The “stuck on 39” running gag got started the year after Jack Benny celebrated his “first” 39th birthday on the air. It was so much fun he decided to do the same thing the next year, because “There’s nothing funny about 40.” Jack would celebrate his 39th birthday 41 times. Headlines just after Christmas, 1974, reported “Jack Benny Dies- At Age 39?”
It seems appropriate that such a well loved entertainer would be born on Valentine’s Day, 1894. Meyer and Emma Kubelsky’s boy was born in Chicago and grew up in nearby Waukegan. He began his lifelong affair with the violin at the age of six. He loved the instrument, but hated to practice. He did get good enough to play with local dance bands and his school orchestra by 14, and by 17 began playing in local Vaudeville theaters. In 1911 he shared billing with the young Marx Brothers. The Marx mother, Minnie, though Jack would be a good fit as permanent accompanist for her boy’s act, but the elder Kubelsky’s wouldn’t allow their 17 year old boy to go on the road. The next year he did go on the road with 45 year old pianist Cora Salisbury. Responding to pressure from another violinist with a similar name, Kubelsky became Ben K. Benny.
Joining the Navy during WWI, he often played to entertain his shipmates. One night his violin playing was booed by the sailors, but he managed to ad-lib his way out of the jam, and thereafter the violin became a prop to his comedy. After the war he started a Single act- “Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology,” but ran afoul of another name problem. He adopted the sailor’s nick name “Jack” (short for Jack Tar) and went on developing his comic talents.
In 1922 Jack was invited to a Passover dinner by Zeppo Marx, where he met cousin Sadye Marks, whom he married in 1927. In Vaudeville tradition Jack Benny worked his new bride into the act, and she adopted the stage name of Mary Livingstone.
Jack Bennycame to the radio on May 2, 1932, sponsored by Canada Dry. The Jack Benny Program became a staple of family entertainment. Jack Benny was one of William Paley’s main targets in the famous CBS Talent Raids of 1948-49.
On the Radio, Jack was everything that he was not in real life. Benny’s character was cheap, vain, petty, and self congratulatory. Part of Benny’s genius was that he didn’t hog the laughs for himself. His assumed personality drew fire from his supporting cast, and Benny took the role of straight man. By allowing himself to become vulnerable, what could have been a despicable character was well loved.
One long lasting highlight of Benny’s comedy was the long lasting mock feud with Fred Allen, who, along with Benny, was part of NBCs powerful Sunday night line-up. The feud began when Allen made a disparaging remark about Benny’s violin playing in an ad-lib. Though the feud would run for years, Benny and Allen were great friends.
In later years Jack Benny rediscovered his love of classic violin playing. More due to his fame than talent, he played as a guest with several prominent orchestras, which resulted in considerable fund raising for these important institutions.
Further proof that Jack Benny had been born on Valentine’s Day: Arrangements had been made in his will so that after his death, Mary Livingstone received a single long stemmed red rose every day. This went on until Mary’s own death nine years later.