Jack Benny

13782115_317221018615345_7325003891067828517_n.jpg

“I was born in Waukegan a long, long time ago. As a matter of fact, our rabbi was an Indian.” –Jack Benny

Benjamin Kubelsky, or “Jack Benny,” as we know him, was born in Chicago, Illinois, on Valentine’s Day, in the year…. well, all you need to know was that he was perpetually 39 years of age. Fictitiously self-proclaimed the “Greatest Violinist,” he portrayed a miserly musician surrounded by a vibrant cast of characters on the Jack Benny Program.

Jack-Benny_medium.jpg

His iconic supporting cast included his “real-life wife” Mary Livingstone, announcer Don Wilson, philandering bandleader played by Phil Harris, naive tenor Dennis Day, wisecracking chauffeur Eddie Anderson, and ridiculously talented Mel Blanc providing sound effects (namely, the ever-struggling Maxwell) and bit parts, such as Benny’s forever-suffering violin teacher, Professor LeBlanc. Benny took full advantage of his talented cast by allowing them to play off of his flaws, always at his comedic expense.

Jack_Benny_group_photo.jpg

In reality, however, Benny was a humble and gentle man from Waukegan, Illinois, with a keen eye for talent. He possessed a love of the stage and laughter, coupled with a profound respect for music. Benny was actually an accomplished violinist, knowing how to play far beyond first position, but masterfully held back his musical skills for the sake of good comedy. This decision allowed him to play with some of the greatest musicians of his day–Isaac Stern, Liberace, Gisele MacKenzie–all the while providing some comedic flare. Interestingly, at the age of 17, Benny was invited to perform violin on the road with the Marx brothers, but his mother refused, believing he was too young to go on tour. The world would have to wait for Jack Benny.

Again, the character Jack portrayed was contrary to himself as a person. He gave many actors their “start” by seeing their potential and inviting them to perform on his program. Likewise, he was a humble human being. This anecdote about his passing and relationship with Mary has always stuck with me–and, I quote the following from the Mark Masek’s website:

“The day after Benny died, a single, long-stemmed red rose was delivered to Mary Livingstone Benny, his wife of nearly 48 years. After several days, with another rose delivered each day, Mary called the florist to find out who was sending them. The florist told her that Benny had made arrangements for a rose to be sent to her every day for the rest of her life, and included a provision in his will for the deliveries — a touching and romantic final gesture for a man born on Valentine’s Day.”

tumblr_mp19ovCkZA1qg2xvoo1_1280.jpg

Despite achieving fame through his Lucky Strikes-sponsored radio program, Benny’s quips about his hometown, Waukegan, were frequent. There was almost always an allusion to his early life in Waukegan in his radio programs, television shows, film roles, and guest appearances. Luckily, Waukegan is about 45 minutes away from my Rogers Park home, so the pilgrimage was bound to happen sooner or later!

I reunited with an old friend from high school who was particularly fond of Jack Benny, and we hopped into my Altima for a brief drive up to Waukegan.

The first point of interest Jack Benny Memorial Park, just across from the Genesee Theatre. In 2002, the town of Waukegan dedicated a statue in honor of Jack Benny. They chose this location, in particular, because Benny once performed a radio show from the Genesee Theatre. The town rolled out the red carpet and had a parade for Jack Benny and “the gang,” which included Benny, Mary Livingstone, Eddie Anderson, Don Wilson, Phil Harris, Andy Devine, and special guest Dorothy Lamour. Supposedly, the theater lobby has pictures from this event, but it was sadly closed when I visited. The theater sign was restored to match how it looked in Benny’s day.

The Genesee Theatre today.

DSC02078

DSC02079

DSC02085

Donors, or “Lifetime 39ers.”

DSC02083

DSC02089

“Your money or your life…”

"I'm thinking!"

“I’m thinking!”

DSC02087

Some notes from Benny’s theme song, “Love in Bloom,” appear on the left.

Rochester is on the left, Dennis Day is on the right.

Rochester is on the left, Dennis Day is on the right.

DSC02092

DSC02080

Now is a good time to mention that I’m not one to be inconspicuous…

DSC02081 DSC02088  DSC02093 DSC02092 DSC02091

Our next stop was the Jack Benny Center for the Arts, which is maintained by the Waukegan Park District. However, when we got there, this was outside:

DSC02125

Waukegan is also the hometown of writer Ray Bradbury, and they apparently have an annual Dandelion Wine festival in his honor.

DSC02103

It was a cute outdoor festival with live music, sales booths, caricature artists, etc. But no Jack Benny swag, so back to the point!

DSC02124 DSC02122 DSC02123

The Jack Benny Center for the Arts is located at 39 Jack Benny Drive.

DSC02106

You can take violin lessons here! Check out the photo of young Jack.

DSC02112

Ahhh! Autographs! Note the stationary–the Clayton Hotel. This is where Jack married Mary, in Waukegan. Unfortunately, the hotel no longer stands.

DSC02114

I really want to know what recipes they came up with.

DSC02099 DSC02100 DSC02102 DSC02105 DSC02107 DSC02108 DSC02109 DSC02111 DSC02113 DSC02115 DSC02116 DSC02117 DSC02118 DSC02119 DSC02120 DSC02121

Though Jack Benny attended from Waukegan High School, Benny returned to Waukegan on October 6th, 1961, for the dedication of Jack Benny Junior High. The school is the “Home of the 39ers,” and Benny stated that the dedication of this school was the “proudest moment of his life.”

unnamed

 

11103072_10205756589847692_3373852225175533793_o

An article publicizing this visit included the following moment: “A Waukegan band member, Karen Elmore, broke into giggles Thursday as she shared her chair with comedian Jack Benny. Benny, who was visiting his hometown, sat in with the school band, playing his violin.”

12717396_578062819017067_5839662282543765884_n.jpg

School was out when we visited, but here’s a few photos snapped around the building:

DSC02129

Found a Jack in the window!

DSC02126 DSC02127 DSC02128

The next place we visited was the Waukegan Historical Society, which is free of charge. Please note that they do have hours of operation, so make sure to plan accordingly. They have a bed Lincoln slept in, but also Jack Benny’s trunk from his vaudeville days.

DSC02130 DSC02131 DSC02132 DSC02133 DSC02134

DSC02136

Me with Jack Benny’s vaudeville trunk.

 

Now, if you take Sheridan Road going back towards downtown Waukegan, you’ll pass by a small monument of about five different stars–each of them honoring a notable person from Waukegan. It’s just across from the McDonald’s. Here’s a few shots of Jack’s star:

DSC02139 DSC02137 DSC02138

Waukegan has also released a downloadable brochure for self-guided walking tours, relating to all things Benny.

It is worth noting that Jacky Benny’s birthplace/home does not stand anymore, and is now a parking lot. However, the house in which he grew up is still around on Clayton Street. But please do not trespass, as it is a private residence. I drove by with my friend a few times, and the whole family was on the porch…so, no photo opps there. But here it is:

d781336a6145ed8b0b352e8cd9c55490

Front view Large Web view_thumb

There are certainly places of note in Waukegan if you are looking to learn more about Benny and his connections to his hometown. The folks at the historical society are beyond wonderful, and will gladly chat with you and point you in the right direction regarding your interests. One of the gentlemen working there went through Benny’s filmography with me, rattling off how many times Waukegan was mentioned in each film. Amazing!

So bring your violin, your 39-year-old self, and arrive in your finest Maxwell! Waukegan is not to be missed.

UPDATE: The Jack Benny home received a plaque in a dedication ceremony on November 18th, 2015. Looking good!

ct-lns-jack-benny-plaque-st-0216-20150215.jpg

17 Responses to Jack Benny

  1. Dick Baldwin says:

    Love this! Jack Benny was an American original, a great talent and the sweetest man as reported by many who knew him. I always think of his close friendship with George Burns, about how Benny thought that Burns was the funniest man on the face of the earth and would laugh hysterically at just about any word he would utter. Because of their long years of Vaudeville tour with hasty dining and cold coffee these two, once they became successful and settled, insisted on drinking scalding hot coffee and soup, swallowing it down before it could cool at all! A bit of shared history that built a friendship that lasted years. Jack Benny was set to perform in the film version of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” but died before production began. As we all know, George Burns stepped into the role and had a tremendous comeback that lasted the rest of his life — his only motivation for taking the part was to honor Jack and he felt that all the good things happening to him from that point on was Jack smiling down on him — George’s daily rose from his devoted friend. It is so wonderful to see Jack’s hometown and the tributes to him. Thanks so much for this personal glimpse into the life of a man who gave joy to millions and devoted love to those who knew him.

    • Thanks for the wonderful comment! Yes, George Burns was super close with Jack Benny! Both, of course, notable radio “greats,” and best friends to boot. It’s always refreshing to hear tales of camaraderie being far more worthwhile than fame. Clever, down-to-earth, and downright hilarious. I’m so glad that Waukegan does such a wonderful job at paying tribute to Benny.

  2. Rob says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this

  3. Love Jack Benny. If Waukegan wasn’t so far away, I’d go check all this stuff out, but it will have to wait till summer. I have a copy of the Jell-o Recipe Book on my shelf.

  4. peter drysdale says:

    Hi, followed the link from the Jack Benny Facebook page. I enjoyed your trip through Waukegan and hope to get there someday. He was such a wonderful comedian and it’s sad that so few people nowadays are familiar with him.

  5. Betty says:

    Been to Waukegan, saw the statue, house and junior high school. Didn’t see the Arts or Jack Benny dr. or the historical society. Guess I’ll have to make another trip!!

  6. Jack Bagley says:

    This is wonderful!! You see, I too was born in Waukegan (at St. Theresa’s Hospital) in 1958. Though I grew up in Chicago (and now live south of Atlanta), I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Waukegan. And I have worked in radio and television in Georgia! I even got my “professional” nickname from Mr. Benny. What a great tribute to him you have posted! Thank you so much!

    Jack Bagley

  7. Denise Wey says:

    Thank you very very much Annette!
    Greetings from Switzerland
    Denise

  8. Tércio AB says:

    Excellent, toughtful and well-written, funny and kind. I love the pictures. Thank you.
    P.s.: I have to write that I loved the fact that you’re not one to be inconspicuous…

    Greetings from Brasil.

  9. Pingback: Buddy Ebsen | Hometowns to Hollywood

  10. Davy Jones says:

    Annette,
    Your article on Jack Benny and his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois was very captivating and informative.
    Everyday I start my morings off
    with an episode of The Jack Benny program.
    I had heard about the statue of Jack but thought it was inside at the middle school named in his honor. The statue has 2 alligators facing each other with the long running gag for his radio show.
    ” Your Money or Your Life ”
    I don’t understand why the artist
    ” Frank Nelson ”
    Would have used alligators.
    In an episode Frank played an artist who would follow Jack around saying ..
    “Don’t touch my clay ”
    Thank you
    Jim

  11. stephen johnson says:

    Love it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s