Q & A with author/editor Kathy Fuller-Seeley, on Jack Benny’s Lost Broadcasts, Volume 3 October 30, 1932-Jan 26, 1933
Q: What’s this book series about?
Jack Benny and writer Harry Conn created new kinds of radio comedy in this series, sponsored by Canada Dry Ginger Ale. They started with a master of ceremonies Jack, a self-deprecating “Broadway Romeo” transplant from vaudeville, trying to put on a radio program. They added characters like a band leader, a young songstress, a commercial announcer and, after 13 weeks, a boisterous young fan from Plainfield NJ – Mary Livingstone. In live broadcasts, the gang informally joked around the microphone with each other, started to embark on adventures around the city, satirized popular culture, parodied recent films and old melodramas, and (infamously) kidded the sponsor’s product.
VERY FEW of these episodes exist in recorded form, so it’s exciting to read these scripts and learn how, bit by bit, Jack and Mary developed their soon-to-be-famous radio characters. Schlepperman is invented (in his initial version). Puns fly around. The Diddleberries and Van Twiffs begin their feud. Mary’s role expands. These rare scripts have been locked away in the UCLA archive for more than 90 years. We finally have the chance to experience Benny’s radio roots.
Q: What happens in Volume Three?
Jack faced the most shocking challenges of his entire radio career in these 13 weeks. His sponsor abruptly moved the show in late October 1932 to a new network (CBS) and different broadcasting nights (Thursdays and late Sundays). Benny lost his bandleader and singer (Olsen and Shutta) with whom he’d built an innovative and popular radio show. Sent to New Orleans to meet the new musical cast (Ted Weems and his All-American Band, and Andrea Marsh), Jack, Mary and Harry soon learned that Canada Dry also decreed a new narrative -- the change to a different type of show. New writer/performer Sid Silvers was hired to take charge of a new continuing plot – Jack was to become a Broadway revue producer with Sid as troublemaking sidekick “stooge.” This set-up lasted six episodes before Benny, Conn and Livingstone revolted, demanding return of their show’s control. Canada Dry relented, but then curtly cancelled the program at the next renewal point in mid-January 1933.
Q: What are comical highlights of these scripts?
Mary Livingstone rose to the challenge of becoming Jack’s snarky sidekick. And she engaged in a delightfully-funny love scene rehearsal with a movie star. Gracie Allen made an unexpected appearance on January 8, 1933 during her notorious campaign of bursting into rival radio shows in the search for missing brother George. The publicity stunt made Burns and Allen famous radio comedians.
Harry Conn scripted a jazzy parody of the old melodrama “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that he and Mary performed while Jack travelled. It undoubtedly raised eyebrows across the Deep South. Jack and Mary continued their parody of Hollywood MGM blockbuster movie Grand Hotel, further developing the character of crusty accountant, old “Kringelein” who bursts into routines to shout that he’s only got “six minutes to live!” Another character created by Harry Conn, Shlepperman, showed up as the financial backer of Jack’s purported Broadway review.
Q: What new behind-the-scenes history did you discover?
While Jack never let his frustration show in the radio broadcast scripts, trade journal Variety trumpeted the backstage gossip about the showdown Benny, Conn and Livingstone held at the sponsor’s office. Local New York newspaper reporters published rumors that the Bennys feuded in public with Sid Silvers, and that Silvers was angling to become the replacement. Silvers landed in a better place, despite the gossipmongering, as a failed musical revue he was featured in, with Ethel Merman, was revamped and became a Broadway smash. Silvers could not have stayed with the radio program, anyway. When Benny’s program was abruptly terminated, “nervous Nellies” in the nascent commercial radio industry tried to label Jack a failure, a “used comedian,” whose name was too-associated with his previous sponsor to be able to attract a new sponsor. Especially not at mid-season. At the lowest point of the Great Depression. Jack was turned down in several high-profile auditions, and reporters clucked their tongues.
Luck would ultimately be in Jack’s corner, however. Al Jolson, temperamental star of movies, stage and radio, petulantly walked off his radio series sponsored by automobile manufacturer Chevrolet. Chevvy sought a quick replacement. Thus Jack, Mary and Harry Conn scrambled to prepare their comedy to debut (with yet another bandleader and singer) as The Chevrolet Program on March 3, 1933. A portentous occasion, the very night of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential inauguration, when FDR declared to an anxious America that “The only thing they had to fear, was fear itself.”