Jack Benny: Accidental Radio Extraordinaire

On March 29th, 1932, Ed Sullivan invited Jack Benny to his radio program, launching a prolific radio and entertainment career. Benny went from a small-time vaudeville performer to a radio host, USO performer, movie man and more. Today, we honor his big moment in history with a brief look at his life in entertainment.

Jack Benny was born Benny Kubelsky in Chicago, Illinois in February 1894. Benny was born to a pair of Jewish immigrants who encouraged their son to play the violin, thus beginning his life of entertainment. Jack showed talent enough to get to the vaudeville stage where he began to craft the type of performer he would become. On the vaudeville circuit he played popular songs, told self-deprecating jokes, and developed a stage personality that was both suave and fragile. From vaudeville he went to Broadway, then on to the silver screen. In 1929 Benny was performing at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles where his agent had convinced an MGM executive to come see him, and he went on to sign a five-year contract with them. His first role was in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. This was not a lasting bit of luck and Benny wound up back on Broadway before being approached to do radio, which he didn’t jump on right away, unconvinced about the medium’s viability. But in 1932 Jack gave it a shot and it changed his life.

Jack Benny and the cast of one of his shows, including wife Mary Livingstone (center).
Box 65, Folder 22, Jack Benny papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Jack Benny’s radio show was supported by a star-studded cast that included his wife, Mary Livingstone (Sadya “Sadie” Marcowitz by birth). They first met in 1922 when Jack would walk out halfway through her violin performance. They met for the second time four years later, in 1926, and Benny fell for her instantly. The couple was married in 1927 and Sadie collaborated with Benny for most of his career. The couple only had one child; they adopted their daughter, Joan born in 1934.

Early photograph of Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny.
Box 65, Folder 22, Jack Benny papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The Jack Benny Program ran on NBC from 1932 through 1948 and then moved to CBS where it ran from 1949 through 1955. The program was among the most popular during its long run. The final show of Jack’s program aired on May 22, 1955, twenty-three years after his debut. From 1956 through 1958, CBS also aired repeat episodes titled The Best of Benny. Jack also appeared on USO tours, hosted television programs, was in the movies, and after his radio career ended, performed as a stand-up comedian until the year he died.

Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone arriving to an event, ca. 1950.
Box 65, Folder 22, Jack Benny papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Jack Benny died at home December of 1974 after cancelling a show in Dallas due to feeling unwell (it would later be discovered he had pancreatic cancer). By early December, with no idea what was wrong with him, he was complaining of stomach pains, and on December 22nd, he went into a coma, passing away on the 26th at eighty years old. While in that coma Benny was visited by many of his star-studded friends and colleagues, including then Governor Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, and his best friend of more than fifty years, George Burns. Jack’s wife Mary Livingstone, who received a single long-stemmed rose from her husband every day after his death per his will, died eight and half years after her husband, leaving behind their daughter Joan.

Jack and Mary in Palm Springs, California.
Box 65, Folder 22, Jack Benny papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In Benny’s own words in the book Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story, written by his daughter Joan, he tried to explain his successful life saying, “Everything good that happened to me happened by accident. I was not filled with ambition nor fired by a drive toward a clear-cut goal. I never knew exactly where I was going.”[1] Benny is now a member of both the Television Hall of Fame, the Broadcasting and Cable Halls of Fame, and received three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His induction into the Radio Hall of Fame came posthumously in 1989.

Joan Benny newly wedded to Seth Baker, 1954. Joan and her father were extremely close.
Courtesy Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Polished scripts hammer away on Benny’s portrayal of himself as both stingy and vain, concerned about his hairline and adamant that he was no older than 39; whatever he thought of himself, he lived a life of fame and popularity, bringing laughter to audiences over the radio, on Broadway, in the movies and on TV for more than thirty years. You can see one of Jack Benny’s television programs titled “Shower of Stars” in the video below courtesy of the American Heritage Center, from the Jack Benny papers collection.

Post contributed by AHC Archives Intern Brittany Heye.

[1] Benny, Joan, and Jack Benny, Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story, Warner Books, 1990. ISBN: 978-0-446-51546-7.

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1 Response to Jack Benny: Accidental Radio Extraordinaire

  1. pamela Sue indo says:

    What a marvelous, moving, inspirational tribute to a “very tall man in more ways than one”!!! He gave much of himself and his talents to the world -he was also a great philanthropist!!! R.I.P. Jack and Family. I am 73, a widow, and disabled . I grew up with this great comedienne/man on TV and in the movies. I will forever cherish and love the movie, “The Clock Strikes at Midnight”!!i

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