This Day in Jewish History

1950: Jack Benny Takes Act to TV, Grumbling All the Way

Lousy student and supposedly a worse violinist, he was also terrible at business but discovered a rare talent for ad-libbing.

On October 28, 1950, CBS Television broadcast the first episode of “The Jack Benny Program,” marking the beginning of the beloved comedian’s gradual move from radio to TV. Initially the show ran irregularly: it would be a decade before Benny’s TV show became a weekly affair. In the meantime, he continued with his regular radio program through May 1955.

Benny’s first line on that live Sunday night telecast was, “I’d give a million dollars to know what I look like!” In fact, Benny never became completely comfortable with the medium of television, and in the memoir he later co-wrote with his daughter, Joan Benny, acknowledges that “in my second year in television, I saw that the camera was a man-eating monster. ... It gave a performer close-up exposure that, week after week, threatened his existence as an interesting entertainer.”

Jack Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago, Illinois on February 14, 1894. His father, the Polish-born Meyer Kubelsky, owned a tavern and later a men’s accessories shop. His mother, the former Emma Sachs, was born in Lithuania. Benny grew up in Waukegan, outside Chicago.

He began studying the violin at age six, and although it was a running gag throughout his career that Benny was a miserable violinist, he actually played professionally for some years, both in a pit orchestra and as part of a piano-violin duo. Late in life, Benny told the TV talk-show host Johnny Carson, “If God came to me and said, ‘Jack, starting tomorrow I will make you one of the world’s great violinists, but no more will you ever be able to tell a joke,’ I really believe that I would accept that.” 

Academically, Benny did not excel, and he was expelled from Waukegan’s Central High School in 10th grade. Attempts to study business and to work with his father yielded similarly inauspicious results.

Instead, he went into entertainment, changing his name in stages, first from Ben Kubelski to Ben K. Bennie, and finally to Jack Benny, after legal threats, first from violinist Jan Kubelik and then from entertainer Ben Bernie, who didn’t appreciate the similarities in name. The violin went from being a musical instrument to a comedic prop during a performance during World War I; when the servicemen’s hostility turned to laughs, Benny lowered his bow and began ad-libbing jokes.

The skinflint philanthropist

Benny first met his wife, Sadie Marks, around 1920 when he was performing in Vancouver, and his friend Zeppo Marx, also in town, invited him to a Passover seder at the home of the Marks family (apparently no relation). Sadie was then 14 years old, and she and the much older Benny rubbed each other the wrong way. It wasn’t until 1927, after several more antagonistic meetings, that they both recognized and admitted their mutual love, and they married. They adopted Joan Naomi Benny in 1934, two weeks after her birth.

Soon after they wed, Benny asked his wife to fill in during a live comedy show for a sick actress playing a character called “Mary Livingstone.” Sadie revealed herself to have impeccable comic timing, and started appearing with Benny regularly. She also changed her name legally to that of her character.

Benny first appeared on radio in 1932 on Ed Sullivan’s variety show, and quickly was offered his own weekly program. His shows were loosely plotted, with regular performers usually playing themselves, though their personas often were very different from their real selves. Benny himself was the famously skinflint character who was always being bested by his guests and his regular employees, including Livingstone, his sharp-tongued secretary, and Rochester (Eddie Anderson), his African-American valet-driver.

Livingstone, who suffered from debilitating stage fright, retired from show biz in 1958. Benny decided to give up his regular show in 1965.

Far from being a miser, he was known for his philanthropy: In 1957, donating a Stradivarius violin to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he commented, “If it isn’t a $30,000 Strad, I’m out $120.” His works including fundraising for Israel Bonds.

Jack Benny died of cancer on December 26, 1974 at age 80.