Born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago into a family of Polish Jews, Jack Benny transmuted his modest skills as a classical violinist into an enduring career as a vaudeville comedian, radio personality, movie actor, and television host. A high school dropout and a part-time band musician, Benny began his stage career at age seventeen playing ragtime send-ups of classical music on his violin. He found working with partners more amenable than performing solo, so formed a series of duo acts, first with singer Ned Miller, then with the zaftig pianist Cora Salisbury, and finally with Lyman Woods.
On the eve of the First World War Benny and Woods played the Palace Theatre in New York and bombed, a failure so disheartening that Benny considered leaving show business. Benny enlisted in the Navy working as an entertainer and in that all male environment perfected his comic repartee--the puzzlement, the famous comic pauses, and parsimony. His great discovery of this era was that one did not need a stage partner to build a character, but could do so interacting with an audience. The fiddle became a pretext for conversation.
Jack Benny adopted his stage name in 1920. Over the course of the 1920s he ascended to the heights of vaudeville stardom and parlayed his clout into an M.G.M. contract. On screen, however, lacking the engagement with a live audience, his comedy fizzled. He turned to radio in 1932 when he learned that broadcasts could be performed before live audiences. On NBC until 1948, then CBS until 1955, Benny altered his mode of performance, building a cast of characters including his wife comedian Mary Livingston (Sadie Marks), Eddie Anderson, and Kenny Baker (later Dennis Day). His comedy became more reactive. His stage persona became more exaggeratedly vain and petty. In order to secure show business guests the show moved to the West Coast in the 1940s.
During the height of his popularity Benny reentered the world of movies, lensing a trio of notable releases: "George Washington Slept Here," "Charley's Aunt," and the masterful World War II satire "To Be or Not to Be." In 1950 Benny commenced his television career, at first with intermittent specials, later with bi-weekly programs, and finally in the 1960s after he had closed his radio series, weekly. It proved one of the central variety shows on television during its 1950-1965 run. Benny's repertoire of dead pan expressions proved television gold as his comic timing had proved congenial to radio.
By the time of his retirement in 1965 Benny had been an entertainer for over fifty years. David S. Shields/ALS