28 January: War, peace, and Benny

Jack Benny entertaining troops in World War II, as he often did during summer hiatuses. (Photo: NBC.)

Jack Benny entertaining troops in World War II, as he often did during summer hiatuses. (Photo: NBC.)

Jack Benny doesn’t mind bringing his radio show to benefit stages, but he has a different view of making too many broadcasts live before audiences of American GIs, after doing several in the wake of friend Carole Lombard’s death. His wife and reluctant air partner Mary Livingstone (who never really will overcome her ferocious stage and mike fright) reveals in due course that Benny fears his show format, by now well enough structured, will be appreciated less by a military audience than looser formats such as Bob Hope’s.

Benny would do his radio shows from NBC’s Hollywood studios (and, in due course, CBS’s) but, at season’s end, he would spend his summer break touring military bases around the country, at his own expense, with special performances and several guest stars, and material tailored better to these military audiences than his regular program is.

As usual,” Mary Livingstone would marvel, “his instincts were right.” He will do few radio broadcasts on remote from military bases, but doing standard benefits—such as tonight’s for the March of Dimes—is something else entirely.

Like just about all classic network radio performers, Benny never let World War II fall too far from his or his listeners’ consciousnesses. B.J. Borsody, writing in “Benny’s War” (published as part of Well! Reflections on the Life and Career of Jack Benny), isolates the point:

As with other shows broadcast during the war years, Benny’s occasionally waved the patriotic flag, sometimes for the duration of an entire episode. The show, however, never crossed the delicate line between patriotism and crass cultural lampooning.

If he wasn’t quite as frequent a World War II radio flyer as, say, Fibber McGee & Molly, Jack Benny was no less a flag waver. (After the war, of course, you could tell simply by listening to his revamped opening, the orchestra segueing from “Love in Bloom” to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” without missing a step.) He simply couldn’t forget that his number one job—whether broadcasting as part of a benefit, or in front of a military audience, or from his regular studios—was taking his listeners’ minds off the war, or at least helping them to laugh in the face of such a grave venture, as best he could with what he had.

The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: Murder on the Bay Bridge (NBC, 1940)

Live from the Oakland Civic Auditorium: Jack (Benny) merely opens by telling the tale of how he and Rochester (Eddie Anderson) drove to Oakland in the Maxwell, including the eight-hour leg from Beverly Hills to Santa Barbara. Then, the cast (Anderson, Livingstone, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Phil Harris) performs a whodunit spoof straining not to favour either San Francisco or Oakland.

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

The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny: Live from Mitchell Field (NBC, 1945)

In one of the scattered broadcasts from military installations he does make (this the headquarters of the 1st Air Force), Jack (Benny) and Phil (Harris) suggests splitting the checks for their double date with Mary (Livingstone) and guest Ann Sheridan, who brings a friend along for a blind date—Mrs. Nussbaum (Minerva Pious), from Allen’s Alley, who thinks she’s Jack‘s date.

You were expecting maybe Hannahschewitz?

Announcer: Don Wilson. Music: Mahlon Merrick, Phil Harris Orchestra, Larry Stevens. Writers: George Balzar, Milt Josefsberg, Sam Perrin, John Tackaberry.

Further Channel Surfing . . .

Escape: Three Good Witnesses (adventure; CBS, 1948)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Waiting for a Bus (comedy; NBC, 1947)
A Day in the Life of Dennis Day: The Radio Show (comedy; NBC, 1948)
The Jack Benny Program: Guest—Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (comedy; CBS, 1951)
I Was a Communist for the FBI: A Study in Oils (crime drama; syndicated, 1953)
Father Knows Best: Trash Can Lids (comedy; NBC, 1954)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Going to See South Atlantic (comedy; NBC, 1954)

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