Jack Benny: Where’s your Christmas spirit?
Phil Harris: I drank it!
Durante’s nose. Groucho’s eyebrows. Veronica’s peek-a-boo bangs. Some people just have that one characteristic in particular that becomes a personal identifier. And then, there’s Phil Harris. He’s a fellow who isn’t so much identified by any one physical trait, but as soon as he’d start talking, his voice would prompt an avalanche of memories of familiar characters—for example, a happy-go-lucky bear in The Jungle Book, a smooth, swinging alley cat in The Aristocats, or even, well, Phil Harris!
Harris was born in the small coal-mining town of Linton, Indiana, as the son of two vaudevillians, Harry and Dollie Harris. He mostly lived with his grandmother at 190 Northeast E Street in Linton. His father inspired him to play a wide variety of instruments, and by age nine, Phil was drumming at the Nicklo Theater in Linton, and providing sound effects for the shows.
When Harris turned 11, his family moved to Nashville, causing Harris to identify himself as more of a Southerner, which became the backbone of his show business identity. Still a teen, Harris found employment as the drummer for Francis Craig’s orchestra, and was the main attraction of the band. Discarding his stage name “Wonga Phillip,” he switched back to Phil Harris and formed his own group, “The Dixie Syncopators.” The group performed throughout the South, with Phil providing comedic vocals. Later, he moved the orchestra to Los Angeles, where they headquartered in the Cocoanut Grove during the mid-1930s.
Enthusiastically living the life of a musician, Harris mused: “A bandleader has to be more than a musician, conductor, business man and promoter. He must be a psychologist, diplomat and occasionally, a bit of a hero, too.”
Additionally, Harris’ group starred in several Hollywood shorts and found routine work in radio, with his vocalists Leah Ray and Ruth Robin. In 1936, Harris became the musical director for the Jack Benny show, taking on the persona of a carousing bandleader. He proved to be an excellent supporting comic, and quickly became a beloved character on The Jack Benny Program.
In 1941, Harris married actress Alice Faye. The couple hosted the Fitch Bandwagon Show from 1946 to 1948 and moved on to their own radio program, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, from 1948 to 1954. Harris’ personality, however, was the key to the show. Having worked with Jack Benny for ten years, he had no problem carrying a show.
Happily married, with three children (Phil Jr., Phyllis, and Alice), a luxurious home, and a booming career, Harris maintained: “I have everything a man wants in life—except, of course enough sleep.”
What’s more, Benny’s writers made a big deal out of Harris’ marriage. His character was originally written as more of a philanderer, but was very effectively revised as a devoted husband and father. The writers for Harris’ show played upon the ideas of Benny’s writers, and continued crafting Harris’ character around the same image. Harris played an egotistical bandleader, while Faye was his movie starlet-turned-wife, and they both shone in a comedy based upon domestic life.
Working two radio shows at the same time proved to be quite the juggling act. On the Jack Benny show, Harris would greet Benny with a throaty, “Hiya, Jackson!,” perform in a skit or song, and shout, “Bye, Jackson!” on the way out. He would only appear for the first half of the Jack Benny show. He’d then run down the block to the next studio, just in time to catch his own radio show with a “Hiya, Alice!” and continue on through the remainder of the program. In 1952, he was succeeded as Benny’s orchestra leader by Bob Crosby, younger brother of Bing Crosby.
Throughout his long show business career, Harris remained grateful to radio for the difference it made in his professional and personal life. “If it hadn’t been for radio,” he was quoted as saying, “I would still be a traveling orchestra leader. For 17 years I played one-night stands, sleeping on buses. I never even voted, because I didn’t have any residence.”
After his radio show ended in 1954, he faded from Hollywood life and spent time as a businessman in Palm Springs, while becoming a spokesperson and benefactor for its golf courses. Additionally, he was a benefactor of his birthplace, Linton, and established scholarships in his honor for high school students, performed at the high school, and hosted a celebrity golf tournament at the Phil Harris Golf Course each year in the first week of June.
The marriage between Phil Harris and Alice Faye lasted 54 years until his death.
Harris and Faye donated most of their show business memorabilia and papers to Linton’s Margaret Cooper Public Library in 1979 in connection with the first Phil Harris weekend at his golf course. This is one of the most important legacies Harris left to his hometown of Linton. Since then, the collection has shifted around quite a bit. Originally the collection was located upstairs in the Margaret Cooper Public Library. In the spring of 1998 the collection was relocated to the basement of the current Regions Bank at 89 West Vincennes Street.
The Linton-Stockton School Corporation website details the collection, as follows: “The memorabilia is a virtual history of show business and represents much of the lives and careers of both Harris and his wife. The collection has provided hours of pleasure for visitors. It is an important source of information about the Harrises. The collection includes photos, scrapbooks, clippings, awards, and magazines.
As a tribute to his hometown that gave him so many childhood memories, Phil Harris started a scholarship program from the proceeds of the Phil Harris Weekend. In addition, he and his wife donated personal mementos, which were housed in the Phil Harris-Alice Faye Collection.
Sadly, the collection now includes memorabilia relating to Phil Harris’ death on August 11, 1995, at age 91, just a few weeks after he returned to his beloved Linton for his last Phil Harris Scholarship Festival. Harris’ remains now rest in California, but a large part of him and his life continues to live on in the Harris-Faye Collection in his hometown of Linton, Indiana.”
Today, Linton, Indiana is still a small town of roughly 5,800 people. It stands like a town that time forgot, with a very small one-stop downtown area, gravel roads, and trademark “You’ll Like Linton” signs.
Today, the Harris-Faye collection resides in the Carnegie Heritage and Arts Center of Greene County, located at 110 E. Vincennes St., Linton, IN 47441. The building is mostly a shop for local art, and the collection is tucked away in its own corner. Luckily it is free to view the Harris-Faye collection, and there is ample street parking available. The usual hours of operation are Thurs-Fri 12-4, Sat 12-4.
If you are ever in the area, I would recommend a quick stop at the Heritage and Arts Center. I visited the town on my way back from Vincennes and made it just before closing time, so please be cognizant of their hours. Unfortunately, I was not provided with a lot of background information about the history of the collection, however, there were many family photos and awards that were intriguing, nonetheless.
Although the Phil Harris Celebrity Weekend is no more, as both Phil and his close friend who carried on the tradition have passed away, the Phil Harris Golf course still stands at Indiana 54, Linton, IN 47441. The county now owns and operates the Phil Harris Scholarship Tournament.
While Linton is still a quiet spot on the map, it’s most likely just as Phil would have remembered it. I think it compliments Harris’ laid-back personality and would have provided a nice break from the chaos of traveling city after city as a bandleader. Phil puts it all into perspective for us, as always: