He was famous for his use of silence. But for millions of Americans who grew up in the 1930s and 40s, the sound of a poorly played violin and rich voice coming from the radio was a most welcome refrain. President John F. Kennedy recalled that when he was a boy, his father ushered the whole family into their home library each Sunday night to listen to the show. Like so many others, they gathered around their radio set. “Hello again,” the familiar voice announced to audiences across the nation, “this is Jack Benny.”
Benjamin Kubelsky was born in Chicago to Jewish immigrants parents on Valentines Day in 1894. His mother, Emma Sachs, desperately wanted him to be a concert violinist. Benny said his father, a storekeeper named Meyer Kubelsky, gave him a violin in case he had musical talent, and a monkey wrench in case he didn’t. Benny never learned to sue the monkey wrench. A talented violinist, he quit school in the ninth grade to work on the stage, at a theater where he grew up in Waukegan, Illinois (which was also actor Jerry Orbach’s hometown). As high school dropout, Benny felt the lack of his formal education for the rest of his life.
Teenage Benny played violin in the orchestra pit in Waukegan and one day the Marx brother came to town. Their mother, Minnie, asked Benny if he would go on the road with the family. Benny desperately wanted to, but his parents said no way—he could leave home when he was eighteen but not a moment before.
So, wanting to take his performances to other theaters, when he was eighteen Benny joined up with a middle-aged widow who played piano named Cora Salisbury. And so it was that Ben K. Benny, as he was then known, formed his own musical vaudeville act and the pair toured local theaters.
In the course of a “Salisbury and Benny” performance, benny told his first onstage joke. The audience laughed. Thereupon his days as a serious musician ended, and his life as a comedian commenced.
But Benny did not forsake the violin; he included it squeaky violin parts in his act and used the instrument in his jokey bits. Years later, after playing the violin with the New York Philharmonic, Benny said it was “like being alone on a desert island with Zsa Zsa Gabor…and her boyfriend. You feel you’re not needed.”
By the end of World War One, Benny had established himself as a vaudeville headliner. After twenty years in vaudeville, he was ready to move to radio. He spoke his first words on air on the Ed Sullivan radio show on CBS in 1932. “Hello folks, this is Jack Benny,” he said. “There will now be a slight pause for everyone to say, ‘Who cares?’”
By the 1930s Benny had become the most popular performer on the radio. In one radio bit, Benny is playing a painfully out of tune violin. His teacher says he’s flat and should tighten the A string. You hear him tighten it. “Tighter,” the teacher says. He tightens it further, until it can take no more. “Oh darn it, the string’s broken,” Benny says. “Good,” the teacher replies, “that’s one down and three to go.”
“Whatever success I’ve enjoyed…it’s due to Ed Sullivan,” Benny said. “I’m really thankful to Ed.” Then he turns it into a bit. “But you wanna know something? He has never let me forget it. Now, I’ve been on this [Ed Sullivan] show at least a dozen times and I’ve yet to get paid. Every time I ask him for money he says, ‘Jack, look what I did for you. Without me you’d be nothing!’”
From radio he moved to TV. “The Jack Benny Program” was on television from 1950 to 1964. Thereafter he regularly appeared on screens as a guest star. He also acted in movies, of which his most famous performance was in Ernst Lubitsch’s brilliant “To Be or Not to Be,” a hilarious satire of Nazism released in 1942. Benny took his father to see the performance, only for Mr. Kubelsky to leave horrified on seeing his son dressed as a Nazi. Legend has it that Mr. Kubelsky only agreed to re-watch the film years later, after Benny convinced him it was mocking Nazis, and eventually adored it. It is now considered a classic of American cinema.
Famous for his timing, silences and pauses—the Sid Caesar of caesura—Benny also regularly riffed on his cheapness and inability to play violin (both of which were false). “I played a character that included all the faults and the frailties of mankind,” he once explained. “See every family had somebody like me. Either they had an uncle who was stingy or one who thought he was very sexy and he wasn’t. So every family has that kind of a person.”
Benny played the straight man to his cast members, whom he gave the jokes. He was generous in that way, and many others. “It has always been impossible to find a colleague, or even a former colleague, to speak ill of him,” the New York Times wrote in its obituary of Benny. It’s ironic that Benny was famous for portraying himself as cheap, for the real man was anything but. Known as one of the most generous men in show business, Benny would often perform benefits in support of orchestras and concert halls or travel the world to entertain US troops.
Yet this was one of his most famous radio bits, a guy is enjoying a walk on a dark night…
“Hey bud, bud” a voice calls out.
“Huh?” the man replies.
“You got a match?” the voice asks him.
“Yes, yes, I have one right here.”
“Don’t make a move this is a stick up.”
“Please sir put down that gun.”
“Shut up! I said this is a stick up. Now come on: your money or your life.”
“Look, bud,” the voice says increasingly angry. “I said your money or your life!”
The man replies: “I’m thinking it over!”
In 1927, Benny met Sadie Marks in the hosiery section of a department store. He fell in love. Taking the stage name of Mary Livingstone, she performed alongside her husband on the radio show. But she was a nervous performer and by the time the show transitioned to television, she no longer could perform. In 1934 the couple adopted a daughter, Joan. After he predeceased Mary, as she was know, Benny arranged for his widow to receive a red rose every day for the rest of her life.
Both Sadie and Jack Benny were Jewish and belonged to Hillcrest, the Jewish country club, although they were not religious. In a Canadian interview in 1962, Benny recounted how the entertainer Eddie Cantor, once asked Benny to fill in for him as host of an Israel bonds fundraiser. Taking over for his sick friend, Benny raised an unparalleled amount and then, legend has it, gave Cantor a blank check. “Write how much you want me to give to Israel bonds,” he said, which ended with him giving $25,000 to Israel bonds. In benefits for Israel bonds in Toronto and Atlanta, Benny raised what was then the staggering amount of $1.2 million. A very philanthropic man, among the recipients of his generosity was the young state of Israel.
Benny was a lifelong Democrat and friends with President Harry S. Truman, whose inaugurations he emceed. He was also friends with half of Hollywood, and best friends with George Burns. Burns, who, born Nathan Birnbaum, was called Natty, could always have Benny in stiches; Benny could never make Natty laugh. But he would constantly try.
When he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the prostate, his many famous friends visited him, among them Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, George Burns, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Danny Kaye and Johnny Carson, whose career Benny helped launch.
After Benny died of pancreatic cancer in 1974 at the age of 80 at home in Beverly Hills, Bob Hope said, “for once Jack Benny lost his perfect timing: he left us too soon.” But his daughter Joan said she disagreed. He left at the top. No one could disagree. Fittingly, the only response could be reverent silence.