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Not a Day Over 39

A new convention celebrates the birthday of America's favorite miser, Jack Benny.

by Naomi Pfefferman

February 13, 2003 | 7:00 pm

In one of his most famous bits, comic Jack Benny was held up by a thug who demanded, "Your money or your life." His response was silence. And more silence. Then, desperately, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking!"

The fiddle-playing Jewish comedian (1894-1974) dominated radio and TV for decades with his persona of a put-upon, miserly fellow who insisted he was 39. He'll be honored this weekend at a convention, "39 Forever," sponsored by the International Jack Benny Fan Club and the National Comedy Hall of Fame. Events will include Museum of TV and Radio screenings, trivia games, a Friars Club banquet and panel discussions with experts such as Benny's daughter, Joan; his manager, Irving Fein; satirist Harry Shearer; and Eddie Carroll of the Benny tribute "Laughter in Bloom."

If the comic was America's best-known cheapskate, he avoided the anti-Semitic stereotype.

"Benny secularized cheapness," cultural historian Neal Gabler told The Forward in 1999. "People didn't go around saying, 'Boy, that cheap Jew, Benny.'"

Despite his riffs on stinginess, most listeners never knew the Midwesterner (ne Benjamin Kubelsky) was Jewish. Unlike comics such as Eddie Cantor and George Jessel, he sounded less "like a Catskill refugee" than a "middle American, middle-class everyman," Gerald Nachman wrote in his book, "Raised on Radio" (Pantheon, 1998).

Yet by creating his lovable cheapskate character during the Depression, this son of a Russian immigrant drew "on the Eastern European Jewish condition and [applied] it to his American audiences," Lawrence Epstein wrote in "The Haunted Smile" (PublicAffairs, 2002), his book on Jews and comedy.

In Benny's private life, the tightwad image came with a price.

 "He'd always tip extra, just to prove he wasn't cheap," Fein told The Journal.

At her Beverly Hills home on a recent Friday afternoon, Joan Benny, who is in her 60s, sat in a book-lined living room decorated with her father's memorabilia and described how dad grew up in an Orthodox home in Waukegan, Ill., the son of a haberdasher. When he was 8, his father gave him a $100 violin; his parents were appalled when he asked to take his fiddle on the vaudeville circuit a decade later. Permission came only when his pianist promised to shield him from treif and loose women.

According to Benny's unpublished autobiography, he met his future wife, Sadie Marks, when fellow vaudevillian Zeppo Marx took him to a distant relative's Passover seder around 1921. After Benny broke into radio 11 years later, Marks eventually joined the cast as his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Mary Livingstone (thereafter, Marks used that name in her private life).

By the time the Bennys segued into television in 1950, they had adopted Joan from a Jewish agency and moved into a Beverly Hills two-story white brick Georgian next door to Lucy and Desi. Their lavish Hollywood parties included guests such as Frank Sinatra and Barbara Stanwyck, Joan said.

She described her father as an irreligious man who attended Hillcrest country club and had a Canter's sandwich named for him, but rarely set foot in synagogue. Each December, a 10-foot-tall Christmas tree graced the bay window in their first-floor library, where dad presided over scriptwriting sessions in his Queen Anne winged leather chair. On Friday nights, the family ate gribenes and other Jewish delicacies at the grandparents' duplex on Third Street near Fairfax Avenue, "which was about as religious as we got," she said.

She felt the butler needed roller skates when the family dined at the home of dad's best friend, Jewish comic George Burns.

"The two of them ate so fast, I think, because of their years in vaudeville trying to wolf down meals in between eight shows a day," she said.

Her father's relationship with Burns revealed much about Benny's on-air persona. "Minus the stinginess, he was exactly like his character," she said. "He played a kind of mild-mannered patsy, the butt of the joke, and he was like that with George and in real life. For example, my father could never make George laugh, but all George had to do was lift a finger and my father would fall down on the floor."

Joan recalled her dad wearing crazy outfits when greeting the cigar-puffing Burns (Burns didn't crack a smile) and his mock exasperation when his pal hung up on him in the middle of a telephone conversation.

"At dinner with the two of them, you were just waiting for something to happen," she said.

The American public did the same throughout Benny's weekly radio and TV shows.

Fan club President Laura Leff, 33, hopes the convention will introduce a whole new generation to his work. Leff, who founded the club at age 10 after viewing Benny reruns, isn't alone.

"It's meaningful to me that younger people will discover Jack," Fein said.

For information about the convention, which runs from Feb. 14-16,  visit www.jackbenny.org.

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