It might be difficult for a 21st Century fan to believe, if clinging strictly to the general image of the man, but Jack Benny thinks he’s in radio trouble by the 1945-46 season: his Hooper rating has dipped a cumulative 35 percent since 1941, culminating in a tenth-place finish for 1944-45, his lowest rating in a decade.
The good news is that, for all that steady slippage, Benny still has never finished a season shy of a 20 rating. Regardless, the comedian entered the season bent on keeping that bottom line at minimum and getting back near the top of the beanhill at maximum.
It took a flip in his on-air persona to being it off: Everyone’s favourite cheapskate decided he’d open his (subterranean, if not 20,000 leagues beneath the surface of the earth) vault, withdraw a cool (for 1945, that is) ten large, and award savings bonds to listeners who could come up with the best finishes to the opening, “I can’t stand Jack Benny because . . .”
Jim Harsburg in Network Radio Ratings 1932-1953 would record that the contest lured over 270,000 responses; John Dunning in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio would put it at over 300,000. The judges included Goodman Ace (the brains behind Easy Aces and—in due course, though it would be years before it becomes common knowledge—You Are There), Peter Lorre, and (perhaps it figures) Fred Allen. (I am the greatest living authority on Jack Benny. I have seen him reach for his pocketbook. No other living American can make that statement.)
The stunt works like a charm, right up to tonight’s end. Benny will finish the season second only to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on Sunday night, his 21.3 just behind Bergen-McCarthy’s 22.4. It will also be good enough to land Benny in the seasonal top ten and a seventh place finish.
Ironically, Fred Allen—who’s returned to network radio after a year’s health-imposed sabbatical (some sabbatical: he took a little time to co-write and co-star in It’s in the Bag! . . . with Benny)—would also finish the season with his best rating in eleven years. Allen’s 21.1 nestled him in a tight third place on Sunday nights, a sliver behind Benny, and in a tight eighth place overall on the season.
He might benefit from a powerful Bergen-McCarthy lead-in (they air at 8:00 pm EST; Allen, at 8:30), but Allen’s finish will prove the first of a remarkable three consecutive Top Ten seasons for him, and he’ll have the extra sweetness of his best-remembered Allen’s Alley players (Kenny Delmar as Sen. Claghorn, Parker Fennelly as Titus Moody, Minerva Pious as Mrs. Nussbaum, and either Alan Reed as Falstaff Openshaw or Peter Donald as Ajax Cassidy) helping make it happen.
In fact, NBC’s powerhouse quarter from 7:00 pm-9:00 PM—Benny, The Fitch Bandwagon (still a music variety show but soon to become the launching pad for Benny cast fixture Phil Harris and his wife Alice Faye), Bergen-McCarthy, and Allen—will dominate Sunday night this season, all four finishing top ten on the night with only The Fitch Bandwagon pulling up with a Hooper rating below 20.
Those will prove to be only some of the reasons why Gloria DeMarco—one of the Five DeMarco Sisters whose tight five-part harmonies become a staple of the Allen show for the rest of its life—would remember, years after network radio’s demise, that Sunday night was the best night of the week on radio.
Tonight, at the contest’s end, the entries rather amaze the wry protagonist while amusing his companions, including Mary’s (Livingstone) parrot, whom Benny tries to teach to say “Happy New Year,” and barely comes out of it alive.
You might believe Benny’s ratings slip wasn’t destined to last very long, anyway, but who is Benny to argue with success, especially at his own expense, which is what composes two thirds of his radio premise in the first place?
Rochester: Eddie Anderson. Themselves: Dennis Day, Phil Harris. Announcer: Don Wilson. Music: Phil Harris Orchestra, Dennis Day. Writers: George Balzar, Sam Perrin, Milt Josefsberg, John Tackaberry.
On the eve of his appearance on Information, Please, Fred (Allen) recalls dinner with Leave Her to Heaven director Gregory Ratoff, also to be on the panel, discussing typical Russian dinners and what happened when the pair got to pondering Russian radio—and whether American radio would be a novelty there, including how Walter Winchell might adapt his notorious commentaries and gossip to a Russian audience, and a Russian radio serial, “Just Plain Mischa.”
Also: The Allen’s Alley demimonde (Parker Fennelly, Minerva Pious) ponder New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s pending return to private life. (The surviving recording edits out Kenny Delmar’s Sen. Claghorn and Alan Reed’s Falstaff Openshaw.)
Clearly enough (if you don’t count the muddy surviving recording) Allen is on a fresh roll. Surprise: the Armed Forces Radio Service cuts after the Allen show to a remote with Duke Ellington.
Announcer: Kenny Delmar. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the Five DeMarco Sisters. Writers: Fred Allen, Nat Hiken, possibly Robert Schiller, possibly Robert Weiskopf.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Fibber McGee & Molly: New Year’s Celebration (comedy; NBC, 1935)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fix-It McGee (comedy; NBC, 1941)
The Whistler: Murder on Rourke Island (crime drama; CBS, 1946)
Fibber McGee & Molly: The Ten-Dollar Gift Certificate (comedy; NBC, 1947)
Sealtest Variety Theater: New Year’s Eve (variety; NBC, 1948)
The Henry Morgan Show: New Year’s Eve Show (NBC, 1949)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Revives His Vaudeville Act (comedy; NBC, 1953)
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: The Forbes Matter (crime drama; conclusion; CBS, 1955)
Gunsmoke: Hound Dog (Western; CBS; Armed Forces Radio and Television Service rebroadcast, 1956)