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Happy Birthday Benjamin

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alt textOn February 14, 1894, the world got its first look at a legend.

About a year after their marriage, Meyer and Emma Kubelsky left their home in Waukegan, Illinois. Emma believed that "it was an honor to be born in a big city"; at Chicago's Mercy Hospital, she gave birth to their first child, Benjamin.

One of the earliest notable moments in Benjamin Kublesky's life was a demonstration of his musical aptitude. He began one-fingering melodies played by Emma on the family piano, the only dowry that her parents could afford to provide the young couple. The violin was a popular instrument for Jewish children to study at the time, and Benjamin was presented with a half-size version for his sixth birthday. He began to take lessons twice a week with Professor Harlow, who charged 50 cents per lesson.

Benjamin progressed quickly, and started taking weekly violin lessons from Dr. Hugo Kortschalk at the Chicago Musical College in 1902. His daily routine included practicing from 4 to 6 P.M. by the front parlor window of the family's home at 224 South Genesee Street in Waukegan. However, the view of Lake Michigan often had greater attraction for Benjamin than the practicing.

By the time he entered ninth grade at Central High School, Benjamin had secured a job as a violinist in the pit orchestra of the Barrison Theatre, the local vaudeville house, just a couple blocks north of his home. After flunking every class that year, he dropped out of school.

In 1911, a relatively new act played the theatre: the Marx Brothers. Their mother, Minnie Palmer, was impressed by Benjamin's playing and loud laughter at the brothers' onstage antics.

She offered him the chance to tour with them, for full room, board, travel expenses, and $7.50 a week. Benjamin's parents would not consider the possibility of their 17-year-old son going on such a boondoggle, and he stayed home.

The pianist for the theatre was a middle-aged woman named Cora Salisbury, who had previously performed in vaudeville. The Barrison closed by 1912, and Benjamin and Cora teamed up as a vaudeville duo. Their billing was "Salisbury and Kubelsky: From Grand Opera to Ragtime." However, violinist Jan Kubelik took issue with the name, claiming to be infringing on his name recognition. Benjamin changed his stage name to Ben K. Benny, and the act became "Salisbury and Benny." By 1913, Cora was forced to retire from the act to care for her ailing mother back in Waukegan.

At this point, Benjamin met pianist Lyman Woods in Chicago. The previous act was adapted into "Bennie and Woods: From Grand Opera to Ragtime," the spelling of his stage name being changed to be "classier." The duo enjoyed success, and in 1917, was booked to perform at the famous Palace Theatre in New York. As fate would have it, their act did not rise to the level demanded by Palace audiences. Soon after, the act broke up and Benjamin returned home due to Emma's battle with breast cancer.

In November of 1917, Emma lost that battle.

The U.S. had entered World War I. Benjamin enlisted in the Navy, and was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Station in Waukegan. Because of his vaudeville experience, he continued using the violin to entertain his fellow servicemen. At one point he was playing "The Rosary" to a group the men, who were not particularly appreciative of the classical music. Benjamin’s friend, Pat O’Brien (later known as an actor in his own right, and some sources say this was actually Benjamin's friend, David Wolff), walked on stage and whispered, "For heaven's sake, Ben, put down the damn fiddle and talk to 'em." Benjamin stopped playing, turned to the audience, and ad libbed the following joke: "I was having an argument with Pat O'Brien this morning...about the Irish Navy. You see, I claim the Swiss Navy is bigger than the Irish Navy and the Jewish Navy is bigger than both of them put together." It got a tremendous audience response.

Shortly afterwards, Benjamin was selected to play the two-line comedic part of Issy There, the Admiral's Disorderly, in The Great Lakes Revue, a benefit for the Navy Relief Society and the Lying-In Hospital, for the wives and mothers of enlisted men at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. His performance was so good that the part was expanded. The part kept being expanded until by the time that the play was to debut, he was one of the major players. The audience reaction was excellent, inspiring The Great Lakes Recruit reviewer to write, "Too much credit cannot be given to Benny Kubelsky, who played the orderly role. He is a laugh provoker who caused many to return to their homes still holding their sides. It’s a delicate part to play, too. Yet there was nothing amateurish about the acting of this sailor who claims Waukegan for his home. He is a comedian of merit, whose clean, wholesome comedy is natural."

Thus Benjamin Kubelsky began his career in comedy.

All information obtained from http://www.jackbenny.org

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Thanks for the great information about Jack Benny, Joey! I always loved to watch him on tv when I was a youngster.

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He is buried at Hillside Cemetary in Culver City, right next to where my hubby used to live. Many celebrities are buried there, including Shelley Winters, who just died a few weeks ago.

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