THE CAST 1940-1949
Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky) as himself
February 14, 1894----December 26, 1974
The star of the show since the first episode, May 2, 1932. Jack was born February 14, 1894 in Chicago, IL, but lived in Waukegan. On the show he portrayed himself as a cheap and extremely vain person, and a horrible violin player. From all accounts all of this was a total opposite to the way he was in real life, but his portrayal of the "Jack Benny" character, and his comic timing, were absolutely brilliant.
Mary Livingstone (Sadye Marks) as herself, Jack's secretary/employee/friend
June 23, 1905----June 30, 1983
Mary Livingstone, was, of course, Jack Benny’s real-life wife. That much is certain. But when starting to look into the life of Mary Livingstone, one is confronted with a whole bunch of seeming questions or mysteries. Was her given first name Sadye or Sadie? Was her family’s last name Marx or Marks? Were they, or were they not, related somehow to the Marx Brothers? Did she legally change her name to Mary Livingstone, or to Mary Benny? Why did she develop “mike fright” so relatively late into her career? The least of theses mysteries is what the hell the “Mary” character’s role on the Jack Benny program was during the 1940s. “Mary Livingstone” was introduced on the radio show as an ardent fan of Jack Benny. However as time went on she became more and more sarcastic and cutting towards Jack, and her actual standing on the program remained somewhat in the air. Was she Jack’s secretary? His girlfriend? Just an acquaintance? For some periods on the show Mary had a maid, so if she was Jack’s secretary she must’ve been doing pretty well.
(Note: For purposes of consistency, I’ll use the spelling of “Sadie” for this article.)
Mary was born on June 23, 1905 in Seattle, Washington, but she was raised in Vancouver, British Columbia. The original family name was Markovitz, but that was shortened at some point to Marx (or Marks).
Some biographical reports have Mary first meeting Jack Benny when she was just 14 years old, at a seder that took place on the first night of Passover at her family’s house in Vancouver. While Sadie would have been 14 years old in 1919, other reports have the seder taking place in 1921. Of course, seemingly the most reliable of witnesses would be Jack and Mary themselves, and both did write books (Jack’s was published posthumously). Jack places the date as 1921, and writes that he was invited to the seder by Zeppo Marx, while he and the Marx Brothers both happened to be in town performing in vaudeville shows at the same time. Of course, this has further fueled the stories that Sadie Marx/Marks was related to the Marx Brothers; and in fact, in the book “Sunday Nights at Seven”, Jack writes that Sadie’s father Henry was a distant relative of the Marx Brothers. In the book Jack writes that Zeppo tricked him into going by promising a wild party; what it turned out to be was a traditional orthodox Jewish Passover dinner. It was at this dinner that Jack (either 25 or 27 years old, depending on which date of the seder is correct) first met Sadie, her sister Ethel (in the future Ethel, who was known by her nickname “Babe’, would be mentioned quite frequently on the Jack Benny program, and eventually even appear as herself) and their brother Hilliard (who would go on to produce Jack’s radio show).
Jack writes that Sadie’s father prodded her into giving a violin performance for Jack. Once again, like so many stories about Mary Livingstone, stories vary on what exactly happened that night regarding Sadie’s feelings towards Benny. Some, including Jack in his book, say that Sadie had a crush on Jack until he was “rude” to her by purposefully ignoring her violin playing; he writes that he hated auditioning girl violinists, and that Sadie overheard him whisper to Zeppo to make up an excuse so they could leave. Other accounts write that she did not like Jack at all during the whole evening. Most agree, however, that by the end of the evening Sadie had quite a dislike for Jack. In fact, when she and some friends went to see Jack’s vaudeville show the next day at the Vancouver Olympia Theatre, they sat in the front row and purposely did not laugh at Benny’s act even once. This behavior completely unnerved Jack, understandably, throwing off his performance. This was the last the two would see of each other for at least a few years. In the intervening years Jack had fallen in love with Gracie Allen’s friend Mary “Bubbles” Kelly.
Jack writes that his next meeting with Sadie Marks occurred when she and her family moved to California, and she went to see Jack perform at San Franciscos’ Pantages Theatre. After the show Sadie went to the stage door to say hello, but Jack did not recognize her, said a brief “hello”, and kept on walking.
The third meeting took place in 1926 while Jack was performing at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. By this time Jack and Mary Kelly had broken up, and Jack writes that he went on a double date with vaudevillian performer Al Bernovici and his new wife Ethel Marks. Al brought Ethel’s sister Sadie along as a date for Jack. Jack says he didn’t realize that Sadie was the same girl he had already met twice before, but that it was “love at third sight”. He asked Sadie for a date the following evening, but Mary, whose memory was obviously better than Jack’s, turned him down. The next morning jack visited Sadie at her job at the ladies hosiery counter of the May Company in Hollywood. While Jack writes that he asked her to lunch and this time she accepted, other accounts have Jack approaching Sadie to ask her a question and Sadie rudely snapping back “ask the floorwalker~!”. Jack continued to visit her for lunch every day at the May Company, each time buying stockings.
Jack writes that they stayed in touch via telephone for the next year while he traveled the country performing in vaudeville. At some point Sadie decided that Jack wasn’t really serious about her and she got engaged to a real estate agent. Jack ran into Ethel “Babe” Marks in Chicago, who told him about Sadie’s plans to marry. Babe called her sister and let Jack talk to her; Jack tried to convince Sadie that she was too young to marry. He begged her to come visit him in Chicago, which she did; there Jack further tried to convince her not to get married. When she didn’t seem to be convinced, Jack professed his love for her and asked her to marry him. When Sadie correctly pointed out that Jack had just been telling her she was too young to marry, Jack responded with something along the lines of “you’re not too young to marry ME~!” Amazingly, even at this late date apparently Jack still didn’t realize that Sadie was the same girl he had met at the Vancouver Passover dinner.
(*more to come.........*)
Eddie Anderson (Edmund Lincoln Anderson) as Rochester Van Jones, Jack's chauffeur/valet
September 18, 1905----February 28, 1977
Born September 18, 1905 in Oakland, California. His first appearance on the program was an unnamed speaking part on March 28, 1937, and he then appeared as Jack's valet "Rochester" on June 20th of that year. Rochester was Jack's butler/chauffeur/valet/cook/house cleaner and many, many other things. They were also portrayed as friends.. Although Anderson was credited in the show opening as "Rochester", and not as Eddie Anderson, this was most likely part of the mixing of actor and character of the Benny program.
Don Wilson as himself, the announcer for the program
September 01, 1900----April 25, 1982
Born September 1, 1900 in Denver, Colorado. Don's first appearance on The Jack Benny Show was April 6, 1934, on the first episode with the new sponsor, General Tire. Don introduced each program, and usually did the "middle commercial" for whomever the current sponsor was. Don's girth was the source of constant fat jokes, and he quickly became an integral part of the show, and not JUST the announcer and commercial pitchman.
Phil Harris (Wonga Phil Harris) as himself, the orchestra leader for the program
June 24, 1904----August 11, 1995
Phil Harris was born on June 24, 1904 in Linton, Indiana, but was raised in Nashville, Tennessee. Phil said that the name Wonga was Cherokee Indian, that it meant "messenger of fleet", and that he was given the name by an Indian chief who watched him while his mother and father were working. Phil's father was a bandleader and Phil started playing the drums in his dad's band at age 12. When Harris was sent to a Nashville military academy he performed in their orchestra, and also in a 5-man Dixieland band.
In 1928 Harris teamed with Carol Lofner to form an orchestra. The orchestra enjoyed a three-year run at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, California. At the end of that engagement the pair went their separate ways, and Harris began his own band in Los Angeles, with a long residence at the Cocoanut Grove. Also in 1928, while performing in Australia, Harris married Australian actress Marcia Ralston (the couple would divorce in 1940). The first mention I have found of a Phil Harris radio appearance is on Los Angeles station KFI, which on May 18, 1932 had "Phil Harris' Hotel Ambassador Orchestra" airing at 10:15pm. On June 18, 1932, KFI aired "Phil Harris' Cocoanut Grove Orchestra" at 10:00pm; programs from both locations aired throughout the summer and fall of 1932. By February 9, 1934, Phil had another radio show, on KFI Fridays at 6:00pm; that day's Los Angeles Times says "Phil Harris and Leah Raye collaborate on a little ditty termed "Snapshots of You" for today's "Let's Listen To Harris" broadcast". After a tour of the East Coast, he returned to LA in 1936 to begin a residency at the Palomar Club. It was at the Palomar that Harris came to the attention of Jack Benny.
Phil Harris made his first appearance on The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny on the first episode of the 1936-1937 season, October 4,1936. He was portrayed on the show as a proud Southerner, a heavy drinking, hip "jive" talking orchestra leader, extremely confident but also basically illiterate. He called Jack Benny "Jackson" and Mary Livingstone "Livvy". His theme song was originally "Rose Room" but changed to the popular "That's What I Like About the South". In a long-running gag on the Benny program, Jack professed to have no idea what any of the lyrics to "TWILATS" meant, and would often ask Harris to clarify some of them (such as "what's a do-wah-ditty?"). Harris and his orchestra also had a regular engagement at the Wilshire Bowl, a restaurant in Hollywood.
Phil married actress/singer Alice Faye in 1941. In 1942, Harris joined the U.S. Navy, missing time on the Benny program, as Dennis Day would in 1944. In 1946 Harris and Faye began their own radio show together, sponsored by the F.W. Fitch Co and airing on NBC Sunday evenings immediately following the Benny program, "The Fitch Bandwagon". From the Benny program Jeanine Roos continued her role as the Harris' daughter, and Elliot Lewis continued as the orchestra's guitarist Frank Remley (Remley actually was the band's guitar player; his laughter can be heard in many Benny episodes, particularly some of the 1936-1940 episodes. Elliot Lewis would play the speaking role of Remley on the air, however.)
Harris released a number of "novelty" tunes in the 1940s and 1950s, including "Smoke Smoke Smoke", "The Thing", "One-sy Two-sy" and of course "That's What I Like About the South".
The fact that the Harris and Faye radio show followed the Benny program became a bit of a problem in 1948, when the Benny program moved to CBS but the Harris-Faye program stayed on NBC. Harris would perform on the first half of the Benny show, then leave to go do the CBS show. Harris stayed with the Benny program until 1952, when he was replaced by Bob Crosby (Bing's brother). Harris and Faye both essentially retired after Phil left the Benny show and their own radio show ended in 1954....TV was on the rise, but Phil did not make the jump to Jack's television show, as did most of the other cast members (Mary being the other big exception). The Harris' moved to Palm Springs, California, where although Phil occasionally lead an orchestra that would play such places as Las Vegas, he was happy to spend most of his days swimming and playing golf.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Phil Harris enjoyed a new career revival in association with the Walt Disney company. He provided his instantly recognizable voice to several Disney movies, the most successful being his 1967 role as Baloo the Bear in "The Jungle Book", with Harris singing the memorable songs "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" (with Louis Prima). Harris also voiced Thomas O'Malley in "The Aristocats" (1970) and Little John in "Robin Hood" (1973). Harris was set to reprise his Baloo role on the Disney TV show "Tail Spin"in 1989, but was not up to the task and was replaced.
Phil Harris passed away at his home on August 11, 1995 (in a rough week for American legends, Phil's was in between the passing of Jerry Garcia (August 9, 1995) and Mickey Mantle (August 13, 1995) A nice essay could be written regarding the uniquely American individualism of all three men). It has been said that Harris was a sweet and soft-spoken, gentle man, in large contrast to his radio persona.
Dennis Day (Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty) as himself, the tenor singer for the program
May 21, 1916----June 22, 1988
Born on May 21, 1916 in New York City, Dennis Day was the 2nd of 5 children of Patrick and Mary McNulty, who were from County Mayo, in Ireland (although I've seen a few accounts that have Dennis as the third child...further research needed~!) Dennis sang in church choirs while growing up, and later sang in the glee club while attending Manhattan College in the Bronx, NY. Dennis, who hoped to become a lawyer, graduated in 1926 with top honors. An illness followed by an operation three months later wiped out all of Dennis' savings, and he took up singing to raise some cash. After working at a local radio station, Dennis was invited to audition as a singer and got the job.
As to how Dennis came to the attention of the Jack Benny program, there is more than one version of the story. In one, Mary Livingstone was in New York, simply heard Dennis singing on the radio, and brought him to the attention of Jack, who was looking for a new singer. However, in her 1978 book Mary Livingstone, and Dennis, both tell a much more detailed, different story. In the summer of 1939 Dennis says he was working on a few local CBS radio shows, singing with conductor Raymond Paige, who had a summer replacement show for Andre Kostelanetz (the show would appear to have been on in New York on Friday nights at 9:00pm on WABC--a CBS station-- during the summer, although Dennis is not credited in the radio listings). Jack Benny was in Chicago and Mary Livingstone in New York, both on the search for a replacement tenor for Kenny Baker, who had left the Benny program. While Mary was in New York at the Paramount Building, she spotted Dennis' picture in a stack of photos she was leafing through. Mary liked Dennis' picture, and asked if she could hear him sing. Jack's agent made a phone call and CBS sent over a transcription of Dennis singing. Dennis says the songs that CBS sent, and Mary heard, were "Don't Worry About Me", and "I Never Knew Heaven Could Speak". Then the Bennys' agent asked CBS to send Dennis over for an meeting. Meanwhile, Jack Benny flew from Chicago to New York. Dennis went to the meeting, he was asked if he wanted to sing for Jack Benny, said yes, and was told to come back the next day to audition (it seems silly to have Dennis come in for this initial visit just to ask if he wants the job, and not sing, but that's what they say happened...). Dennis came back the next day to the RCA Building, went up to the 8th floor with his piano player, and sang for 20 minutes straight. He was told to take a break, and was standing in a corner talking to his piano player when Jack Benny's voice came over the intercom, "Dennis..." Dennis answered "yes, please?". Jack loved the answer so much he later said it was one of the deciding factors for him in hiring Dennis (and Benny writers Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin would write it into Dennis' character, especially his first season).
Three weeks passed, and Dennis was called into a second audition, and this time given a script to read. A transcription was made and sent to the Benny writers in California. Then Dennis was asked to come from New York to Hollywood, were followed another audition, this time for NBC executives and Morrow and Beloin. After another long wait while Dennis ran out of money staying in Hollywood, he was finally given the job, with a 2-week contract. When that was up he was given an 11-week extension (radio contracts typically ran in 13 week cycles). According to the book Dennis was given 13-week renewals all season for his first year. The large amount of rehearsals/care taken in selecting a tenor shows how important the "tenor singer" role was to the Benny program; some contemporary news articles wondered how the Benny show could even go on without Kenny Baker.
Dennis' first appearance on the Jack Benny program was on the first show of the 1939-1940 season, October 8, 1939. Dennis was portrayed as a naive, simple 19 year old tenor singer, and he was also a fine imitator and impressionist. During his first season on the show he was often accompanied by his overbearing mother, played by Verna Felton. Dennis usually sang a song approximately 10-15 minutes into the program. Just a few months after his first appearance Dennis would appear with most of the regular cast in the film "Buck Benny Rides Again", released in May 1940. Dennis' last program before joining the US Navy was April 23, 1944, and he rejoined the show as of March 17, 1946. According to news reports, upon entering the Navy he had his name legally changed to Dennis Day, but in 1947 petitioned to get his "old name" back when his Irish relatives protested. On September 26, 1946 Dennis began his own radio program "A Day in the Life of Dennis Day", while still appearing on the Benny program. Jack Benny and Don Wilson both appeared on the first episode, although Dennis did not play the same "character" on his show as he did on Benny's. The fact that Dennis now had two shows, while Jack Benny "only" had one, became a running joke on the Benny show. Dennis married Peggy Almquist in January 1948, whom he remained married to until his death; the couple had ten children. Dennis recorded many record albums, several of which are available on iTunes, including his Christmas album featuring Jack. Amazingly, Dennis Day appeared with Jack Benny in various media for 35 straight years, from his hiring in 1939 until Jack's death in 1974; Jack's radio program, television program, and eventually the annual specials that Jack did after his regular TV show went off the air.
Larry Stevens as himself (substituted for Dennis Day as the singer, from November 5, 1944 to March 10, 1946)
Mel Blanc Various roles, including Jack's "pets", Carmichael the Polar Bear and Polly the Parrot; Professor LeBlanc, Jack's violin teacher;
Sy the Mexican; and the sound of Jack's Maxwell car
Frank Nelson Various roles, most often as a store clerk, waiter, or radio broadcaster aggravated by Jack; signature phrases include "..yeessss?", and
"ooh, would I!"
Artie Auerbach Various roles, including Mr. Kitzel, the hot dog vendor with the "pickle in the middle with the mustard on top".
Joseph Kearns Various roles, most often as Ed, Jack's Vault Guard
Bea Benaderet Various roles, including Gertrude Gearshift, the telephone operator
Sara Berner Various roles, including Mabel Flapsaddle, the telephone operator
Verna Felton as Dennis Day's overbearing mother, Lucretia
Sportsmen Quartet Singing quartet debuted on the September 29, 1946 show. They usually sing the Lucky Strike mid-show commercial
Benny Rubin Various roles, including a desk clerk, and the original "race track tout".
Andy Devine Virtually a cast member for a few years. Andy lived on a farm and always greeted Jack with "Hiya, Buck~!"
Sam Hearn Various roles, including Shlepperman, the precusor to Mr. Kitzel
Blanche Stewart Various roles
Ed Beloin Head writer of the program with Bill Morrow, Ed portrayed Mr. Billingsley, Jack's eccentric boarder.
Ronald & Benita Colman British husband and wife actors, who played Jack Benny's next door neighbors
(From left to right: Sara Berner, Artie Auerbach, Frank Nelson, Mel Blanc, Dennis Day, Eddie Anderson, Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Don Wilson, and Bea Benaderet)