There are falls from grace and then there are falls from grace. Benny Rubin went from being one of vaudeville’s top comedians to playing the delivery man on The Munsters who gets really scared and runs away in fast motion. There are those who probably think that’s a step up. (Al Lewis, for example).
He was born in Boston in 1899 and educated at the Industrial School for Boys, a reform school, in Shirley, Massachusetts. He started in 1914, at Sam Cohen’s amateur night, where he knew Fred Allen. From the start, Rubin was an excellent hoofer. He broke in at the professional level in a tab show, with which he toured for a year, and then worked for several months on a show boat. He kicked around in burlesque for awhile, then went back into vaudeville as part of a team with a man named Charlie Hall.
In 1923, he debuted as a single at the Alhambra. His act consisted of comic Jewish monologues (which were to be the mainstay of his reputation for the next fifteen years), a tap dance, and a trombone solo. The Jewish routine brought him great popularity, although less so among sensitive Jews. His character was a broad (and to many, offensive) stereotype. A photo of one of his characters tells it all: greasepaint van dyke and skull cap, accentuating his prominent proboscis and too-close-together eyes. He looks several notches more heinous than Shylock. But he was popular.
By 1930, he was an M.C. at the Palace. In 1932, he formed a sort of loose team with Jack Haley co-hosting at the Palace. This and a couple of early talkies were the summit of his success. He had a difficult personality that kept getting in his way. He was fired from the 1925 Ziegfeld revue No Foolin’ for mouthing off to the boss. He blew a contract with Fox Pictures by refusing to get a nose job. Similar bad luck plagued him with his shot at a radio program for Orange Julius, which was canceled after one broadcast.
In 1938, he stopped doing his Jewish character through the influence of “pressure groups” Why did they think his material was anti-semitic? Gee, it couldn’t have been his first film The Delicatessen Kid.(1929)
After this, he sank rapidly from attempts to find him starring vehicles…to supporting parts…to bit parts. Orson Welles threw him some work in the 40s on The Mercury Theatre On the Air and gave him two lines in Citizen Kane which were cut from the final print. In the 50s he was frequently seen as a semi-regular on The Jack Benny Show, usually as an irascible help-desk employee (“I dunno!” was his catch-phrase). But he fell from even this level. (“I really dunno!”) From the starring vehicles of the 1930s, by the 50s he was accepting roles like “waiter”, “janitor”, and “first Indian”. He worked constantly and was in some terrific movies and tv shows, but always only with a couple of lines. In between acting jobs, he worked as a jewelry salesman and a stockbroker. What a strange thought. How many other walk-ons on Dream of Jeannie had once been big stars? Did the other cast members know? How does one treat a show biz Romanov? Nevertheless, he was working. He managed to do so almost up until his death in 1986.
When I wrote No Applause all I knew about him came from books (but that was quite a bit — he was quite a legendary character). Since then, I’ve been majorly schooled — seen his shorts on TCM and Youtube, and have been primed to look for him in his later bit roles. (“Look! That security guard in The Nightstalker”! It’s Benny Rubin! ….and…..”Geez, that studio executive in Jerry Lewis’s The Errand Boy…it looks like…can it-?…why yes, it’s Benny Rubin!” ) So, you see, Benny Rubin is kind like Wee Willie Winkie: “upstairs, downstairs, all around the town.” Look! Here he is again!:
To learn about the roots of variety entertainment, 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 comedy film history see 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