"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Ushering in the New Year with Jack Benny

Remember when New Year's Eve was celebrated right at New Year's Eve? That was the whole idea: to watch the clock as that magical time of midnight arrived. It was literally the new year, so raise a toast at midnight and make merry.
A trend developed for more and more celebrating to be done earlier in the day. A New Year's Eve party might be held in the evening or even the afternoon.
I was reminded of the more traditional approach when following a personal ritual of mine last night (New Year's Eve). This ritual is to watch a DVD of an old Jack Benny New Year's special. I bought this DVD on a whim at our old Coborn's store once. It includes both a Christmas and New Year's Eve special.
We're reminded of the 1950s in these specials. The New Year's Eve special is a total delight.
Sorry, not so with the Christmas special - too bad - because we see an unenlightened aspect of that fading-away time. The Christmas special gets "humor" at the end from the Mel Blanc character committing suicide - we hear a gunshot - as he is annoyed by the Benny character who plays a department store customer. Today we understand suicide as a reflection of mental illness.
The Benny show creators meant well scripting this episode I'm sure. They also gave us a panorama of 1950s adult culture in the New Year's Eve special. The New Year's Eve special was artistically terrific, better than I would have expected. I love the whole premise of Benny and his troupe approaching a holiday with such verve.
It wasn't entertainers performing from a stage or studio. It was entertainers as they might have celebrated the holiday as real people.
There is some ignorance in this program just as in the Christmas program but I can dismiss it as innocent, or let's just say it's easier to dismiss it as innocent. The Jack Benny New Year's Eve special gets humor in several places from the idea of excessive alcohol consumption.
We are getting further removed from a culture that thinks getting drunk is funny or harmless. Mothers Against Drunk Driving had a lot to do with the change. This group was the driving force but I feel there was some inevitability behind it anyway.
I see the old humor as epitomized by Benny as reflecting innocence. The suicide bit at the end of the Christmas special was just a little too much for me.
I think we all wax nostalgic when we think of the days when the Greatest Generation - yes, I'm afraid they're associated with those cultural traits - lived life with some excess and detachments. We see on the Benny show the great spectacle of people jammed into nightclubs, filling tables left and right, waiting for the clock to reach midnight. Noisemakers, funny little hats and confetti are everywhere. You'd need a bulldozer to clean it all up afterward.
There's live music with instruments like saxes and clarinets, not guitars. Inhibitions? Forget it, there aren't any. The booze flowed.
Everyone knew there were certain individuals in their midst who wouldn't be able to handle it well. Was drunk driving even enforced then?
The Jack Benny special gets some of its humor from this activity but there's so much other stuff that's good and endearing. The camaraderie of Benny's little troupe is a distinctive quality. They seem sort of like "good old boys," the truly good kind. We don't even know what some of their talents are. They're "buddies."
We should all be so lucky as to belong to networks like this. These were men who wore suits and ties. They were respectful.
We definitely know the talents of Dennis Day. Day breaks into song during an informal gathering of the guys. This was anything but a token song. It was about "being an Irishman." Day is able to intone various foreign accents as he celebrates the nationality. Other troupe members play instruments. The spirit of sheer fun and innocence pervades.
This was fun as defined by the Greatest Generation, the generation that won World War II. The gang wraps up their music and then departs for their "night on the town," leaving Benny behind who presumably has a date. This is a setup for misfortune of course.
It turns out his date cancels because she's called upon to work a shift as a waitress. He visits the restaurant where she's working. The prices are staggeringly low.
He goes out on the streets where the spirit of the nightclubs has spilled out. A couple drunks befriend him. One of them forgets if he's been drinking Scotch or bourbon.
Finally Benny ends up in his apartment suite, bemoaning how the evening turned out and seeming lonely. Except that he ends up not lonely at all. There to share his company is - guess who? - Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.
You probably remember "Rochester" as Benny's valet/chauffeur. As an African American he broke a comedic barrier. The prescient Benny treated him as an equal, eschewing any racial stereotype. The valet could one-up his vain, skinflint boss.
Rochester opens champagne and he and Benny usher in the new year together, seated on a sofa. You can hear the sounds of revelry from outside. This was "the old days" when New Year's Eve celebrating was literally at New Year's Eve, midnight, not at an evening dinner gathering.
Am I implying it's more pure? I'm really only implying it's somewhat dated. I myself ushered in 2013 at an evening dinner gathering at our Morris Senior Community Center. It was wonderful. Does the Regional Fitness Center still host something for New Year's Eve Day? That used to be a big family-centered celebration.
I'm writing this post on New Year's Day morning. Can you imagine how in the old days all those people felt on New Year's Day morning, presuming they could roll out of bed at all? The "hangover" was just as funny as what they did the night before.
But we all love the Greatest Generation. They did some careless things in a time when we all were so much more undisciplined and unenlightened. But they defeated the Third Reich. They defeated the empire of Japan. They deserved a little slack.
Let's all remember Jack Benny. He became an entertainment icon as a comic penny-pinching miser. He was perpetually 39 years old. His violin playing left something to be desired. His comic timing was oh so precise with a mere pause or expression. His radio and TV shows were popular from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Hey all you people who think we need more rigorous academic standards today: Benny was expelled from high school! He became a friend of Zeppo Marx and began his rise. He was a product of vaudeville. He served in the U.S. Navy in World War I, when he found that his violin playing could bring some boos. The boos gave him some inspiration. He discovered he could "ad lib" his way out of such situations.
The comic blossomed. He took on the name "Jack" because this was a common sailor's nickname. Previously he was "Ben" and came under pressure to change due to the lawyer for someone named "Ben Bernie."
Well, my name is Brian Williams, same as the NBC News anchorman, but I'm under no pressure to change. Still, when I send an email to someone who might be confused, I sign it "Brian Williams, not the anchorman."
The violin became mainly a prop for Benny. Low-key comedy became his stock in trade. He got on Ed Sullivan's radio show in 1932.
Benny hosted his own weekly radio show from 1932 to 1948. His stage image of being cheap, petty and vain was totally unlike the real Benny.
The supporting characters like Dennis Day were an important part of the formula - easy to overlook some, like "straight men."
Benny was the lovable "everyman."
In 1948 television was on the horizon. Benny was most surely ready. He had his own TV show from 1950 to 1965. CBS dropped the show because of demographics in 1964. Those darn demographics! NBC picked him up for a year but the show got fewer viewers than Gomer Pyle USMC (Jim Nabors).
The regular TV show ended but Benny hosted occasional TV specials which I'm sure most boomers like me remember. He and Bob Hope became stalwarts with this. Hope especially seemed to become a cultural anachronism. It was easy to love Benny throughout his career.
I love ushering in the New Year each year with the Jack Benny DVD from 1954. It's like entering a time machine. The entertainment is so well-crafted and inspired. This was the Greatest Generation at its cultural zenith.
Let's have a toast (maybe with grapefruit juice).
Addendum: Did it really help to put a hot water bottle on one's head to deal with the hangover? Or was that just a stereotype from the comic strips?
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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