Hollywood Remains to Be Seen

Jack Benny
1894 - 1974

Hillside Memorial Park

Jack Benny remains one of America's best-known and best-loved comedians, and also remains eternally 39 years old.

Benny was born in Chicago, but grew up in the suburb of Waukegan, IL. When he started performing as a violinist in vaudeville under his real name, Benjamin Kubelsky, another violinist named Jan Kubelik asked him to change his name, to avoid confusion. So Benny changed his name to Ben Benny, until bandleader and violinist Ben Bernie asked him to change it again, for the same reason, and he became Jack Benny. In 1911, at the age of 17, Benny was playing the violin in the pit orchestra at a vaudeville theater in Waukegan, for $7.50 per week, when the Marx Brothers brought their act to town. The Marxes offered to double Benny's salary if he would travel with them, playing the violin and conducting the pit orchestra. Benny initially accepted the offer, but his parents wouldn't allow him to go.

Though Benny was actually a talented violinist, he added comedy to his act during a performance in front of a group of sailors while serving in the U.S. Navy. His audience wasn't too appreciative of classical music, so Benny ad-libbed a few jokes and, based on the response, he gradually replaced his music with comedy, even though he often used his violin as a comedy prop in his act, usually scratching out his theme song, "Love in Bloom." Benny also developed his image as a miserly penny-pincher from his early vaudeville act. One of Benny's favorite jokes was based on that reputation: A hold-up man approaches Benny, points a gun at him and demands, "Your money or your life." After a long pause, the hold-up man gets impatient. "C'mon, hurry up," he says. "I'm thinking it over," Benny replies. Despite his image, Benny was considered one of the most modest and generous men in show business.

While performing in vaudeville, Benny met Sadie Marks, and they were married in Waukegan in 1927. (Despite some reports to the contrary, Marks was not related to the Marx Brothers.) Benny continued his successful career in vaudeville. Before one performance, when his partner became ill, Benny persuaded his wife to fill in on stage, even though she had no performing experience. She played a character named Mary Livingstone, which she later changed to her legal name, and she became a permanent part of Benny's act.

After performing on Broadway and in a few films -- including "Chasing Rainbows" (1930), "The Medicine Man" (1930) and a handful of comedy shorts -- Benny made his radio debut on Ed Sullivan's show in New York City in March 1932. A few months later, he had his own show, and gradually added a supporting cast, including his wife, Mary; his valet, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson; bandleader Phil Harris; singer Dennis Day; announcer Don Wilson; and Mel Blanc as the "voice" of Benny's Maxwell automobile, among other characters. "The Jack Benny Show," with various sponsors over the years, was a Sunday night radio staple for an incredible 23 years, finally ending its long run in 1955.

Benny's guests on the show included just about every major Hollywood star, including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, George Jessel, Tony Curtis, James Stewart, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Ronald Coleman, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Red Skelton, Gene Kelly, Tyrone Power, Claudette Colbert, Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre, Ray Milland, Alan Ladd, Gary Cooper, Orson Welles, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. As a comedian, Benny was unique. With his ensemble cast and frequent guest stars, Benny usually played straight man, and let his fellow performers get the biggest laughs.

While performing regularly on radio, Benny continued to make the occasional film appearance, including starring roles in "Artists and Models" (1937), "Charley's Aunt" (1941), "To Be or Not To Be" (1942), "George Washington Slept Here" (1942) and "The Horn Blows at Midnight" (1945). After a long and successful career on radio, Benny brought his show and supporting cast to television in 1950, and the series remained popular for 15 years. In fact, his show was on both radio and television at the same time for five years. Benny also hosted dozens of television specials and variety shows from 1959 to 1974.

In 1961, Benny returned to his hometown of Waukegan to dedicate Jack Benny Junior High School, where the school sports teams are still known as the "39'ers," in his honor. Benny, a high school dropout, called the dedication of the school, "the proudest moment of my life."

Benny continued to work through the 1960s and early 1970s, appearing regularly on television and making cameo appearances in films including "Gypsy" (1962), "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" (1963) and "The Man" (1972). Benny was scheduled to co-star with Red Skelton in the film version of Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys" (1975), as a pair of cantankerous old ex-vaudeville stars. Shortly after production was scheduled to begin, Skelton dropped out of the project and was replaced by Walter Matthau. When Benny died on the day after Christmas 1974, his part was given to George Burns, who won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

The day after Benny died, a single, long-stemmed red rose was delivered to Mary Livingstone Benny, his wife of nearly 48 years. After several days, with another rose delivered each day, Mary called the florist to find out who was sending them. The florist told her that Benny had made arrangements for a rose to be sent to her every day for the rest of her life, and included a provision in his will for the deliveries -- a touching and romantic final gesture for a man born on Valentine's Day.

Benny's sarcophagus contains the simple inscription, "A gentle man."

Buried with Benny is his wife, Mary Livingstone Benny (1906 - 1983), his co-star on both his radio and television shows.

Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky on Feb. 14, 1894, in Chicago, IL. He died on Dec. 26, 1974, in Los Angeles, CA.

Mary Livingstone Benny was born Sadie Marks on June 23, 1906, in Seattle, WA. She died on June 30, 1983, in Los Angeles, CA.

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