“I was born in Waukegan a long, long time ago. As a matter of fact, our rabbi was an Indian.” –Jack Benny
Benjamin Kubelsky, or “Jack Benny,” as we know him, was born in Chicago, Illinois, on Valentine’s Day, in the year…. well, all you need to know was that he was perpetually 39 years of age. Fictitiously self-proclaimed the “Greatest Violinist,” he portrayed a miserly musician surrounded by a vibrant cast of characters on the Jack Benny Program.
His iconic supporting cast included his “real-life wife” Mary Livingstone, announcer Don Wilson, philandering bandleader played by Phil Harris, naive tenor Dennis Day, wisecracking chauffeur Eddie Anderson, and ridiculously talented Mel Blanc providing sound effects (namely, the ever-struggling Maxwell) and bit parts, such as Benny’s forever-suffering violin teacher, Professor LeBlanc. Benny took full advantage of his talented cast by allowing them to play off of his flaws, always at his comedic expense.
In reality, however, Benny was a humble and gentle man from Waukegan, Illinois, with a keen eye for talent. He possessed a love of the stage and laughter, coupled with a profound respect for music. Benny was actually an accomplished violinist, knowing how to play far beyond first position, but masterfully held back his musical skills for the sake of good comedy. This decision allowed him to play with some of the greatest musicians of his day–Isaac Stern, Liberace, Gisele MacKenzie–all the while providing some comedic flare. Interestingly, at the age of 17, Benny was invited to perform violin on the road with the Marx brothers, but his mother refused, believing he was too young to go on tour. The world would have to wait for Jack Benny.
Again, the character Jack portrayed was contrary to himself as a person. He gave many actors their “start” by seeing their potential and inviting them to perform on his program. Likewise, he was a humble human being. This anecdote about his passing and relationship with Mary has always stuck with me–and, I quote the following from the Mark Masek’s website:
“The day after Benny died, a single, long-stemmed red rose was delivered to Mary Livingstone Benny, his wife of nearly 48 years. After several days, with another rose delivered each day, Mary called the florist to find out who was sending them. The florist told her that Benny had made arrangements for a rose to be sent to her every day for the rest of her life, and included a provision in his will for the deliveries — a touching and romantic final gesture for a man born on Valentine’s Day.”
Despite achieving fame through his Lucky Strike-sponsored radio program, Benny’s quips about his hometown, Waukegan, were frequent. There was almost always an allusion to his early life in Waukegan in his radio programs, television shows, film roles, and guest appearances. Luckily, Waukegan is about 45 minutes away from my Rogers Park home, so the pilgrimage was bound to happen sooner or later!
I reunited with an old friend from high school who was particularly fond of Jack Benny, and we hopped into my car for a drive up to Waukegan.
The first point of interest Jack Benny Memorial Park, just across from the Genesee Theatre. In 2002, the town of Waukegan dedicated a statue in honor of Jack Benny. They chose this location, in particular, because Benny once performed a radio show from the Genesee Theatre. The town rolled out the red carpet and had a parade for Jack Benny and “the gang,” which included Benny, Mary Livingstone, Eddie Anderson, Don Wilson, Phil Harris, Andy Devine, and special guest Dorothy Lamour. Supposedly, the theater lobby has pictures from this event, but it was sadly closed when I visited. The theater sign was restored to match how it looked in Benny’s day. Here’s a shot of the Genesee Theatre today:
The statue at Jack Benny Memorial Park is a wonderful tribute to the comedian. There is a listing of donors who helped fund the statue, labeled “Lifetime 39ers.” The details on the statue are also phenomenal. In addition to Jack Standing on a pedestal in his signature pose, complete with violin, the pedestal is decorated with many items relating to his show. Crocodiles guard his subterranean vault, atop this famous quip:
Robber: Your money or your life!
Jack: …I’m thinking!
Moreover, there are various symbols that represent Jack–from a pair of glasses, to the opening notes of his theme song, “Love in Bloom.” There are also depictions of Rochester and Dennis Day on the base.
Better yet, the statue makes for some excellent photo opportunities. You can bet I took full advantage of that!
The next stop was the Jack Benny Center for the Arts, which is maintained by the Waukegan Park District. However, when we got there, this was outside:
Waukegan is also the hometown of writer Ray Bradbury, and they apparently have an annual Dandelion Wine festival in his honor. It was a nice outdoor festival with live music, sales booths, caricature artists, etc. However, there was nothing in relation to Jack Benny at the festival, so we moved on to the actual building. The Jack Benny Center for the Arts is located at 39 Jack Benny Drive and houses memorabilia relating to Jack’s life and career. It also has some stationary from the Clayton Hotel–where Jack and Mary married–but the hotel no longer stands today.
Though Jack Benny attended Waukegan High School, Benny returned to Waukegan on October 6th, 1961, for the dedication of Jack Benny Junior High. The school is the “Home of the 39ers,” and Benny stated that the dedication of this school was the “proudest moment of his life.”
An article publicizing this visit included the following moment: “A Waukegan band member, Karen Elmore, broke into giggles Thursday as she shared her chair with comedian Jack Benny. Benny, who was visiting his hometown, sat in with the school band, playing his violin.”
School was out when we visited, but here are a few photos snapped around the building.
The next place we visited was the Waukegan Historical Society, which is free of charge. Please note that they do have hours of operation, so make sure to plan accordingly. They have a bed Lincoln slept in as wel as Jack Benny’s trunk from his vaudeville days. I made sure to take a photo with the trunk.
Next, we took Sheridan Road going back towards downtown Waukegan, passing by a small monument of about five different stars–each of them honoring a notable person from Waukegan. It’s just across from the McDonald’s. Here are a few shots of Jack’s star:
Waukegan has also released a downloadable brochure for self-guided walking tours, relating to all things Benny.
It is worth noting that Jacky Benny’s birthplace home does not stand anymore, and is now a parking lot. However, the house in which he grew up is still around on Clayton Street. The home is privately owned today.
There are certainly places of note in Waukegan if you are looking to learn more about Benny and his connections to his hometown. The staff at the historical society are extremely helpful and will gladly chat with you and point you in the right direction regarding your interests. One of the gentlemen working there went through Benny’s filmography with me, rattling off how many times Waukegan was mentioned in each film. Amazing!
So bring your violin, your 39-year-old self, and arrive in your finest Maxwell! Waukegan is not to be missed if you are a Benny fan.
UPDATE: The Jack Benny home received a plaque in a dedication ceremony on November 18th, 2015. Looking good!
Love this! Jack Benny was an American original, a great talent and the sweetest man as reported by many who knew him. I always think of his close friendship with George Burns, about how Benny thought that Burns was the funniest man on the face of the earth and would laugh hysterically at just about any word he would utter. Because of their long years of Vaudeville tour with hasty dining and cold coffee these two, once they became successful and settled, insisted on drinking scalding hot coffee and soup, swallowing it down before it could cool at all! A bit of shared history that built a friendship that lasted years. Jack Benny was set to perform in the film version of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” but died before production began. As we all know, George Burns stepped into the role and had a tremendous comeback that lasted the rest of his life — his only motivation for taking the part was to honor Jack and he felt that all the good things happening to him from that point on was Jack smiling down on him — George’s daily rose from his devoted friend. It is so wonderful to see Jack’s hometown and the tributes to him. Thanks so much for this personal glimpse into the life of a man who gave joy to millions and devoted love to those who knew him.
Thanks for the wonderful comment! Yes, George Burns was super close with Jack Benny! Both, of course, notable radio “greats,” and best friends to boot. It’s always refreshing to hear tales of camaraderie being far more worthwhile than fame. Clever, down-to-earth, and downright hilarious. I’m so glad that Waukegan does such a wonderful job at paying tribute to Benny.
Thank you for sharing. I loved your article.
Thank you so much for sharing this
You’re welcome! Likewise, thank you for reading!
Love Jack Benny. If Waukegan wasn’t so far away, I’d go check all this stuff out, but it will have to wait till summer. I have a copy of the Jell-o Recipe Book on my shelf.
Hi, followed the link from the Jack Benny Facebook page. I enjoyed your trip through Waukegan and hope to get there someday. He was such a wonderful comedian and it’s sad that so few people nowadays are familiar with him.
Been to Waukegan, saw the statue, house and junior high school. Didn’t see the Arts or Jack Benny dr. or the historical society. Guess I’ll have to make another trip!!
Absolutely! The trunk in the historical society is so worth it. There’s some neat memorabilia in the arts center, as well. Try to go when they have their Dandelion Wine festival! 🙂
This is wonderful!! You see, I too was born in Waukegan (at St. Theresa’s Hospital) in 1958. Though I grew up in Chicago (and now live south of Atlanta), I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Waukegan. And I have worked in radio and television in Georgia! I even got my “professional” nickname from Mr. Benny. What a great tribute to him you have posted! Thank you so much!
Thanks so much for reading! I love that you got your professional nickname from Benny! So cool! 🙂
Thank you very very much Annette!
Greetings from Switzerland
Glad that you enjoyed this piece!
Excellent, toughtful and well-written, funny and kind. I love the pictures. Thank you.
P.s.: I have to write that I loved the fact that you’re not one to be inconspicuous…
Greetings from Brasil.
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Your article on Jack Benny and his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois was very captivating and informative.
Everyday I start my morings off
with an episode of The Jack Benny program.
I had heard about the statue of Jack but thought it was inside at the middle school named in his honor. The statue has 2 alligators facing each other with the long running gag for his radio show.
” Your Money or Your Life ”
I don’t understand why the artist
” Frank Nelson ”
Would have used alligators.
In an episode Frank played an artist who would follow Jack around saying ..
“Don’t touch my clay ”
The alligators reference an episode where the audience is taken down to Jack Benny’s money vault, which is guarded by alligators.
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What a great piece. Loved the photos. Jack was far and away the greatest. Now I want to make the trip!
Great article! I lived in Waukegan back in the 80’s, and outside of the school and the street, they hadn’t done much to honor Jack Benny at that time. I’m glad to see that that has changed.
Back in the late 70s or early 80s, Benny did an interview with Dick Cavett, and he spoke about his concertizing with his violin. He had some concerts coming up, and he talked about how much he was looking forward to them. I have found some videos of his playing on YouTube, and he was a VERY capable violinist. He was an all-around tremendous person.
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your article is a beautiful tribute to the greatest comedian of all time!
He was taken from us at the tender age of 39. Just seems so unfair.
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