BOOTLEG FILES 673: “The Jack Benny Birthday Special” (1969 TV special).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It fell through the cracks.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
During the mid-1960s into the early 1970s, Jack Benny made a number of TV specials that aired on NBC. Most of these offerings were pleasant but entirely forgettable, and Benny often seemed to be dialing in his performances.
“The Jack Benny Birthday Special” which aired on February 17, 1969 (the star’s birthday was February 14), was typical of this run of specials. The humor relied heavily on Benny’s long-established persona, with a line-up of celebrity guests to give a higher level of flash to what might otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill presentation.
Actually, this production gets off to an amusing start with Lawrence Welk (of all people) coming out and miming Benny’s voice while replicating his cherished physical mannerisms. As someone who was not celebrated for his wit or sense of irony, Welk was a delightful surprise opening act. After a commercial from Texaco (the sole corporate sponsor of the show), Benny comes out and takes credit for Welk’s appearance, remarking that when his writers wanted to get a “hep, cool and real swinging cat, I immediately thought of Lawrence Welk.” Welk comes back and entertains his host with wonderfully awful imitations of Edward G. Robinson and Cary Grant.
From here, a running gag involving a squad of penguins waddling across the stage while Benny watches in confusion occurs. A man dressed like an Eskimo with snowshoes later comes out looking for the penguins – why the Arctic resident is seeking the Antarctic birds is unclear – and the faux-Eskimo comments, “One thing about penguins, they have no sense of direction.”
Lucille Ball comes out next to share some fragile comic palaver with Benny, who then gives the stage to an operatic tenor named Rouvaun. This performer was born Jim Haun in Bingham, Utah, and sang as a child with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In 1967, hit pay dirt in Las Vegas as the headline singer of the stage revue Casino De Paris at the Dunes Hotel. But Rouvaun was mostly unknown to most of the American television audience – this was one of only three times when he appeared on national television.
Rouvaun first appears in a clown costume performing part of the aria “Vesti la giubba” from “Pagliacci.” Taking off the clown costume, he then declares his next number “expresses the hope of America, the heart of America, and the dream that is America” – and then proceeds to sing “The Impossible Dream” from the Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha,” which takes place in 17th century Spain and not 20th century America. After another penguin waddles by, Rouvaun serenades Benny with “Mr. Wonderful” while the comic star feigns modest reactions to the musical flattery – but then expresses shock when Rouvaun hits a very high note that shatters his eyeglasses.
Following a Texaco commercial highlighting the company’s airline fuel, Benny engages in conversation with Dan Blocker, who is dressed as his Hoss character from “Bonanza.” The talk somehow detours into fat jokes – Blocker claimed to be 280 pounds – and Benny recalls his overweight announcer Don Wilson from his radio series. But Wilson is in the audience and comes on stage to protest, only to get sucked into the zaftig zingers. Alas, the joke doesn’t quite work because Wilson had slimmed down from his heavyweight days on Benny’s old show, so the fat jokes make little sense with him.
Another penguin (this one on roller skates) interrupts the show, and Benny then engages with four little girls dressed in Texaco’s quasi-firefighter uniforms for an on-stage commercial. One girl gives Benny a certificate for a free fuel fill-up, adding that the allegedly cheap Benny is “the only man who buys one gallon at a time.”
The next segment is a lengthy satire of the clichés that go into Westerns, with Benny serving as narrator while Welk, Blocker and a small army of character actors re-enact every imaginable hoary staple of the Westerns. Lucille Ball arrives as the stock character of the bad girl from the East trying to reinvent herself out West, and with little prompting she joins four chorus boys in a rendition of “Hey, Big Spender” from the show “Sweet Charity” – the film version of the show was opening six weeks after Benny’s special. While Ball looked smashing in a 19th century showgirl costume that displayed her shapely legs, her vocal cords were another matter – a fact that became too apparent a few years later with the film “Mame.” Mercifully, vocalist Carole Cook’s voice was used for the number, with Ball expertly lip-syncing while strutting her stuff.
Another Texaco commercial (this time, for motorboat fuel) pops up, and then Benny finds himself as the guest of a birthday party with the cast. Dennis Day, the singer from his radio show, arrives while Jerry Lewis makes an unbilled appearance, opening a giant card to reveal Ann-Margaret wearing a tiny white dress with red hearts on her chest. Alas, the delightful A-M is quickly ignored because Benny wants Rouvaun to sing, but Day throws a mild tantrum and insists he should sing. Rouvaun obliges Day, who sings “Cuando calienta de sol” while Benny plays the guitar. In a riff on the earlier Rouvaun gag, Day hits his own high note, causing Benny’s violin to bust. And the penguins come back to eat the oversized birthday cake.
There is another commercial for Texaco, but this one is staged very cleverly. Benny is given a script to rehearse, but unbeknownst to him the stagehands are turning the stage into a Texaco filling station, complete with a cardboard convertible for Benny to sit in. The star is unaware of what is happening until he finishes reading the script and looks up to find himself in a car at a gas station. The studio audience applauds the segment, and rightfully so because it was the most inventive highlight of the night.
Ball rejoins Benny at the end for some more fragile comic palaver which includes a supposed telegram from George Burns that Benny cannot read on the air due to its content. Ball then imagines Benny is trying to ask her out for a drink that would lead to a sordid affair, but she becomes indignant when Benny states his wife Mary would be coming. It is a dreary way to end the show, as if Benny’s writers opted to save the worst joke for last.
NBC had high hopes for this special, scheduling Benny to guest on a “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” episode that ran ahead of this show. Sadly for Benny and his network, the ratings were not spectacular. “The Jack Benny Birthday Special” only aired once and has never been made available in any home entertainment format. Several fans of old-school entertainment have made unauthorized posts of the production on YouTube, where Benny and his star-studded cast can gain attention from lovers of old-school entertainment. However, it may have been Benny’s birthday, but his fans did not get a gift with this special.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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