Jack Benny, The Jack Benny Show

Question: Please elaborate on this for my dad, who is a big fan of the late Jack Benny. Two of his biggest character traits were his cheapness and his bad violin-playing. Was he really that cheap? And was he really so bad on violin? Thanks.


Answer: You provided the answer in your question, Bill, when you used the term "character traits." Benny, who built a career via vaudeville and a popular radio show before launching TV's The Jack Benny Show, which kicked off on CBS in 1950 and finished 15 years later on NBC, played his stinginess to the hilt, played the violin poorly — and faked both well enough to become an entertainment legend. It was all part of the insecure, self-centered, no-talent character he invented and pulled off well enough to fool those who didn't know any better.

Of course, countering that image — one of the comic's most famous gags was facing down an armed robber who threatened, "Your money or your life!" to which Benny gave a long pause before replying, "I'm thinking it over" — was downright expensive in the real world. "It costs me money to live myself down," Benny told TV Guide in 1959. "I have to tip double practically everywhere I go." That kind of attitude paid off, however — those who worked with him were compensated handsomely for their efforts and had nothing but praise for him after his 1974 death. "He was more lavish than anyone I ever knew, with the exception of Sinatra," Fred De Cordova, a producer for Benny and Johnny Carson, told TV Guide in 1981.

Benny, born Benjamin Kubelsky, gave generously of his time and money to various charities and causes throughout his career. And a true miser wouldn't have paid $25,000 for a 1724 Stradivarius violin, as he did in 1957. In fact, Benny went on to raise significant amounts of money for orchestras nationwide using that fiddle (known as the "Benny Strad"), by donning a tux and playing the fool for audiences whose ticket money benefited symphonies and their pension funds. By 1961, when he taped a CBS Carnegie Hall event featuring such legends as Benny Goodman, soprano Roberta Peters, pianist Van Cliburn and longtime Benny pal Isaac Stern, he'd already given 21 concerts and raised more than $2.4 million, according to a TV Guide feature written at the time.

The truth is Benny was better with a bow than his character performances indicated, but not as good as people who thought he was holding back believed. As much as his less-than-professional playing earned him laughs ("Am sending you as a gift all the wrong notes you dropped at our Honolulu performance in case you want to reuse them," Honolulu Symphony conductor George Barati joked in a cable after Benny played a benefit for him), the comedian worked hard late in life to be a quality musician, having stopped practicing in earnest at the age of 15. He prepared for live performances, calling in his show's musical director to put short excerpts of great works on paper and arriving at each venue a day early to go over his pieces with the other musicians. "Just so I begin and end with the orchestra is about all I aim for," he said in an interview, sitting beside Stern. "Most people think I can play better than I do. Isaac is one of the few who knows how ridiculous it is — that I play the best I can."

Perhaps that was so, but it was wife Mary Livingstone, and not virtuoso friend Stern, who, as Benny told the tale, "straightened me out beautifully" when he got to thinking too hard about the musical career that could have been. "I said, 'Why, oh why didn't I keep practicing all those years?'" he recalled, giving one of his famous pregnant pauses. "'It's a good thing you didn't,' Mary told me. 'If you'd tried being a concert violinist and a comedian, you wouldn't have been good enough to be a great fiddler and not bad enough to be doing what you're doing now. You'd be right in the middle — a great big nothing!'"

Certainly, Benny was far from that. A true class act whose humor was based on self-deprecation rather than cruelty and whose notoriety came from nice-guy status rather than outrageous public acting-out, he prided himself on the affection he received from the industry. ("Go see my enemies — if you can find any," he told reporters gathering info on him.) "We think Benny will be remembered mostly as the Master of the Meaningful Pause," TV Guide's editors wrote not long after his death, calling his silent response to the would-be robber's threat the best use of dead air in the history of broadcasting. "It's sad to realize the Meaningful Pause has become permanent."