Happy 39th Birthday, Jack Benny!

Valentine's Day is Benjamin Kubelsky's birthday. “There will be a slight pause while you say 'Who cares?'” Old Time Radio fans will recognize the quote as the second sentence uttered on the radio by Kubelsky's alter-ego, Jack Benny.

The path from becoming Benjamin Kubelsky to Jack Benny is pretty typical for a vaudevillian on the radio. That is if there is anything typical about a 42 year career at the top of radio and TV. Little Ben Kubelsky was born to a Polish immigrant saloon owner in Chicago and grew up in Waukegan, Ill. Little Ben was given a violin at the age of six, and his parents had high hopes that he would become a concert violinist. Ben loved the violin, but the little boy lacked the discipline to practice seriously. He was able to use the violin to gain pocket money, playing with local dance bands by the time he was 14.

A poor student, Ben was attracted to Vaudeville. In 1911, Minnie Marx invited Ben to join her son's act, but his parent would not let the 17 year old go out on the road. The following year he teamed with a buxom widow who needed a partner for her musical act. The Czech violinist Jan Kubelik thought that Kubelsky's moderate fame would damage his reputation, and brought legal pressure for Ben to change his name. For a while,  he performed as Ben K. Benny, until joining the Navy during WWI. Ben was called to entertain his shipmates, and discovered they appreciated his jokes more than his playing.

After the war, Ben K. Benny went back into show business, only to find there was another violin and patter man on the circuit with the name Ben Bernie. Ben Kubelsky adopted the sailor's title of "Jack Tar" and was known as Jack Benny from that point forward.

 On Mar 19 1932, Broadway columnist,  Ed Sullivan gave Jack a guest spot on his radio show. Jack opened with “This is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say 'Who Cares?'” Other vaudevillians would make a splash in radio; Ed Wynn brought his stage silliness almost directly to the broadcast studio, Fred Allen tailored his comedy to the radio audience, George Burns and Gracie Allen made the most of scatter-brained married couple humor, and Jim and Marian Jordan developed a formula that would be the basis of situation comedy for generations. None of them were as natural on radio as Jack Benny, as NBC's Bertha Brainard noted after an April 16, 1932 audition. "We think Mr. Benny is excellent for radio and, while the audition was unassisted as far as orchestra was concerned, we believe he would make a great bet for an air program."

What a magnificent bet it was! Jack understood that radio was a collaborative art form, and while there was no doubt that he was the star of the program, he was very willing to let the others in his company get the laughs. The important thing was that there were laughs! Jack was always willing to acknowledge the contributions of others to his success, especially his writers. Not only was he generous with public praise, he gave the most sincere praise in radio; Jack Benny's writers were some of the best paid in Hollywood.

Contrary to the character Jack developed for the radio, he was a humble and generous man and remained so throughout his career. He gave up his weekly TV show when he realized that he preferred watching the competition (Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.). He continued to make special appearances on TV, the last was a celebrity roast for Lucille Ball, which was aired a few weeks after his death in 1974.

While we are shopping for chocolates in heart-shaped boxes, take a few minutes to remember Jack Benny, and wish him a happy 39th birthday.