1. PRE-1940s: HARRY CONN (1932-1936)
Sometimes it seems that there are as many different versions and dates given for Harry Conn’s leaving his job as the head writer of the Jack Benny radio program as there are stars in the sky. While it’s not true that his name appeared at the end of every program, unlike most writers for comedy radio programs of the era Conn was credited by Benny often in interviews, etc. This lead to media attention, which lead to a case of egotism on Conn’s part. He began to believe that he was solely responsible for Benny’s radio success. He also believed he wasn’t being paid enough.
Although Al Boasberg acted as a “script doctor” during the four years Conn wrote for the program (1932 to 1936), Conn is credited with creating the stingy and vain aspect of the “Jack Benny” character. However, many aspects of the Conn-written Benny program can seem much more dated and corny today than the Ed Beloin/Bill Morrow years, or the Sam Perrin/John Tackaberry/Milt Josefsberg/George Balzer years.
Jack Benny was an incredibly loyal employer; some writers, staff, and cast members stayed with Benny for 20, 30, 40 years. He was notoriously loathe to fire anyone. But apparently the last straw for Benny with Harry Conn was what happened at a party attended by the Bennys and the Conns. Seeing Mary Livingstone (Mrs. Benny) wearing a fur coat, Mrs. Conn told Mary “My husband’s brains paid for that coat”. Soon after the party Conn asked that his salary be equal to Jack’s. Jack turned that idea down, but did offer Conn a raise. Conn was apparently so angry about this that he just abandoned the program, leaving no script for that weeks’ episode.
Some accounts give the date of this as the week of the June 7, 1936 show. Other accounts give the debut of the Bill Morrow/Ed Beloin writing team as occurring on April 5, 1936. However, in 2012 an online auction occurred of Jack Benny radio scripts written (at least in part) by Bill Morrow. According to the auction, Morrow had some of the scripts that he worked on professionally bound, starting with the first twenty Benny show scripts in order. This bound copy of the scripts begins with a copy of the May 10, 1936 show, which was broadcast live from Detroit, and continue exactly twenty shows to the 1936-1937 seasons’ December 27, 1936 show.
2. BILL MORROW and ED BELOIN (1936-1943)
According to one contemporary account, Morrow, Beloin and Benny would get together almost immediately after the 4:00pm (PDT) live Benny show broadcast ended to go over ideas for the next week’s show. The next day, Monday, Morrow and Beloin would get together and further toss ideas and situations around, and then on Tuesday the duo would prepare a rough draft to present to Benny. Morrow and Beloin (and perhaps Benny) would then spend Wednesday, Thursday and Friday turning the rough drafts into a working “rehearsal” script. Friday would be an off day, and then on Saturday the whole Benny cast would gather together to go over the script for the first time, and do a cast reading. If any of the cast members requested changes, edits, or had lines that they found hard to say, revisions would be made to the script, which the cast would then read again. After this rehearsal, Beloin, Morrow, Benny and the producer would go over the script for a final time, making any further changes to make lines funnier, edit for time, etc. Final rehearsals would start at 10:00 am Sunday, the day of broadcast. This account has Benny paying his two writers each $500 a week (out of the $10,000 a week Benny received).
However, a different contemporary account written by Jack Benny’s “script girl” Jane Tucker gives a slightly different story. According to Tucker, the writing would start on Wednesday morning at Morrow’s apartment. She says that they considered the show as being divided into three dialog segments which were separated by musical numbers, and that Morrow and Beloin usually did the first section on Wednesday, the second section on Thursday, and the last on Friday. This account has the first rehearsal call at noon on Saturday. As in the other account, after this first cast reading, the writers would hold a re-write session, noting any lines the cast thought hard to deliver, or worse, lines that didn’t get any laughs from the cast. This revised script would be read by the cast at noon on Sunday (the day of broadcast). Tucker writes that the Benny radio program technically never had a proper “full” dress rehearsal of the show as it would be heard on the air; rather, the orchestra would rehearse separately, and Don Wilson would read his commercial segments over by himself before the dialog session.It was fairly common for famous comedians to take, if not the sole credit for writing a radio program, than at least claim to have a had a huge hand in the writing, regardless if it was true or not. However, from all accounts, including contemporary articles and interviews, and also in later interviews with Benny staff writers, it seems clear that Jack Benny did have a fairly significant role in at least the "shaping up" of a script. Bill Morrow & Ed Beloin (and also later the Perrin/Tackaberry/Josefsberg/Balzer line up) used Benny as a "sounding board" and editor during the development of a script, and Benny also ensured that the script stayed true to his and the rest of the casts' "characters".
Morrow and Beloin finely tuned the portrayal of the Jack Benny character as cheap, stingy and vain. While these traits were created by, and had popped up occasionally, in the Harry Conn years, the Morrow and Beloin team brought them to the forefront. Phil Harris made his debut as “orchestra leader” on the October 4, 1936 season opener, and Morrow and Beloin basically created the “Phil Harris” character…an egotistical, larger-than-life life drinker, which most reports have said was more or less based on Bill Morrow’s swinging bachelor lifestyle. Eddie Anderson’s Rochester character also debuted during that 1936-1937 season, first in a bit role as a train porter, and then later as an essential part of the cast as Jack's valet. Although the shows’ sometime “punch-up” writer Al Boasberg is often credited with originating the Rochester character, Morrow and Beloin again would fine-tuned a character created by others, creating a role with much more depth and substance than had originally been envisioned.
Another idea that Morrow and Beloin popularized was the “flashback” format; in which (usually) Don Wilson would open the Benny program by explaining something that had happened to Jack or a cast member earlier in the week, and then the show would flashback to the scene as if it was happening “live”. Morrow and Beloin made particularly good use of this format, including the very meta idea that the show you were currently listening to live was the story of what happened earlier in the day or week, leading up to the live broadcast. Using this format, they would often have Dennis rehearse the song that he was to sing later on the “real” broadcast. Also begun during the Morrow/Beloin years was the infamous Jack Benny /Fred Allen feud.
The Morrow/Beloin written Jell-O program was often more surreal than the Harry Conn version, although they never went over the top with the surrealism (for instance, while Jack had a pet polar bear named Carmichael, Carmichael didn't talk).
Morrow and Beloin also together wrote the screenplays to Jack's films "Love Thy Neighbor" and "Buck Benny Rides Again".
Ed Beloin was born on April Fools Day 1910 in Stratford, Connecticut. He was just 14 years old when a short story he had written was published in Edward J. O’Brien’s annual anthology of the U.S.’s best short stories. Beloin eventually left Connecticut to attend New York University, with a scholarship in chemical engineering. Becoming bored with science, he then transferred to Columbia University, where he graduated with a liberal arts degree. Whereas Bill Morrow was quite the eligible bachelor, Beloin was married--- he first met his wife, Lynn Hayden, when she was in a Broadway musical and he went backstage to meet her; they were married one year later.
Most accounts of radio history have Ed Beloin being introduced to Jack Benny by Fred Allen, sometime before Beloin and Morrow began writing for the Benny show in 1936; however, a 1985 story on Beloin in the Orlando Sun Sentinel newspaper puts the meeting of Beloin and Benny at a time when Fred Allen was still in vaudeville and Beloin was still a teenager; this would have to have been sometime before 1929. What is agreed upon by most sources is that it was somewhat of a gamble for Benny to hire both Morrow and Beloin to write his “Jell-O Program” in mid 1936. While it’s true that Benny was left in a lurch by Harry Conn’s sudden departure, the fact is that Morrow and Beloin both had very limited resumes in comedy writing, especially for radio.In the Morrow/Beloin partnership, Beloin was acknowledged as the more plot-driven writer of the two men, whereas Bill Morrow was more jokes and punch line oriented . Beloin is credited with creating the “character” of Carmichael the Polar Bear after a visit to a zoo with his niece (on the program, Carmichael was Jack's pet, lived in Benny’s basement, and was often said to have eaten the gas man). Beloin also acted various roles on the Jell-O program; most notably he created and played the part of Mr. Billingsley, Benny’s very eccentric “boarder”. Mr. Billingsley would usually have just a short cameo appearance on an episode, knocking on the door to talk briefly with Jack, and make a few non-sequitors. Mr. Billingsley was also at various times said to have had a magic carpet, worn a turban, and to also have created a mechanical man/robot. While Jack of course enjoyed the money his boarder paid and considered Billingsley as just “eccentric”, Rochester was afraid to talk to Billingsley because he said he was “crazy”. In the March 28, 1943 episode (with Orson Welles pinch-hitting for an absent and ill Jack Benny), Beloin was portraying the drugstore "soda jerk" Gilroy. When Welles' secretary Mrs. Harrington asks Gilroy when he put on the shirt he's wearing, he replies "since I left Stratford, Connecticut in 1937", which is actually true, for Beloin.
In her account that I cited earlier, Benny show script girl Jane Tucker wrote that Ed Beloin lead a “saner existence” than the bachelor Morrow; that Beloin was more given to “thoughtful reasoning and sharp analysis”, and that he was seen as a stabilizing influence on the more “volatile” Morrow. The December 23, 1940 TIME magazine article states that “the Jell-O script is turned out by a 33-year-old wag named Bill Morrow, whose salary is $1,500 a week, and his assistant, Eddie Beloin, who makes $560 less”.
The Morrow/Beloin writing partnership continued
for the Jack Benny program until the end of the 1942-1943 season, when Bill
Morrow was drafted into the US Army.
It’s unclear if Benny ever considered having Beloin write the show by
himself, or if, as it’s been reported, Beloin wanted to write movies and took
the “opportunity” of Morrow being drafted to leave the Benny program. Eddie Beloin would indeed go on to write many
films, including such excellent movies as “Lady on A Train”, “A Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, “My Favorite Brunette”, “Road to Rio”, “The
Lemon Drop Kid”, and Elvis Presley’s “G.I. Blues”. However it would appear that Beloin did continue to be in the background of the Benny program for at least a year after he and Morrow left, based on his occasional cameo appearances on the show.
Ed Beloin suffered a heart attack in 1967 and
retired from writing. He lived in Pompano Beach, Florida until his death on May 26, 1992.
William (Bill) Morrow was born on August 16, 1907. Morrow began his career studying commercial art in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois. He also worked as a newspaper reporter and as a press agent prior to his career writing in radio.
Morrow had quite the reputation as a hard-partying bachelor. It was Bill Morrow’s being drafted into the US Army in 1943 (at the relatively old age of 36) that ended the writing team of Morrow/Beloin after 7 years.