Today is the birthday of Dennis Day (Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty, 1916-1988).
Day came along too late for vaudeville; we celebrate him here today for his long, close professional association with Jack Benny. Day was a singer in a college glee club when he got hired for Benny’s radio show as a replacement for Kenny Baker in 1939. (Most radio shows sported a girl singer. Because Benny was happily married to Mary Livingstone he could get away with a boy singer.) Day’s role in the Benny family was to sing once or twice per show in that pleasant Irish tenor, and to take part in the comedy, doing a kind of sarcastic self-parody of a wide-eyed young lad. One can hear Benny say, “Oh, Dennis!”, in one’s head, just as plainly as “Oh, Don!”, “Oh, Mary!” and “Oh, Rochester!” It was still going on in my day! We had a great Christmas record when I was growing up…mostly Dennis doing carols, with Benny doing a cameo to help boost record sales I would imagine. Day was still appearing as the wisecracking kid on Benny’s tv show in its final season in 1965, even though he was nearly 50 years old.
Day also had shows of his own. On radio there was A Day in the Life of Dennis Day which ran from 1946 through 1951, followed by his tv program The Dennis Day show, which ran from 1952 through 1954. His career wound down in the late 1970s.
Here he is singing “Danny Boy” on Benny’s radio show, St. Patrick’s Day, 1946:
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc