Book Review: Sunday Nights At Seven The Jack Benny Story By Jack and Joan Benny

I’ve talked about my love of Old Time Radio before, but I figure I’ll repeat myself. When I was younger, I had trouble falling asleep. It’s something I still have trouble with on the rare occasion I need to go to bed earlier than normal (between 1 and 2AM nowadays). I don’t exactly remember how the OTR tapes made their way into my family’s life, though I do remember my dad copying some that my grandma had, so maybe that’s where it all started. I was exposed to a wide variety of comedy shows from the 30s and 40s from Burns & Allen, Abbott & Costello, Duffy’s Tavern, Baby Snooks, The Bickersons and most importantly The Jack Benny Program. I’m not exactly sure what made Jack Benny my favorite, but I’m sure it had something to do with the mixture of spot on comedy with fanciful elements like Jack’s pet polar bear or his ginormous underground bank vault, but whatever the reason, I almost wore the Benny tapes out.

Essentially, The Jack Benny Program was a back-stage type show. The character of Jack Benny–who was played by Jack Benny–was a miserly skinflint who starred on his own radio show. Sometimes, they’d put on plays on said show and sometimes it would go “behind the scenes” to Jack’s home and experiences with other celebrities. Every episode was sponsored by a big company like Jello-O or Lucky Strike cigarettes, featured a group of other characters/actors, an orchestra lead by Phil Harris and a song sung by a tenor (Dennis Day or Kenny Baker, depending on when you listened). I remember doing some research about Benny on the internet back in the day and even buying some MP3 DVDs of his shows (that no longer work for some reason) in college, but that was about it. Until a few months back when, on a trip to New Hampshire, I stumbled up Sunday Nights At Seven, the 1990 double autobiography written by Jack Benny and his daughter Joan. It’s a book I had read about in my early internet research and always been curious about but since it was published in 1990 and Benny’s been dead since 1974 it’s not the easiest book to find nor the most popular.

When I bought the book, I assumed that it would have been co-written by the pair around the same time, but what really happened was that Joan–Benny’s only daughter–found a draft of her dad’s autobio when she was cleaning out a house. She then added her own words to help frame things, but also give her perspective on what was going on. This format was interesting because of the different perspectives. Jack was remembering things one way while his daughter was remembering them as a kid. Though it might have been interested, I definitely found myself getting a little bored when Joan took over. I mean, she’s a good writer and had some interesting stories, but I wanted more Jack. It’s kind of like paying to see Walk The Line, but having half the movie focus on Roseanne Cash. Again, there’s some interesting tidbits in there and would have made it’s own interesting story, but in the first few pages she talks about Jack writing a 400 page book and then takes over for pages and pages.

One of the worrisome things when reading a book about a celebrity you really like is finding out about their unlikeable qualities. Thankfully, it turned out that the real Jack Benny was a nice, solid guy who was generous with his time and money, but also spent a lot of time thinking about comedy. He goes into detail about how sound effects were used to great effect back in the golden age of radio. He told great stories about his co-stars and the people who worked on the show, including Mel Blanc. Everyone comes out pretty clean. Except Mary Livingston, Jack’s wife and a character on the show (they weren’t married on the show). Jack doesn’t have a bad thing to say about the woman with the wonderful giggle and great, natural timing, but Joan does. It turns out that Mary was very worried about her place in society and was very cold to Joan growing up, not quite Mommy Dearest territory, but it didn’t sound like a great house to grow up in.

At the end of the day, I really enjoyed reading about a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Several actually as the book covers vaudeville, radio, early television and the golden age of Hollywood. I’m a sucker for that stuff and love reading about a person I like being likable. My problem is that I’m told about a 400 page Jack Benny autobiography and I don’t get it. It also seemed like Jack didn’t really get into detail on things. I don’t know if those were pages left on the cutting room floor or if he just didn’t dive in, but things like his feud with Fred Allen are merely mentioned and not really delved into. It was also strange that early tenor Kenny Baker wasn’t mentioned once in the book. The tapes I had as a kid almost all featured Baker singing the songs. I know that’s a very small section of the much longer run of the show, so my perspective is skewed, but it seemed strange that he wasn’t mentioned at all.

Overall it’s an interesting look at a life through two sets of eyes, but doesn’t really get into as much detail as I would have liked. I’m glad I read it and will be keeping it on my shelf, but I would still like to see that unedited autobiography that Jack Benny wrote. Maybe someday.

Christmas Stories: Listening To The Jack Benny Program

I want to paint you a bit of a picture of my childhood. My room, throughout most of my growing up period, used to be the dormer of our house which means it had these sloping walls. The middle of the room, from door to wall (which also held a window) was regular height, but on both sides from there, the walls angled down to about three feet tall. Being short that aspect of the room rarely gave me trouble. In fact, the sloping walls were perfect for sky lights, which is exactly what my parents installed in the conversion process from dormer to bedroom and my bed was often directly under one of them.

When I was a kid, I had trouble falling asleep and at some point in my youthful days, my dad introduced me to old time radio. He had a set of tapes which I had access to and then, after a while, I wound up having my own tapes. I had classics like Abbott & Costello, Burns & Allen and Amos & Andy, but my favorite became The Jack Benny Program. For those of you who might not know, before TV came around, folks got their entertainment through the radio. Some soap operas that are still on now got their start in radio as did a few news shows, I believe. Like TV now, there were all kinds of shows from comedy and mystery to romance and science fiction. Shows were aimed and kids (like Ralphie listening to Little Orphan Annie in A Christmas Story) and adults and both, but I found myself drawn mostly to the comedies. I would up with a whole brief case-looking case of tapes that were all old time radio. I have very distinct Christmas memories of lying in my bed, with one strand of Christmas lights thrown around the window to my right along with one of those plastic light-up Santas and a ceramic Christmas tree with lights that my grandma made and listening to Jack Benny as I fell asleep. I rarely made my way through an entire half hour episode, so I became kind of an expert in the first 15-20 minutes of those episodes.  In college I found a website that sold DVDs of the old time radio with tons and tons of shows on them. Most of those discs don’t work on my computer now, but I was able to salvage two of the shows that happened to be on those tapes I used to have. Every now and then I’ll put on the story of how Jack Benny dealt with getting a polar bear named Carmichael and even though it might sound ridiculous, I’m transported right back to those days in my old room with the only light coming from Christmas decorations and the stars above me. I can still recite the shows verbatim, but only up to a certain point because, even now, I have a tendency to fall asleep before the show’s end. Listening to those two episodes while driving around in the craziness that is pre-Christmas traffic not only brought a huge smile to my face, but also made some of the awful driving of my fellow New Yorkers not so bad. I had a good time writing about this and think I might dig out some of those tapes when I’m home and write more about old time radio and my interactions with it.