Benny Kubelski, born in 1894 in Chicago, died 42 years ago on Dec. 26, 1974. He got his start in vaudeville at the age of 17, playing his violin, sometimes with a musical partner. He struggled for years, changing his name to Ben K. Benny and then to Jack Benny. It wasn’t until World War I when he was in the navy and entertaining servicemen that he began adding comedy to his act. After the war, he returned to vaudeville and found greater success, but it was radio that made him a star comedian. I have many fond memories of watching him on television–his humor and sense of timing was legendary.
On Valentine’s Day in 1894, Benjamin Kubelsky was born in Chicago. He started in vaudeville at 17, playing the violin (something he did rather well, by the way), but gradually began to add quips and jokes to his performance. Soon he was known as a violin-and-patter man. In these years, he met the Marx Brothers, a similarly unknown act, and became lifelong friends with Zeppo Marx.
As he became better known, his name became a problem. A famous violinist named Kubelik sued him, saying that he was damaging his (Kubelik’s) reputation and needed to change his name. Kubelsky changed it to Ben K. Benny. This provoked a reaction from another, better known violin and patter man named Ben Bernie, so he changed again, to Jack Benny. The third time’s a charm–it stuck.
These name changes are important to me because Jack Benny figures in my book, THE IMPERSONATOR. My research showed that in 1924, when the action takes place, he was a Small Time performer who did not yet use the name Jack Benny. But to make him recognizable to readers, I cheated and bumped the date forward a little. I refer to him as Benny Kubelsky and have the main character, Jessie, mention that his name had just changed to Jack Benny.
So HAPPY BIRTHDAY to both Benny Kubelsky and Jack Benny!!
If you are over fifty, you’ll probably remember Jack Benny and his comedy routines from television; if you’re over eighty, you’ll probably remember his radio shows as well. But there is no one left alive who remembers Jack Benny from his vaudeville days.
Jack was one of the twentieth century’s most important entertainers and one of the few to have performed in vaudeville, radio, film, stage, and television. A master of comic timing and the pregnant pause, his running gags included his age (always 39), his penny-pinching nature, and his violin playing.
I became interested in Jack Benny when writing my (unpublished) mystery that is set in 1924 in vaudeville. Although I thought I knew a lot about him, I discovered an entirely different person when I dug into his early years. Little is known about his vaudeville days compared to the rest of his career. Born Benny Kubelsky in Chicago he learned to play a passable violin and performed on stage. He met the Marx Brothers when he was 17 and became good friends with Zeppo Marx, eventually marrying one of the Marx cousins. When at 18, he started a musical act with a pianist, a famous violinist named Jan Kubelik objected, saying their names were too similar and his reputation would be damaged by the young upstart violinist. Kubelik’s lawyer pressured him to change his name, so he changed to Ben K. Benny (sometimes spelling it Bennie). No luck. The lawyer of another fiddle performer named Ben Bernie objected, so he changed again, this time to Jack Benny.
To use Jack Benny as a minor character in my novel, I had to find out the dates of all these changes so I could use the correct one for 1924, when he was thirty years old and struggling. Turns out it was Jack Benny at that time, but my character had known him from earlier days when Benny was his first name, so she calls him Benny.
This is a great montage of Jack Benny pictures that I found particularly helpful because it showed me what he looked like in his younger years. What a handsome young man he was!