomatic attache but a plain old con artist, and Benny and Burns ended up having to answer to smuggling charges. Clearly, the two men were duped. But throughout the ensuing trial Cahill treated Benny like a common criminal, dressing him down at any opportunity given, acting as though he were more interested in humiliating and punishing the hapless comedian than resolving a case that amounted to nothing worse than a guy falling for a con.

Cahill’s over-aggressive prosecution amounted to little enough in the end. Benny and Burns escaped with nothing worse than fines to pay. But the experience burned Benny deeply, and he would never forget it. Following the discomfiting trial, Cahill went into corporate private practise, and his client list came to include NBC’s parent RCA.

By the time the Benny contract negotiations approached in 1948, NBC had also taken the apparent attitude that listeners tuned in because it was NBC . . . at least, until whisperings began reaching NBC ears that CBS chieftain Bill Paley had eyes for their star. Paley had the opposite attitude of NBC: he believed people would listen to what they liked no matter where it roosted. He may have had some of the nation’s most popular dramas, but he knew in his heart that Lux Radio Theater, to name his single biggest of those hits, would have been a hit regardless of who aired the show.

What Paley didn’t yet have was a comedy presence as powerful as NBC’s stable of laugh-getters. He had some promising newcomers about to take flight, particularly Our Miss Brooks, but he needed something established to plow the field for Eve Arden’s hit-to-be and others. He’d already lured Amos ‘n’ Andy over the bridge from NBC by dealing with them as a product—masterminds Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll owned both the show itself and the characters—and buying the property for $2 million that was subject to the far lower 25 percent capital gains tax, plus hiring Gosden and Correll as technical advisors . . . to their own show.

But Paley needed a little bit more. NBC was going to make sure he got it, too. Because guess who turned up on NBC’s side of the Benny bargaining table: Jack Cahill. Jack Benny probably wanted to explode. He never forgot Cahill’s humiliating treatment of him in court all those years ago, and for all his renowned loyalty Benny probably figured right then and there that NBC was about as loyal to him as Vidkun Quisling was to Norway.

Paley had another trump card, though he may not have known it at the time: As much as Benny meant to NBC for all those years, the network’s emperor David Sarnoff had never met Benny and never seemed to want to. Sarnoff wasn’t exactly fabled for mixing and mingling with the stars who made his network’s name. Paley was the opposite; he rarely missed chances to meet, greet, and even hang with many of his CBS stars. Meld that to Paley’s belief that people liked what they liked regardless of the offering network—a belief Benny shared—and throw in that Benny and Paley were friends already.

Benny was going to jump to CBS no matter what. Even if it would cost him three times in taxes what a capital gains deal might. (Benny’s issue there: he played himself on his show. The fine line between Jack Benny the person and Jack Benny the character and the program would need a Supreme Court ruling to resolve in due course—and it would go in Benny’s and Amusement Enterprises’ favour, finally. But that’s getting ahead of things here.)

The question now became how badly Paley wanted his friend on his network. The answer proved to be Paley’s daring indemnification of CBS and the American Tobacco Company (sponsoring Benny for Lucky Strike), agreeing to pay the differences if Benny’s rating on CBS should drop under his best NBC rating over the prior twelve months. The indemnification Paley agreed to pay American Tobacco: $1,000 per point for every lost rating point. If Benny tanked on CBS, Paley stood to lose millions.

As Benny’s final night on NBC arrives, one and all involved are throwing some very expensive dice on the entire CBS proposition. NBC is willing to gamble that it’ll survive big enough without Benny. CBS, obviously, is gambling that Benny will bring his audience over the bridge with him. On paper, though, it might look at first as though NBC has the stronger argument.

In a 1947-48 during which NBC had the top four Sunday night radio programs and six of the top ten, The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny finished fourth in a very tight race. The Charlie McCarthy Show (22.7), The Fred Allen Show (22.3), and (neat irony, this) a Benny spinoff, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (22.1) finished ahead of him, even if the spread between them was pretty slender. CBS had only three top ten shows on the night and none of them got anywhere near NBC’s big four.

That was also a season that turned out to have been the single most listened-to in the history of network radio. After four years of “trickling decline,” as Jim Harburg would come to describe it (in Network Radio Ratings, 1932-1953), the overall seasonal rating average made a fat 23 percent jump, in a season during which the number of American homes with radios hit 35.9 million, 1.90 million more than in 1946-47.

Harburg would argue two reasons for the jump: A.C. Nielsen introduced its “Audimeter” methodology of gauging listenership, which turned out to be more generous than Hooper’s telephone polling; and, the Baby Boom:

By January 1948 nearly eleven million babies had been born in the U.S. since the end of World War II. The young parents of these infants were staying at home in droves to tend their young.

While radio ratings boomed, movie attendance bombed.

Movie ticket sales deopped ten percent in 1947, down nearly half a billion tickets. It’s no coincidence that Network Radio’s greatest ratings gains were scored on Friday and Saturday—the traditional “nights out” for singles and young couples.

Most of those stay-at-homes were listening to their radios—and hearing the first commercials about the new phenomenon in home entertainment that was still on the far horizon for most of America, television.

Thus the background against which Jack Benny is about to jump to CBS. How that works is next week’s subject. But just a year after CBS picked Amos ‘n’ Andy off NBC, launching what would become known as the Great CBS Talent Raid, the news that Benny’s jumping is already the talk of the industry. First, however, there’s the little matter of Benny’s farewell to NBC.

The Jack Benny Program: The Last Show for NBC (NBC, 1948)

Benny flips a table and introduces Don Wilson for a change, paying homage to Fame picking Wilson as the outstanding radio announcer of 1948.

Also: The cast talks about their Christmas gifts and cheer, Benny prepares for a hot date, and—characteristically, no matter how it came down to this in the first place—he delivers a gracious personal farewell to NBC, even if it’s preceded by a cute joke.

If you didn’t know the backstory, you’d swear it was business as usual on the Benny show right up to the moment when he gives that gracious farewell.

Cast: Mary Livingstone, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, Eddie Anderson. Mabel and Gertrude: Sara Berner, Bea Benaderet. Announcer: Don Wilson. Music: Mahlon Merrick, Phil Harris, the Sports Men. Writers: George Balzer, Milt Josefsberg, Sam Perrin, John Tackaberry.

Further Channel Surfing . . .

Fibber McGee & Molly: Butler Gildersleeve (comedy; NBC, 1939)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Controls His Temper (comedy; NBC, 1944)
The Adventures of Philip Marlowe: The Old Acquaintance (crime drama; CBS, 1948)
The Fred Allen Show: The Maine Murder Trial (comedy; NBC; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1948)
Let George Do It: Snow Bird (crime drama; Mutual, 1949)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Shoveling Snow (comedy; NBC, 1950)
You Bet Your Life: The Secret Word is “Paper” (quiz comedy; NBC, 1951)
Fibber McGee & Molly: A Belated Gift to Doc (comedy; NBC, 1954)

This entry was posted in classic radio, comedy, old-time radio and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.