Armed robber: "Your money or your life." Very long pause. "Well?"
Jack Benny: "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."
Jack Benny was one of America's most popular radio comedians and movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s who was also popular on television in the 1950s and 1960s. He was born with the name Benjamin Kubelsky at Chicago's Mercy Hospital on St. Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, 1894.
When he was a child, his family lived at 224 South Genesee Street in Waukegan. His parents gave Benjamin (Jack) a half-size violin for his sixth birthday in 1900 and he started taking violin lessons from Professor Harlow in Waukegan. At the age of 8 in 1902, he was making frequent trips to Chicago with his mother to study under Dr. Hugo Kortschalk at the Chicago Musical College which later became part of Roosevelt University. He played in the Waukegan High School Orechestra and by the time he was a freshman at Central High School in Waukegan, Jack had also nailed down a job as a violinist in the pit orchestra of the Barrison Theatre in Waukegan, a local vaudeville theater.
Jack teamed up in two different acts that also featured a pianist with music and comedy. "From Grand Opera to Ragtime" was the common name in each act. But Jack was twice challenged by other performers with similar stage names so he had to change his name twice and finally settled on "Jack Benny" around 1919. Jack also entertained while he was serving in the U.S. Navy during World War I. He did not go to Europe, but remained close to home at Great Lakes Naval Station near Waukegan.
After traveling on the vaudeville circuit for most of the 1920s, Jack's act evolved to one with less music and almost all comedy. On Jan. 24, 1927 at the Clayton Hotel in Waukegan, Jack married Sadye Marks in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony. Sadye was a younger woman he met in Vancouver years earlier and she was the younger sister of the wife of one of Jack's good friends. Sadye later took the stage name of Mary Livingstone on Jack's radio program and sometimes played his girl friend on the show. But Jack's "character" was always a bachelor on radio, TV, and in the movies, allowing him to chase the famous beauties of Hollywood for laughs. He character drove an old Maxwell car, and was very very very cheap. A miser in fact. Just before the stock market crash in 1929, Irving Thalberg signed Jack to a five year-contract with MGM Pictures.
Jack and Sadye started to divide their time between New York, the radio center then, and Hollywood where he made pictures. Among their close friends were George Burns and Gracie Allen. Later Jack would develop a make believe "feud" with fellow comedy star Fred Allen that lasted for years with mutual insults flying back and forth during visits to each other's radio programs. In the 1940s, Jack brought the students of Chicago's famous Quiz Kids show and Quizmaster Joe Kelly to his program so that his cast could challenge the kids on tough questions. The Benny cast members beat the Quiz Kids, by cheating on the score.
In 1941, just before America's entry into World War II, Hollywood writer and director Ernst Lubitsch cast Jack and Carole Lombard in a semi-serious comedy, To Be or Not To Be, about a group of Polish actors using their skills to fight the Nazis. Early in the film, Jack is shown wearing a Nazi uniform and saluting an actor who looks like Hitler. When his father Meyer Kubelsky saw that scene in a movie theater, he stormed out in a fury not realizing that the rest of the movie was an anti-Nazi message. Meyer and Jack did not speak for weeks until Meyer was persuaded to go back to see the entire film which he then liked so much that he saw it 45 more times. The movie did not come out until March 1942, two months after Jack's co-star Carole Lombard, Clark Gable's wife, lost her life in a plane crash on a tour to promote war bonds.
Jack's CBS-TV series and other specials in the 1950s and 1960s were safe variety fare for that time but the country was getting more sophisticated and he never built up the huge steady audience that he had enjoyed on radio. But he was in constant demand as a guest on many variety shows. Jack was 71 in the fall of 1965 which was the first broadcast season in 33 years that did not have some Jack Benny program on either radio or TV. Jack's last appearance in Illinois was at a benefit for the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra in April 1974. The Jack Benny Middle School in Waukegan is named in Jack's honor as is the The Jack Benny Center for the Arts in Bowen Park in Waukegan.
Jack at the age of 80 was cast in 1974 to star with Walter Matthau in Neil Simon's play, The Sunshine Boys. But his health went down fast at the end of the year due to pancreatic cancer that was diagnosed too late in the progress of the disease. Jack recommended that his close friend George Burns take the part and Burns appeared both in a stage and film version. Jack Benny died on Dec. 26, 1974.
For more about the life of Jack Benny, visitors might want to see The Jack Benny International Fan Club web site. For a list of his TV shows and movies, visit Jack's page on the Internet Movie Data Base.