Well, the other shoe has done gone and dropped in our little Kathryn Fuller Seeley–Jack Benny book plunder period. A month ago we took Jack’s birthday as occasion to plug her scholarly tome Jack Benny and the Golden Age of Radio Comedy. A couple of days ago I got my copy of her latest effort, no less a feat of research, Jack Benny’s Lost Radio Broadcasts (Volume One: May 2 – July 27, 1932), published by Bear Manor Media.
Now, as the title indicates this book covers a very specific and narrow slice of pop culture. But it is an extremely illuminating and valuable slice for those seriously interested in the history of classic comedy, old time radio, and/or the career of Benny. Most Benny fans have heard plenty of his old radio shows, but they’re almost certainly from a much later period, when his sponsor was Jell-O when he’d assembled his familiar stock company and established the beloved character foibles and the rituals that went with them. This book covers the crucial period of Benny’s FIRST radio broadcasts, featuring transcripts drawn from available archives. It’s so early that it captures a rare glimpse of Benny’s vaudeville voice, one previously only glimpse-able in his first film The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Benny had been in NINE movies by this point and played theatres all over the country, but it was through his radio presence that he truly became a popular national figure. He was already 38 years old at this time, a middle aged man with a receding hairline. Gradually, that became the crux of his character: parsimonious, prickly, irritable in ways that young men never are. In the early days, he scarcely had a character. His act was impersonal in a style that was popular back then, drawn from puns and quips from joke books and such. Initially he has short monologues and exchanges with singer Ethel Shutta and her husband, bandleader George Olsen between musical numbers. A lot of Benny’s remarks in these early shows have a suprisingly cutesy tone, which I take to be a holdover from the tastes of the teens and twenties. As is the formal, stilted manner of his expression, which would become much more natural as time went on. Over the short three month period covered in this book, the material already becomes much freer, generated by Benny himself and his only writer at the time, Harry Conn. This is a period, as Seeley terms it in her excellent introductory essay, that is above all EXPERIMENTAL. Lots of throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what will stick. And towards the end of the period, Benny adds his first recognizable cast member: Mary Livingstone. Anyway, I found it very reassuring to learn how downright SHAKY Benny was at the start of the show, in spite of his decades of experience. Knowing how masterful he became, it speaks to the good old virtues of application and stickin’ with it and learning from your successes and your mistakes.
The sponsor of Benny’s first radio show was Canada Dry Ginger Ale. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of their sponsorship was the frank way they announce at the top of every broadcast that the entertainment exists to advertise the beverage. They LITERALLY say it that way. As I learned from my groovy teachers back in the 1970s, it’s something you ought to keep in mind every time you watch any show with commercials, including the news. Anyway, consider this a commercial for Seeley’s book — I endorse it without reservation to all you hardcore old time show biz fans and scholars! And let’s make this is a success so she can bring out the next few volumes. Get this one here.