“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 Strikes-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 Altima for a brief 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 from 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’s 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, but also 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 folks at the historical society are beyond wonderful, 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.
UPDATE: The Jack Benny home received a plaque in a dedication ceremony on November 18th, 2015. Looking good!