Classic Movie Travels: Jack Benny, from Illinois to California
Benjamin Kubelsky was born in Chicago, Illinois, on February 14, 1894, to Meyer and Naomi Kubelsky. Meyer worked as a saloon owner and haberdasher, emigrating to the United States from Poland; Naomi emigrated from Lithuania. Though Kubelsky was born in Chicago, he grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, adopting Waukegan as his hometown.
Kubelsky began studying the violin when he was six years old, with his parents hoping that he would one day become a professional violinist. By age 14, he played in dance bands as well as in his high school orchestra. Kubelsky did not enjoy practicing and struggled academically, leading to his expulsion from high school. He attempted to complete business school, but ultimately decided to play violin in vaudeville theaters.
In 1911, Kubelsky performed in the same theatre as the Marx Brothers. Their mother, Minnie, admired Kubelsky’s violin playing and invited him to be part of the act. Kubelsky’s parents refused the offer, believing that their son was too young to travel as a vaudevillian at the age of 17; nonetheless, this opened the door to a long friendship between Kublesky and the Marx Brothers.
Kubelsky formed a vaudeville musical duo with pianist Cora Folsom Salisbury. This became a point of contention with a violinist named Jan Kubelik, who thought that Kubelsky’s name was too similar to his. As a result, Kubelsky changed his name to Ben K. Benny.
Once Salisbury left the act, Benny partnered with pianist Lyman Woods, gradually integrating comedy into their routine for five years.
Benny joined the U.S. Navy during World War I, leading to a brief pause in his show business career. During this period, he entertained fellow sailors with his violin and comedy.
After the war, Benny crafted a solo act called “Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology.” Once again, another performer named Ben Bernie threatened Benny with legal pressure to change his name, as Bernie had his own violin and comedy act. In response, Benny took on the first name of Jack, which led to the stage name he maintained for the rest of his career: Jack Benny.
In 1922, Benny attended a Passover Seder with Zeppo Marx, where he met Sadie Marks. By the time Benny and Marks met again in 1926, Benny fell for her. They married in 1927, and adopted a daughter named Joan.
In 1929, Benny signed a contract with MGM, appearing in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929). Benny typically performed as a wisecracking master of ceremonies in his early film roles.
Beyond working in films, Benny was especially interested in radio. After a stint of playing in nightclubs, Benny was invited to appear on Ed Sullivan’s radio program, cementing his interest in a future in radio.
Marks worked in the hosiery section at the May Company on Hollywood Blvd. One day, Benny called on her to perform as a substitute in one of his routines, which led to her performing regularly with Benny. She took on the stage name Mary Livingstone.
The Jack Benny Program was a major success for Benny, beginning in 1932 to 1955. Benny portrayed a penny-pinching, miserly character, who functioned as the punchline to numerous jokes. Strategically, Benny played the violin badly as part of his character. Moreover, he gave ample opportunities for his supporting cast members to shine as talents in their own right, typically including the core cast members of Livingstone, Don Wilson, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Phil Harris, Dennis Day, and Mel Blanc. Despite his radio character, Benny was humble, philanthropic, and an advocate for racial equality. Throughout his career, Benny would often allude to his Waukegan hometown, even hosting the premiere of Man About Town (1939) at Waukegan’s Genesee Theatre.
Benny’s show transitioned to television, retaining the vast majority of the radio show’s stars. Audiences delighted in the visual component of Benny’s character in addition to the inclusion of visual gags through the medium. The television program also included more guest stars, including the likes of Marilyn Monroe, James Stewart, and Humphrey Bogart.
Benny’s radio and television career overlapped with his film career. He appeared in Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), Buck Benny Rides Again (1940), Charley’s Aunt (1941), George Washington Slept Here (1942), To Be or Not to Be (1942), The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), and more. Benny was caricatured in numerous cartoons, with one of the most notable cartoons being The Mouse that Jack Built (1959). In this cartoon Benny, Livingstone, Anderson, and Wilson, all provided voices for their characters. Blanc, already a major voice talent at Warner Bros., reprised his role as Benny’s Maxwell. Benny also made a guest appearance in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
In the years to follow, Benny toured and performed with his violin. One of his last television appearances occurred in 1974, recreating radio skits with Mel Blanc on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Benny was slated to prepare for starring in the film version of The Sunshine Boys (1975), but his failing health prevented him from doing so. Benny requested that his best friend, George Burns, take on the role. Burns carried out the role and went on to win an Academy Award for his portrayal in the film, leading to a resurgence in his career. At age 80, Burns became the oldest Oscar-winning actor.
Benny passed away from pancreatic cancer on December 26, 1974. He was 80 years old. He was interred at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California. Per his will, he arranged for Livingstone to receive a single red rose each day for the rest of her life.
There are many tributes to Benny in his hometown and beyond.
A statue of Benny stands at the corner of Genesee St. and Clayton St., Waukegan, Illinois. This area is dubbed Jack Benny Plaza. The statue depicts Benny holding a violin, in addition to several symbols and details pertaining to Benny’s show and career on the statue’s pedestal. There is an additional marker in this area honoring Benny’s work as a violinist.
Genesee Theatre is across the street from Jack Benny Plaza. This is where the premiere of Man About Town was held on June 25, 1939. Benny and his cast of radio players were the focus a parade in town and also broadcast an episode of The Jack Benny Program in Waukegan. The theatre is also home to the Jack Benny Lounge, named in Benny’s honor. The Genesee Theatre is located at 201 N. Genesee St., Waukegan, Illinois.
There is a mural across the street from the Genesee Theatre, which honors notable individuals from Waukegan, including Benny.
The Walk of Stars Park is located at the corner of Sheridan Rd. and Grand Ave., Waukegan, Illinois. Benny has a star honoring his work as a comedian and violinist as well as noting that he attended Waukegan High School.
Jack Benny Junior High School, now Jack Benny Middle School, was dedicated during Benny’s lifetime. Benny was present at the dedication and exceptionally proud to have this tribute in his hometown. He also helped fund various areas of the school and engaged with students throughout the dedication, visiting classrooms and playing violin with the school orchestra. The building stands at 1401 Montesano Ave., Waukegan, Illinois. This is also the home of the 39ers, in honor of Benny’s perpetual 39 years of age.
The Jack Benny Center for the Arts is located at 39 Jack Benny Dr., Waukegan, Illinois. There are exhibits in honor of Benny displayed inside, including materials showcasing the premiere of Man About Town and his work with the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra.
Benny spent his childhood at the Kubelsky home on 518 Clayton St., Waukegan, Illinois. This home stands and has a plaque attached to it, noting that Benny lived there.
Benny and Livingstone rented a home at 808 W. Grove Ave., Waukegan, Illinois, in the 1930s. This home also stands.
Benny and Livingstone resided at 1002 N. Roxbury Dr., Beverly Hills, California. The home stands today.
Benny also had a home in the Movie Colony in Palm Springs. The home stands at 987 N. Avenida Palos Verdes, Palm Springs, California. It still has repetitions of a gilded letter “B” on the gate.
In the 1940s, Benny maintained a property at 355 E. Valmonte Sur, Palm Springs, California, which stands.
Benny also had an estate in the 1960s at 424 W. Vista Chino, Palm Springs, California, which stands.
Benny is honored with a statue at the Television Hall of Fame, located at 5220 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, California.
There is an additional statue of Benny at the Victoria Gardens Cultural Center, located at 12505 Cultural Center Dr., Rancho Cucamonga, California.
Jack Benny Dr. in Rancho Cucamonga, California, is named in Benny’s honor.
Jack Benny Rd. in Rancho Mirage, California, is also named after Benny.
Benny has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, celebrating his work in motion pictures, radio, and television. The stars are located at 6650 Hollywood Blvd., 1505 Vine St., and 6370 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, California, respectively.
Benny’s prints can be found in the forecourt of the TCL Chinese Theatre, located at 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, California.
Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery is located at 6001 W. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles, California.
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.
Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.