27 June: Two finales, two transitions, for Jack Benny

Benny knew how to handle unexpected transitions. (Photo: NBC.)

Benny knew how to handle unexpected transitions. (Photo: NBC.)

A pair of season enders eleven years apart tonight, shows Jack Benny in two different kinds of transition.

The 1936-37 season has been a transitional one for Benny as it was. The good news is that he was joined by Phil Harris at the season’s beginning and Eddie Anderson as the irrepressible Rochester near season’s end. The bad news is that he lost his main writer, Harry Conn, before the season began. Conn—who later sues Benny but settles out of court—came to believe he was the number one reason for Benny’s radio success and made contract demands accordingly. The net result was Conn’s head on a plate.

Benny has used a transitional team of writers headed by the ill-fated Al Boasberg (who died at 44 over a week before tonight’s season-ender), until bringing aboard Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin. It’s Morrow and Beloin who will round the Benny show into the shape by which it becomes most familiar, handing it off in due course to the George Balzar-Milt Josefsberg-Sam Perrin-John Tackaberry team that finishes the job and stays the course with Benny for most of the rest of his broadcasting career.

Whatever the tribulations, 1936-37 proves a banner one for the comedian afterall. NBC has also moved him from its (shall we say) lesser Blue Network to its flagship Red Network, and sponsor General Foods (for Jell-O dessert) has kicked in with NBC to provide a whopping $390,000 per season production contract. (In 2015 dollars, that will be $6.74 million, folks.)

The payoff: the number one show in radio on Sunday nights and for the season overall, leaving Eddie Cantor (number two on the night and season alike) behind by 5.9 Hooper rating points. Jack Benny was rarely a man who let things like network transitions and staff changes get too far in the way, though his future success will also demonstrate how right he will be to prize continuity as best as he can have it.

Fast forward to 1947-48. Benny is looking ahead to what proves a bitter resolution to his coming contract renewal talks with NBC. (The resolution becomes, of course, his decision to move to CBS starting in calendar 1949.)

Meanwhile, Sunday night (which Gloria DeMarco, one of the singing sisters gracing Fred Allen’s exercise, would remember as “the single best night in radio”) has become an NBC slugfest between Allen, Benny, his former sidekick Phil Harris, and Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, not to mention two other NBC entries (Manhattan Merry-Go-Round and Take It or Leave It moving on from Phil Baker and over from CBS), three from CBS (Blondie, The Adventures of Sam Spade, and Meet Corliss Archer), and Walter Winchell on ABC.

The final score in June 1948: NBC owns the top four Sunday night ratings, with Bergen & McCarthy beating out Fred Allen by 0.4 rating points for first place and Allen beating out The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show by 0.2 rating points. Jack Benny was behind his former sidekick by a mere 0.2 points.

But from 7:00 p.m. through 9:00 pm, running (in order) The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, The Charlie McCarthy Show, and The Fred Allen Show, NBC’s laughmeisters owned the evening. Blondie managed an 18.1 rating against Harris and Faye, Spade managed a 17.1 against Bergen & McCarthy. Otherwise, those first two prime time hours are an NBC wipeout.

The bad news was that NBC’s Sunday night powerhouses still took back seats on the season overall to CBS’s venerable Lux Radio Theater (a 31.2 rating, continuing its Monday night dominance) and NBC’s own longtime homespun humourists Fibber McGee & Molly (a 26.1), not to mention the aging but still popular Amos ‘n’ Andy (24.1, preceding the McGees on Tuesdays).

And it would get a little worse for NBC the following season, after it insults Benny right into moving to CBS—and taking number one on Sunday night with him.


The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: Last Show of the Season (comedy; NBC, 1937)

Jack and the cast have a few amusements recalling the season about to end; the cast discusses summer vacation plans; Benny decides to chuck the script, letting Mary sing “The Love Bug” and meeting former show bandleader Johnny Greene. Fun way to end a season.

Cast: Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Kenny Baker, Andy Devine. Announcer: Don Wilson. Music: Mahlon Merrick, Phil Harris Orchestra. Writers: Ed Beloin, Bill Morrow.


The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny: Last Show of the Season—From New York (comedy; NBC, 1948)

Don (Wilson) and Jack (Benny) ruminate on New York cab drivers’ courtesies; the cast reviews the Joe Louis-Jersey Joe Walcott rematch; and, Fred Allen makes a guest shot announcing Benny’s forthcoming appearance on his own season finale.

Cast: Mary Livingstone, Eddie Anderson, Dennis Day, Phil Harris. Mr. Kissem: Mel Blanc. Announcer: Don Wilson. Music: Mahlon Merrick, Phil Harris Orchestra. Writers: George Balzar, Milt Josefsberg, Sam Perrin, John Tackaberry.


Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Great Gildersleeve: Gildy’s Wedding (comedy; NBC, 1943)
Duffy’s Tavern: Archie Wants to Go on Ransom Sherman’s Radio Show (comedy; Blue Network, AFRS rebroadcast, 1944)
The Green Hornet: Birds of a Feather (crime drama; Blue Network, 1944)
Vic & Sade: Uncle Fletcher Gets a Job (comedy; NBC, 1944)
Suspense: Return Trip (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1946)
The Fred Allen Show: Cease the Melody (comedy; NBC, 1948)
Broadway is My Beat: The Sophie Brettin Murder Case (crime drama; CBS, 1953)
Gunsmoke: Flashback (western; CBS, 1953)

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