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Tuesday, May 17, 2011
By Paul Ford
- There's this episode of the Jack Benny show, recorded during WWII and rationing, where they go to a butcher shop and take a tour of the freezer for 5 cents. Everyone sighs and oohs when they hear about the prime rib.
- Jack Benny started in Vaudeville, then went to radio and television. Later he helped Jack Paar get his start; Paar ended up hosting the Tonight show and people still talk about how interesting he was, and how unpredictable. He was a magnetic loon. There's a chapter in one of his books where he rails against the fairies who were ruining the entertainment industry. It's bad. Jack Benny also boosted Johnny Carson's career. One stage Benny occupied is where Conan O'Brian's version of the Tonight Show was hosted.
- Benny's fake-nemesis was a guy named Fred Allen. Allen's radio show doesn't hold up as well as Benny's—it's zaaany, whereas Benny has a sort of slow-burn goof that goes on for 20-plus years and evolved into about half of the likeable-but-exasperating-protagonist sitcoms that continue today(Seinfeld; 30 Rock; etc.) But Allen was a genius writer. His life in Vaudeville ( Much Ado About Me ) is one of my favorite books.
- Sylvester “Pat” Weaver produced the Fred Allen show. He was the father of Sigourney Weaver. Who appeared on Saturday Night Live, which some say owes a debt to the Fred Allen program. (Years ago a friend told me that she was working at a pizza shop and a familiar-looking woman came in. “Do you play bridge with my mother?” asked my friend. “I'm Sigourney Weaver,” said the woman.)
- Vaudeville was a kind of network. You had booking offices for hubs and the telegraph to manage the flow of entertainment, and the railroad to move the performers from city to city. It was an extraordinarily advanced and cost-effective for the time—a way to bring an enormous amount of entertainment to a very large country. Of course, the broadness that made it so appealing to lots of Americans began to look goofy when the sophistication of radio and movies showed up. Instead of bringing your act to the world you could bring the world to your act.