Saturday, April 12, 2014

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE – LETTER “J” – JACK BENNY, AMERICAN COMEDIAN

JACK BENNY


Every classically-trained string player in the history of the world has played this. We're still playing it; after 47 years and counting, I'M STILL playing these bitches. Kreutzer Etudes. No wonder Jack Benny hated to practice, but the first 2 measures of the Allegro Moderato were his signature "practice piece" on his show, when interrupted by Rochester, or others. He played them at a very slow tempo, and in a particularly screechy, raucous style. It takes a really good player, to play that badly!


Benny, with his violin, as part of the Waukegon High School Band (the violin technically makes it an orchestra, but I nit-pick. I once was the only "string" in a summer-school band in Los Angeles, at age 12) in 1909.

JackBenny. Born Benjamin Kubelsky, February 14, 1894. Died December 26, 1974. An American comedian, vaudevillian, radio, television and film actor and violinist

He was recognized as a leading American entertainer of the 20th century. Jack's hallmark deadpan reactions to the characters around him, included his stingy, miserly ways, playing his violin badly, and relying on his comic timing, to create laughter with a pregnant pause, or a single expression, such as his exasperated “Well!” His radio and television programs, popular from the 1930s to the 1960s, exerted a tremendous influence on the sitcom genre.


I have played in some ridiculous outfits and some ridiculous music, but nothing quite like this. It looks kind of like "Baroque meets Barney Flinstone".

This is another case of “I knew I would write about him, when I picked this theme” solely due to his musical career. When I was a kid, and my folks were suffering through long bouts of Kreutzer Etudes (see above) and my bad playing along, with the stereo cranked up, before banishment to the garage finally, I had only known Benny as what I assumed was a pretty horrible violinist from the few times I had seen his television show.


I had no freakin' idea this was floating around. Here, Benny plays the Bach Double (Violin Concerto) with Isaac Stern, who was one of the giants of the 20th
century, as a violinist. I, of course, doubled up with laughter, because there are so many musicians' "in-jokes" here, it's uncanny, but it's a fun ride, even if  you haven't played in a good orchestra with people who love to communicate via "hairy eye-ball". 

I discovered later on, that he was a very, very good violinist when he performed with the San Jose Symphony, playing Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor. This was a few years before he died, in 1974. I was still in high school, and I had some other obligation, because I would have been there. I went to see Victor Borge once, and he was hilarious, as well as a wonderful musician, and I will have a later post on P. D. Q. Bach, who is iconic for his hilarious musical send-ups.

                                                                                                                           courtesy: maggin1

A couple of things here. That poor Strad, ha ha, and the cost of Stradivari violins has increased considerably since Benny's heyday. They range in price from several hundred thousands of dollars to millions. Stradivarius made violas as well, but they are not remarkable and there are only 12 in existence. My viola is worth considerably more than what Benny's Strad was worth then, but his estate donated the instrument to the L. A. Philharmonic and I know it's worth much more than my viola. The prices for non-fretted string instruments are astronomical, particularly Italian fiddles, whether Cremonese, or Bolognese or from another school of violin, viola and cello-making. Factoid: String basses are made by cabinet-makers.

Again, rather than rely on a c. v. of everything Benny did throughout his life, including having to change his name twice due to the fact that he did not want to confuse better known violinist, Jan Kubelik, and a play-and-patter violinist, named Ben Bernie, when Benny was “Ben K. Bennie: Fiddle Funologist” at the start of his career and finally landed on Jack Benny, I decided that I would focus on his musical side, which is lesser known.

He started playing at the age of 6, and although his parents had high hopes of him becoming a professional violinist, he “hated to practice”. *Guffaw, snort* His teacher was Otto Graham Sr., a neighbor and father of Otto Graham of NFL fame. At age 14, Benny was playing in dance bands and his high school orchestra. But like other musicians I know, he was a dreamer and received poor grades and was ultimately expelled from high school. He did poorly in business school later and attempts to join his father's business, were likewise unsuccessful.



Benny, rehearsing with the California Junior All-State Orchestra, 1959. I played in this orchestra in 1971, and then moved up to the Senior Orchestra in 1972-1974.

At age 17, he began playing the violin in local vaudeville theaters for $7.50 a week and shortly thereafter, he found himself playing in the same theater as the young Marx Brothers. Minnie, their mother, liked his playing and invited him to come along on the road as part of the act, but Benny's parents refused to let him go at the age of 17. It was however, the beginning of his long friendship with the Marx Brothers, especially Zeppo.



U.S. President Harry S. Truman, played piano and played it quite well. He and Benny were friends and got together for jam sessions.

The violin was a life-long love for Benny, and one I understand well, as much as I joke about playing the violin. (See “Playing the Violinand How To Avoid It") My love is truly for the viola, as it covers both the soprano and tenor range well and has a much more throaty, robust sound. I don't want to get started on violas, because I can rhapsodize for æons over them, and in particular, my own. This is about Jack Benny and the crazy stuff he did on the violin. In researching this article, I found that Benny owned several violins, a Strad, which he bequeathed to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a fine French violin that sold at Sotheby's for $84,800.00; most likely a Pecatte.


Group photo of Jack Benny during his highly successful radio show. To the far right, is Mel Blanc, the man who voiced Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Donald Duck and many others for Warner Brothers (I played in their tour orchestra). Don Wilson, to the right of Blanc, was a character who continually exasperated Benny (to Wilson's right) but then everyone on his show did. The one woman, next to Benny, on his right, is Mary Livingstone, his wife. Phil Harris, Dennis Day, and Eddie Anderson (Rochester) round out the group. 

I always have to laugh at violinists for this one thing: every violinist I know has scads of violins. I do not understand the appeal; as you'll note in one of these clips, a violin is a violin. I myself, when playing professionally had 3 or 8 of them lying around the house. They were like “The Invasion of the Body-Snatchers”; they multiplied and kept showing up in closets and under my bed. Horrifying! There are still one or two lying around here somewhere. I have one viola. I have had that viola since I was 19 and next year, will mark 40 years of happiness for us both. I have had “Wolf” (so named by “his” luthier-caretaker and appraiser) longer than any of my 3 marriages put together. But, I do share the fascination of non-fretted string instruments with Jack Benny and I hope you enjoy these clips. They are much better than anything I could write!


BOOK RELEASE ANNOUNCEMENT AND RAFFLE-COPTER!!!



Title: Golden Dawn
Author: Aldrea Alien
Genre: Paranormal


Release date: April 18th, 2014

From now until April 18th, I will be show-casing Aldrea Alien's newest release, Golden Dawn. This will include an raffle-copter (be sure and enter!) and well. . . I'll let her take it from here!

 Family and blood.

After 1100 years, these simple words mean everything to Herald. His life has been ruled by keeping his siblings safe, keeping them from becoming prey whilst feeding on the weaker. His failures have been many and measured by those he has lost. People like his twin brother.

There has always been an enemy to push back or defeat.

Just who the enemy is comes into question when Herald meets the dangerous, angelic creature he is to guard. Wondering where his true loyalties lie is a dangerous thought. No matter whether he chooses family over the heart, it will mean death.

Only the right choice will ensure the life taken is not his.

Buy Links:


Andrea Alien

Author Bio:
Born and raised in New Zealand, Aldrea Alien lives on a small farm with her family, including a menagerie of animals. Since discovering a love of writing at the age of twelve, she hasn't found an ounce of peace from the characters plaguing her mind.






2 comments:

Sue Elvis said...

Mary,

The thing that struck me most was the fact that Jack Benny was considered a failure at school and business but was obviously a very talented man. The whole school system is such a waste of time for most people. The wrong 'skills' are valued. Perhaps we need to follow our passions instead of doing what is safe and expected.

I noticed you are 'bipolar ridden' as you put it. So is my eldest daughter. So difficult at times. Depression must be such a huge burden to carry. I was writing about mental illness a couple of months or so ago, in an attempt to make others more aware of it, especially in regard to recognizing problems a teenager may be experiencing. I don't always understand. I think the general society understands even less. My daughter says her condition, though she wishes she didn't have it, is part of who she is. Anyway rambling on when this has nothing to do with your post!

Viola Fury said...

@Sue!

Feel free to ramble! I'm a good listener. Jack Benny and so many others probably never really felt the lack of an education during that era. They may give it a whirl for the sake of their folks, but in their souls, they know that this is never going to fly.

I knew from the age of four that I was going to be involved in music somehow and I never deviated from it, although I took a couple of detours, like the time I married another violist who, when I got the Moody Blues gig and he didn't, and was very put out, decided it was time for a new career. Computers!

The plus there is I tell people my idiot 2nd husband was disappointed when the Zither Fairy didn't show up, since we MET ON A PLAYING JOB. Obviously, that marriage crashed and burned as did my 3rd, for entirely different reasons.

As to your daughter's depression, I am sorry. It is not something I would wish on anyone. I am a poster child for dysfunctional people and came from a highly dysfunctional family, albeit, a creative and intelligent one, and that's the hell of it for people with depression in this instance; it tends to be existential and life-long. I didn't find out that I was bipolar until 2012, and at the time I had a psychotic break at age 56, which was brought about an irrational idea that if I slept I would die (I think) and so, I stayed up for days and weeks on end, resulting in my losing time and coming to in a psychiatric ward of a hospital. This is also when I started to exhibit overt symptoms of essential, or familial tremor, which my mother suffered from. It took me nearly two years (let's hear it for the United Stated Non-Insurance system! Yay!) to find a marvelous neurologist who helped me to put together some of the "missing pieces" since none of this happens in a vacuum. Now, I'm rambling. . .

In the case of your daughter and her depression, I am so sorry. It doesn't hit just dysfunctional families; it hits completely healthy ones and may be selective and no one knows why. I have a wonderful, charming friend who lives in the Faroe Islands; he is bipolar and no one knows why. It is his disease, just as my depression, which is now more bipolar, although I do suffer from depression occasionally is mine and your daughter's is hers. It is part of who we are, as is my e.t., which I make light of. I'm also legally blind, so we can have huge fun with that! I'm not making light of any of this, but with 58 years trundling around on this planet and dealing with some dark and hard stuff, I am living proof that it's survivable.

It's hard to understand and hard to explain to anyone who doesn't suffer from the disease and to add to that is the stigma that is still, all these years later associated with it. The British comedian Stephen Frye talks quite candidly about his own bipolar self and he said something that may be of great use to your daughter. While acknowledging the crippling, black pain associated with his own depression, he likens it to a rainy day, because he knows, that the sun will always, always come out again.

I believe in the long view fervently, and also good meds help, along with a good psychiatrist. You, your daughter, anyone in your family, are welcome to ask me anything; so much was unknown to me and it wasn't until I opened up and accepted the help and talked that I saw, really SAW, that I am not alone. Blessings to you, Sue and I am so glad that we met. You may feel free to ramble away on my blog anytime you wish! Mary <3