On This Day in 1943: Gracie Allen Decides to Replace Jack Benny with "Thirty Minutes of Refinement"

Last night, I finally got to see the so-called highlights of the Academy Awards, an assortment of leftovers that UK channel Sky One tosses to those subscribers who refuse to have juicy bits of trivia over-nighted for a premium. While mercifully abridged, the ceremony was chopped off at all the wrong spots, with more attention being paid to red carpet parading than to the presentation proper, let alone the politics behind the trophy distribution.

I had been looking forward to a few choice moments described by television critic Brent McKee in his online journal, but never got to judge for myself what exactly was the matter with Lauren Bacall, whom I had already presumed dead a few weeks ago. The commercials-riddled presentation made gossip-fest Entertainment Tonight look like an uncompromising piece of investigative journalism. Being accosted by the inane and utterly superfluous commentary provided by a couple of British MC stand-ins, I hardly even got as much as a glimpse of Jon Stewart, whose hosting of the high-profile, low-rated affair received rather mixed reviews.

Just how difficult it is to find a suitable master (or mistress) of ceremonies was played up in this year’s introductory Oscar sketches, in which former presentational misfires like Whoopi Goldberg and David Letterman refused to front once more what amounted to a chorus of disapproval.

What is required of an Academy Awards host is not simply a modicum of charm and wit, as well as a stature that bears a vague semblance to Hollywood star power, but also a persona firm enough not to crack when faced with the shocks and punctures it is likely to sustain during a never entirely predictable live broadcast. Censors and advertisers balk at volatile comics (an energetic personality Robin Williams once used to personify), as much as a large percentage of the statistical presence known as the general public might enjoy their ad-libbing antics.

True, the exposure of certain parts of the human anatomy aside, American broadcasters are no longer quite as squeamish as they once were in their furtive approach to the lexicon of the commoners (even though rap lyrics can still be awarded a prize without being deemed fit to air in their original form). Still, notwithstanding the fact that everyday language seems to have just about shrivelled to the utterance of monosyllabics, the broadcasters’ dictionary of permissible phrases sure used to be much smaller a few decades ago.

On this day, 7 March, in 1960, for instance, Jack Paar returned to host the Tonight Show after an absence of one month, during which he protested NBC’s rejection of a tame bit of toilet humor (some quip about a “water closet”). Today, of course, it is chiefly political correctness that concerns those who suck up the open air of which they are merely lessees while sucking up to the advertisers and corporate entities that condition it.

Sometimes I wonder whether the host is as overrated a figure as the actor who portrays the spectacle that is a James Bond movie. How irreplaceable are the ostensible headliners of any show, even if their names are as closely associated with it as, say, Jack Benny’s was with the Jack Benny Program? Benny learned the hard way on this day in 1943. The perennial 39-year old—who would later give a young Paar his break when discovering the newcomer while entertaining the troops)—was forced to sit out his own broadcast due to a cold, only a funeral having kept him away during the previous season.

Asked to substitute for him were fellow radio comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen. Yet while George was perfectly willing to pinch-hit for bedridden Benny, his batty wife simply refused to go on the air to take care of the impending vacuum.

Gracie had decided to become an intellectual, and filling in for the lead of an old comedy act just would no longer do. She was scheduled instead to give a piano concert, undaunted by her apparent lack of keyboards-tested talent. None of George’s coaxing would convince her to change her absent mind; besides, she already owned the expensive articles of clothing that George promised to bestow upon her in the event of her much-needed cooperation.

Eventually, Gracie condescended to do the show after all, having discovered a kindred soul in sensitive Dennis Day. Sure, he liked Little Women; but he liked books even better. And when he demonstrated his love for poetry by reciting Rudyard Kipling’s “If” in a pitch that screamed “cultured”—no ifs and buts about it—Gracie could not but seize Benny’s temporarily vacant timeslot, determined to present her “Thirty Minutes of Refinement.”

Now “refinement” was a concept to which violinist Benny himself aspired, but which those in charge of shaping popular radio entertainment mainly derided for profit as some harebrained, longhair attempts at bothering the blissfully ignorant with unnecessary uplift.

3 Replies to “On This Day in 1943: Gracie Allen Decides to Replace Jack Benny with "Thirty Minutes of Refinement"”

  1. I did watch the Oscars here in the States and my take on Lauren Bacall was mostly failing eyesight. It is difficult enough for younger actors to read the prompter – even more so for an aging actor. I suspect she lost her place and given her age grew a bit confused. They also later showed her in the audience and she looked a bit personally isolated to me. So my suspicion is being in public away from any creature comforts to make life easier, she possibly has hearing/eyesight and failing memory issues.On the Master of Ceremonies comments, I still think Billy Crystal was the best in recent memory. He knew how to work the crowd and was excellent at being spontaneous.


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