Jack Benny, born Benjamin Kubelsky, was an American comedian, vaudevillian, and actor for radio, television, and film. Widely recognized as one of the leading American entertainers of the 20th century, Benny played the role of the comic penny-pinching miser, insisting on remaining 39 years old on stage despite his actual age, and often playing the violin badly.
Benny was known for his comic timing and his ability to get laughs with either a pregnant pause or a single expression, such as his signature exasperated “Well!” His radio and television programs, tremendously popular from the 1930s to the 1960s were a foundational influence on the situation comedy genre. Dean Martin, on the celebrity roast for Johnny Carson in November 1973, introduced Benny as “the Satchel Paige of the world of comedy.”
Jack was born February 14, 1894, in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in neighboring Waukegan, Illinois. He was the son of Meyer Kubelsky and Emma Sachs Kubelsky. Meyer was a Jewish saloon owner, later to become a haberdasher, who had emigrated to America from Poland. Emma had emigrated from Lithuania. Benny began studying the violin, an instrument that would become his trademark, when he was just six, with his parents’ hopes that he would be a great classical violinist. He loved the violin, but hated practice. By age 14, he was playing in local dance bands as well as in his high school orchestra. Benny was a dreamer and a poor student and he was expelled from high school. He did equally badly in business school and at his father’s trade. At age 17, he began playing the instrument in local vaudeville theaters for $7.50 a week.
In 1911, Benny was playing in the same theater as the young Marx Brothers, whose mother Minnie was so enchanted with Benny’s musicianship that she invited him to be their permanent accompanist. The plan was foiled by Benny’s parents, who refused to let their son, then 17, go on the road, but it was the beginning of his long friendship with Zeppo Marx. Benny’s future wife Mary Livingstone was a distant cousin of the Marx Brothers.