Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Jack Benny

Jack Benny
Copyright (c) (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro
All Rights Reserved

Jack Benny built a good living and a solid career on the flimsy foundation of sheer pretense. He pretended to be vain, miserly, and ornery, and he pretended to be oblivious about these failings. The character "Jack Benny," our self-absorbed Uncle Jack, enlarged our own traits in a mirror turned on ourselves. His embodiment so exaggerated our faults into absurdity that, by laughing at Benny, we also laughed at our own silliness.

Benny mastered the humor of self-deprecation. If he played the violin, his butler Rochester van Jones (Eddie Anderson) cautioned that rope should not be nearby to tempt any listeners. If Benny invited guests to his home, they put coins in his vending machines, such as the lamp that sold penny candy. If Benny reluctantly dragged out some coins in payment, suction in his pocket held the coins back. If Benny went out of town for 10 days, he pawned his parrot to get free room and board for the bird. If Benny boasted about his cleverness in buying a beautifully tailored suit in Hong Kong for $17, the lapels, pockets, and sleeves fell off as he demonstrated his mastery of the violin.

Oblivious to his own orneriness, Benny maddened a department store clerk whom he badgered into repeatedly rewrapping an uncharacteristically generous Christmas gift. In the "Christmas Shopping Show," Mel Blanc hilariously conveyed the growing despair of the clerk. (The voice of many Warner Brothers cartoon characters, Blanc also impersonated Benny's parrot and "the Maxwell," Benny's elderly—manufactured no later than 1925—and barely functioning car, as it coughed itself into starting.) 

While Blanc's clerk submitted to Benny despairingly, more frequently Benny got no respect from store clerks, phone operators, or plumbers. With a pained look at the audience, a "put-upon" expression, and the drawn-out, indignant exclamation "Well!," Benny would fold his arms, place his hand on his chin, and eventually saunter away with his trademark swaying, mincing walk, "like Theda Bara," the "vamp" of American silent movies.

The audience expected "Jack Benny" to be cheap, vain, fussy, bad at violin playing, and oblivious, and the audience never tired of Benny's re-enactments of these faults. Forever 39 years old, Benny locked his savings in a vault located in a dungeon guarded by a crocodile and a Confederate soldier who had never learned of the end of the Civil War. Most famously, he prolonged a hesitating response to a hold-up demanding "Your money or your life!" Several minutes of "dead air time" later, the audience was speechless with hilarity.

Benny recycled this durable material from vaudeville and radio into the movies and then into television. Born as Benny Kubelsky, he had begun his entertainment career in vaudeville with violin playing; his childhood violin lessons got him a job in ninth grade as a violinist for the orchestra of  the vaudeville house in his Waukegan neighborhood. (His lifelong friendship with the Marx Brothers began there in 1911.) In the Navy during World War One, Benny entertained his fellow sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Waukegan with comedy routines. By 1921, he was focusing on his vaudeville career as comedian "Jack Benny."

An advertising account executive for Canada Dry who had heard Benny perform during a 1932 appearance on a 15-minute radio program hosted by "New York Daily News" Broadway columnist Ed Sullivan recruited Benny to be the emcee of the CBS Radio "Canada Dry Ginger Ale Program." By the end of 1932, he was voted "Most Popular Comedian on the Air." Other sponsored radio shows followed on CBS and NBC: "Chevrolet Program,"  "General Tire Revue," General Foods's "Jell-O Program" and "Grape Nuts Flakes Program," and American Tobacco's "Lucky Strike Program." 

Benny still did radio programs while he was trying out television on a local affiliate station in 1949-50 and on his first network TV show on 28 October 1950. His last new radio program (for Lucky Strike) aired in 1955. With his concentration now on his CBS TV show, Benny won a 1957 Emmy Award, and his program in 1958 won the Emmy for Best Comedy Series. TV sponsors included American Tobacco's Lucky Strike (1950–59), Lever Brothers' Lux (1959–60), State Farm Insurance (1960–65), Lipton Tea (1960–62), General Foods's Jell-O (1962–64), and Miles Laboratories (1964–65). 

With his ratings slipping in the 1960s, CBS did not renew Benny's contract at the end of the 1963-64 season, and he went to NBC on a 1-year contract. His last regular TV program aired in 1965; TV specials and guest appearances followed during his last decade of life.

A kindly and gentle, not oblivious man, Benny was actually not cheap but very generous. The benefit concerts that he did with orchestras raised $6 million for orchestras worldwide. (He also gave $1 million to an actors' retirement home.) Concert audiences came for the "Jack Benny" that they half-knew was a fiction but wanted to laugh at anyway. Benny joked that, during these benefit concerts, the more expensive seats were the furthest from the stage on which he played his violin: "When I give concerts, the tickets sell for $5  to $100, but for my concerts the $5 seats are down in front . . . the further back you go, the more you have to pay. The $100 seats are the last 2 rows, and those tickets go like hotcakes! In fact, if you pay $200 you don't have to come at all." 

First published in The Woodstock Independent





Saturday, February 11, 2017

Thank You, Epictetus

Searching for Serenity

(c) Copyright (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro

All Rights Reserved

For many years, I have enjoyed rereading James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon and W. Somerset Maugham's novel The Razor's Edge. In these somewhat similar stories, World War One veterans——an English officer and an American airman——seek inner peace in a world maddened by unending violence and insatiable materialism. The Englishman embraces the wisdom of Shangri-La, a Buddhist lamasery in Tibet; the American visits Tibet and also experiences the wisdom of a Hindu saint in an Indian ashram. The two novels emphasize Eastern spirituality.

Despite my longstanding liking for Lost Horizon and The Razor's Edge, my life has taught me that I need not forsake all Western traditions to seek inner serenity. The Greek and Roman philosophical traditions include the precepts and practice of Stoicism. For about the last eight years, the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus has greatly influenced my thinking and behavior. I am a very imperfect Stoic, but my attempted practice of Stoicism has improved my life. I have found Epictetus very helpful even though I find practicing Stoicism difficult. Reading Epictetus calms me.


Epictetus emphasizes self-control, self-mastery, duty. This seemed daunting and one-sided until I understood Epictetus's insight that other people and external circumstances are simply not within my power to control. I can control only my own thoughts, values, decisions, and actions. This insight creates great responsibility but also grants great power. It shifts focus from my futile struggle to control others and to control my external environment to my possibly successful exercise of power over myself. My seizing power over myself takes away others' power over me and diminishes the power of circumstances to distress me. "Authentic happiness is always independent of external conditions. Vigilantly practice indifference to external conditions. Your happiness can only be found within."

While I find it very hard to change myself, I find it impossible to change other people. Why should I continue to waste most of my energy on an impossible task when I could instead expend energy on an attainable goal?

The emphasis on controlling my inner world makes me responsible for my own well-being and happiness. It also refashions my approach to problems in my external world by transforming these situations into challenges to me to develop greater self-mastery. It takes away power from other people and from external circumstances and returns power to me. With that return of power to and over my inner self comes greater freedom.


Stoicism has shifted my locus of control to my inner world. Epictetus teaches me to see my difficulties as opportunities to develop greater self-mastery and resourcefulness. "Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths."

In a way, Epictetus steers me right into the storms of my life, instead of away from them. He advocates grasping the nettles of life, thinking about the inevitability of loss and death, and appreciating what I have instead of wishing to have something——anything——else. "... you move forward by using the creative possibilities of this moment, your current situation. You begin to fully inhabit this moment, instead of seeking escape or wishing that what is going on were otherwise."

One of these nettles is my inability to control the outcome of my efforts. Despite determined efforts, I can certainly fail to reach an objective. Epictetus notes that the results of my striving oftentimes depend on factors beyond my control and that I should focus on DOING my best but not on the RESULTS of doing my best. "When you...devote yourself instead to your rightful duties, you can relax. When you know you've done the best you can under the circumstances, you can have a light heart....In good fortune or adversity, it is the good will with which you perform deeds that matters——not the outcome. So take your attention off of what you think other people think and off of the results of your actions."

Another nettle is feeling frustrated by other people. Epictetus explains that I create my own sense of frustration but I could choose NOT to feel frustrated. "When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance."


Only I can choose my thoughts, values, decisions, and actions. Only I can frame a problem as an opportunity to improve myself. Only I can face the inevitabilities of my own life with equanimity. Only I can avoid feelings of failure by doing my best and then letting go. Only I can take back the power to upset me that I have unwisely ceded to other people and to events and circumstances.
Seemingly a philosophy of self-constraint, Epictetus's Stoicism is exactly that, but it is also a philosophy of self-emancipation. "By accepting life's limits and inevitabilities and working with them rather than fighting them, we become free."


The ancients voiced a maxim that "Freedom is the knowledge of necessity." Useless resistance to the inevitabilities of life——loss, age, death——entraps me rather than frees me. Clearly understanding and accepting these inevitabilities ironically liberates me from them. I can choose to not live in dread; instead, I can lose my fear. Although Stoic principles demand that I unlearn practically all the behaviors and habits taught during my upbringing, Stoic habits of mind and patterns of behavior give the great gift of freedom from fear. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I have learned from Stoicism that I have now, and I always have had, the power to liberate myself.

Quotations from Epictetus come from the contemporary translation of The Art of Living by Sharon Lebell.

First appeared in The Woodstock Independent

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Not Giving Up on Gardening

Succeeding Means Not Giving Up

(c) Copyright (2016) by Kathleen Spaltro
All Rights Reserved

Gardening unearths the paradoxes of life, among them the truth that we are most in control when we accept what we cannot control. Looking at some improbably successful plants in my garden, I remember other, vanquished ones. (Seed catalogs in early spring inspire unwarranted optimism!) Life is just like a garden: plant with hope, some of what you plant takes root, but much does not, and other, surprising successes take over. Accepting what you actually get, rather than insisting on what you planned, is key to joy, in the garden or in life.

Here are some excerpts from my past gardening logs.


The only flowers up so far in our garden are snowdrops, which I was very pleased to see today, but we do have many other "little bulbs" like scilla, grape hyacinths, and crocuses, as well as wild tulips. Lovely crocuses and snowdrops blooming in our garden always endear themselves to me because I didn't plant them. They are remnants of some previous owner's garden.

Crocuses, hellebores, miniature irises, a last snowdrop or two, scilla, Grecian windflowers or anemones--all were blooming during a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon as we did an hour of garden cleanup. I stared at the flowers to affix their memory because we are returning to cold rain for the upcoming days.

It seems time to voice my annual unspoken wonderment about violets. Why do people mistreat these lovely posies by considering them weeds? I have an area full of blue violets right now and couldn't feel happier about their exuberance. Bloom on, unjustly despised wildflower!

I creaked my way through the weekend after some strenuous garden work digging 24 holes to plant mazus reptans alba as a groundcover asked to invade bare patches on the right of way denuded when the City cut down two ash trees. (Later note:  The mazus reptans disappeared and never bloomed.)  I also pruned out deadwood in the rose garden. My roses being old or antique roses, they bloom only on old wood, but some of the old wood had not leafed out and needed the guillotine. Their executioner also was punished by mosquitoes.

I began to forget a grumpy week by walking in our garden on this beautiful sunny Saturday morning. I was so happy seeing the vegetation that, when a rose prickle sliced into my thumb, it didn't break my good mood. Spring finally is here to stay, it seems. I went outside into the cold, brilliantly sunny morning and wandered to see what the garden needs. I pried out some dandelions with the dandelion fork, pruned some weed trees, admired the flowers. Primroses are blooming like mad, and I have a cherished stand of white guinea hen flowers. We might go buy some seeds or plants later. I have two concrete planters and two three-tiered metal planters. Besides the flower seeds I already have—calendula and four-o'clocks—I'd like to find some nasturtium seeds and petunia plants, maybe a New Guinea impatiens. John needs to pick up some basil plants.

Large stands of Joe Pye weed vie for pride of place with ox-eyed daisy, spiderwort, and my favorite, ironweed. I particularly like ironweed for its purple flowers. Joe Pye weed takes its name from a Native American who used the herb as a medicinal plant. Bees and butterflies flock for treatment.

A cool Sunday--it was a little too cool to hang out on the back porch, but I did weed for a while, pulling 10 gallons worth of a strange clinging, sticky weed, with whorls of skinny leaves interspaced up and down the stem. After I did some research on the Internet, I discovered that my weed is bedstraw. 

I cleaned up a wet, muddy garden for an hour and felt gloriously happy! Large stands of the herbs Joe Pye weed and valerian are flowering; my old-rose bushes are in bud. I must have certain plants: sweet woodruff, borage, southernwood, goatsbeard. All are flourishing except the borage; no signs of it yet.


I am enjoying a late-season bloom of flowers. Calendula and four-o'clocks are still going strong, and I am really impressed with the steady performance of New Guinea impatiens. The weirdly beautiful toad lily is just beginning to open up

I noticed some naked ladies in the yard today. No, not the human kind. These are lily-like purple flowers. They got the name because their foliage appears in the spring, and then it disappears, but in late summer, leafless stalks suddenly emerge, bearing purple flowers. These are the Lady Godivas of my garden.

Goldenrod is blooming in our garden this morning, and, to my surprise, another naked lady (amaryllis belladonna) exposed herself in an unexpected area of the yard, and two sweet-pea flowers suddenly appeared! This is especially mystifying because sweet peas supposedly hate hot weather!

Lady's mantle grows next to a mossy rock in our garden, as well in another, self-sown place. Now that I think of it, even the mossy rock plant sowed itself. I had planted the lady's mantle somewhere else in a location of which it apparently did not approve. We can't control even our herbs.

Elizabeth Lawrence's Gardening for Love consists of Lawrence's comments about her many years of correspondence with country women who advertised plants and seeds for sale or exchange in state market bulletins. Well-versed in botanical nomenclature, Lawrence was always trying to figure out the scientific name for the plant or seed in question. But the common names have great charm, as does her book.

First appeared in The Woodstock Independent

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Orson Welles Returns

Orson Welles Returns
(c) Copyright (2016) by Kathleen Spaltro
All Rights Reserved

Following the hundredth anniversary celebration in May 2015 of Orson Welles's birth, several new releases of his films have come out on DVD. Criterion Collection recently issued a DVD edition of "The Immortal Story," Welles's 1968 interpretation of an Isak Dinesen tale. Beautiful, haunting, and mysterious, Welles's rendition is fabulous—in the sense that the tale edges on the fable and the fairy tale. Besides Welles's version of Dinesen, two other DVD editions make newly available his "Macbeth" (1948) and "Chimes at Midnight" (1965), both productions closely tied to his years in Woodstock, Illinois during and after his time at the Todd School for Boys.
In the summer of 1934, Welles made his debut as an American theatre director on the Woodstock Opera House stage, created his first film ("The Hearts of Age"), and published on the Todd Press "Everybody's Shakespeare." Written with Welles's lifelong mentor, Todd School headmaster Roger Hill, "Everybody’s Shakespeare" emphasized study of Shakespeare's drama through performance. This 1934 edition of "Julius Caesar," "The Merchant of Venice," and "Twelfth Night" evolved into "The Mercury Shakespeare," an edition of four plays published at the end of the Thirties when Welles had become famous as a radio and stage actor and director. The fourth play added to "The Mercury Shakespeare" was "Macbeth." Harper & Brothers issued the four volumes as companions to full-length audio recordings of the plays performed by Welles and his Mercury Theatre actors (spread over twelve 78 rpm records produced as Mercury Text Records).
In addition to the inclusion of "Macbeth" in "Everybody's Shakespeare," Welles produced "the Scottish play" several times—twice on the stage, once on radio, and twice on film. (Welles's famous stage production in Harlem of a "Macbeth" set in Haiti rather than Scotland occurred in 1936, just two years after his directorial debut on the Woodstock Opera House stage.) The DVD set just issued by Olive Films includes high-definition digital restorations of the original release by Republic Pictures (1948) and the 1950 revision. A very atmospheric and cinematic treatment of the play, Welles's film powerfully entices the viewer just as the witches entice Macbeth.
The Olive Films DVD special features include audio commentary by Welles scholar Joseph McBride, scenes from the Harlem "Macbeth," as well as interviews with director Peter Bogdanovich and other Welles experts. Optional English subtitles may make the films easier to follow and to enjoy.
Another Shakespearean film by Welles has close ties to his time in Woodstock. Between entering Todd School in Fall 1926 and graduating in 1931, young Orson participated in about 30 theatrical productions as actor, writer, scenic artist, and/or director. These included an unwieldy 1930 welding of Shakespeare's "Henry VI" and "Richard III" produced for graduation. This early wrestle with the Wars of the Roses plays prefigured a later troubled 1939 Mercury Theatre / Theatre Guild production in Washington, Boston, and Philadelphia called "Five Kings," still later recycled into stage (Dublin, 1960) and film (1965) productions of "Chimes at Midnight." Hence, Woodstock saw the genesis of a film that many consider Welles’s greatest cinematic achievement.
For years, I have heard that "Chimes at Midnight" is not only a masterpiece but Orson Welles's greatest film. Joseph McBride emphasizes that "Chimes at Midnight" is "Orson Welles's masterpiece": "Playing Falstaff was one of the few things Welles wanted to achieve as an actor. He, John Gielgud, and Keith Baxter all give great performances in the film." Michael Phillips concurs:  "The best of 'Chimes' is the best Shakespeare on film, and as good as anything Welles ever made in his careerlong scramble toward immortality" and "the Battle of Shrewsbury [is] the equal of any battle scene on film, before or since."
When I finally watched the new Criterion Collection release (with optional English subtitles) of "Chimes at Midnight," Welles's film of Shakespeare's "Henry IV" plays, I felt impressed by its extreme visual beauty and fluidity, by the vividness of the faces of the characters, but most of all by the imagination with which Welles transformed two stage plays into a film. For, as his rival Laurence Olivier admitted, Olivier filmed stage productions of Shakespeare, while Welles did something quite different, and much more difficult, by creating Shakespearean films.
First appeared in The Woodstock Independent