Well, it “hardly seems possible, but it’s true. Only twelve more shopping days till Christmas.” The timely if rather superfluous reminder, along with a suggestion to stock up on a certain gelatin dessert, was proffered by Don Wilson, the rotund and jovial announcer for the Jell-O Program starring Jack Benny, a former vaudevillian who had put money in his purse by leaving the defunct circuit for the lively, money-spinning kilocycles. On this day, 11 December, back in 1938 the show, incongruously opening with “Hooray for Hollywood,” was broadcast from New York City. Since I shall be bargain hunting in said Metropolis later this week, I am tuning in, however belatedly, in hopes of some free money-saving advice from the old skinflint.
There was trouble in the air when bandleader Phil Harris told Benny that tenor Kenny Baker was not hand-on-mike to provide the customary musical interlude. Baker had borrowed a few bucks, allegedly to see the World’s Fair, which would not open until the following April. Benny offered to fill the dead air pocket with one of his dreaded violin solos, upon which the orchestra threatened to desert (until Phil digs in with “A Pocketful of Dreams”). The oft-belittled fiddler was thwarted, for once; but he did get to play with Jascha Heifetz a few years later (as pictured above).
Even his faithful valet Rochester (of whose hardship and penury I spoke here) was a no-show. He was up in Harlem “enjoying a little Southern hospitality.” No doubt, the gang dreaded having to go shopping with or receiving gifts from Benny, the horrors of which experiences, like the parading endured at Easter (and discussed here) were being documented annually on radio and television, to the amusement of the American public.
“An electric razor for Don, a necktie for Kenny, a chorus girl for Phil,” Benny checks his list. At a department store perfume counter. Benny and Mary Livingstone get a whiff of Springtime in the Bronx. “Oh, yeah, it’s lovely that time of year,” Benny quips, “with the bagels all in bloom.” When Benny is taken aback by the very thought of having to pay $10 for an ounce (or $4000 for a gallon) of something more “oulala,” the impatient saleswoman suggests that he run “some violets through a wringer and make it [him]self.”
It is only the first in a series of humiliations, which also involve a less-than-nimble-fingered pickpocket and a mishandled fitting. “Go back to California and squeeze an Orange,” an ill-tempered floorwalker suggests when Benny and Livingstone exhibit the nerve to ask for the necktie counter.
Best peeled by the thick-skinned, the Big Apple is a tough town, all right. Maybe “Hooray for Hollywood” (for which Benny and company were soon to depart) was not so incongruous an opener after all. Just how pitiless a town it was Benny would learn a few weeks later. In January 1939, the high-salaried comedian who squeezed laughter out of a pinched penny was indicted on three counts of illegally importing over $2000 worth of jewelry into the US. According to Gaver and Stanley’s There’s Laughter in the Air (1945), previously consulted here, Benny initially pleaded not guilty; he changed his mind around Easter and received a 10,000 fine, as well as a suspended sentence of a year and a day.
I, for one, shall be traveling to New York with an empty suitcase. Should it get quiet here in the meantime, as it has on previous occasions, it is because I am being too cheap again to pay for wireless access I insist on being complementary, without my having to order an overpriced cup of coffee.