Say Jell-o to Don Wilson

As we continue with our “They Call Me Wilson” series, today we learn about the career of Don Wilson.  With 33 movie credits, he only starred in seven television shows, but if you were a fan of Jack Benny or Batman, you will recognize him immediately.

Photo: oldtimeradio.com

Wilson was born in 1900 in Nebraska. Not much is known about his early life, but in one interview in 1980, he mentioned he went to high school in Boulder, CO. He played football at the University of Colorado and was an excellent golfer.

Denver was also the place he began his radio career, singing on KFEL in 1923. Wilson talked about a group he was part of, the Columbia Trio, in Denver beginning in 1925; they played on the radio and appeared in clubs when they needed a late substitute. One of their clients for commercials was for Piggly Wiggly and the store brought the three musicians to California when the company decided to open up new stores in California and renamed them the Piggly Wiggly Trio.

By the end of the decade, he was working full time at station KFI and later at KHJ both in Los Angeles. In an interview later in his life, he said he bought a Packard from Earle C. Anthony, and the Cadillac sponsor Don Lee, who owned KFI did not take it kindly and fired Wilson.

Apparently, he couldn’t decide which direction he wanted his career to go. During the early thirties, he worked as a sportscaster and covered the opening of the 1932 Summer Olympics for NBC. He also announced five Rose Bowls. He was mentored by Ted Hussey and said he was the greatest sports announcer bar none as well as a generous and knowledgeable man.

He took on Broadway roles in 1932 and 1934. He also began radio announcing for programs in the mid-thirties, first working with Benny in 1934.

Being perhaps indecisive, he also had a hard time with his love life. His first marriage was to Lucy Saufley in 1927; in 1940, he divorced Saufley and he married Peggy Kent whose father was president of 20th Century Fox. In 1942, the same month his divorce became final , he married a Polish countess, Marusia Radunska and this relationship lasted seven years. When he married his fourth wife, Lois Corbett in 1950, he finally found a lifetime partner.

He would be a member of the Jack Benny television family for 31 years, but when he was hired, although it was as a permanent cast member, he was at least the fourth announcer in two years to work on the show. Wilson said he thinks he was chosen partly because he laughed at all the right lines. He said luckily, in person, Benny was much more generous with his salary than was portrayed on the show.

When Benny made the foray into television in 1950, Wilson went along and would continue to costar on the show until it ended in 1965.

The cast of The Jack Benny Show-Photo: tvtropes.com

Although Don was listed as announcer for the Benny show, like Harry Von Zell on Burns and Allen, he was really part of the cast. His good-natured, friendly manner and booming Midwestern voice made him a pleasant person who often took the brunt of jokes by Benny, often due to his 6 foot, 300-pound physique. Wilson’s wife Lois appeared as his wife on the show for fifteen years, so it was a family affair. She also acted on other radio shows.

Benny producer Irving Fein, said Don “was a great foil for Jack. He was the hearty announcer who tried to get the commercial on the air and Jack would try to thwart him. Sometimes Don would have the Sportsmen Quartet sneak in the commercial. Don would tell Jack the Sportsmen were going to do a song. Then they would sing a chorus of a song and the final chorus would be the commercial.” The first commercial Wilson pitched on the show was for General Tires. Jell-O, part of General Foods, sponsored the show for ten years, and Lucky Strike then took over for another fifteen years.

Photo: jackbennypodcast.com

His coworkers said he rarely misspoke his lines, but when he did, they took advantage of it. In an interview on speakingofradio.com, Don told a story that during one 1950 broadcast, he relayed a bunch of information and Jack asked him when he learned all that and Don said he read it in columnist Drew Pearson’s article, but he mistakenly said Dreer Pooson. Later during the murder-mystery story, Benny approached Frank Nelson and asked, “Pardon me, are you the doorman?” Instead of the written line, Nelson asked, “Well who do you think I am, Dreer Pooson?” That line got a lot of applause and laughter.

He said Benny was a quiet listener and preferred to stay in the background reacting to other actors. However, Wilson said that “when he was eventually on, he could top everybody. . . He wasn’t a one-liner comedian . . . he was a real thoroughbred professional, start to finish.  He always demanded the very, very best that he could possibly get and if ever there was an irreplaceable man, Jack Benny would be that man.”

Wilson with Jack Benny and Dennis Day–Photo: radiospirits.info

Don discussed how the show worked. He said “Jack’s philosophy was that the bigger he could make the supporting people, the bigger the Jack Benny Show became and the bigger Jack Benny therefore became.”  Wilson said he was thoughtful and generous and would not allow anything off-color in the show, so it was fit for family watching. He said in one episode, Benny sat off to one side and the cast spoke to him, but he didn’t actually utter a line until the last few minutes of the show. He said Jack often came up with the idea for a show but then turned it over to the writers and let them do their part.

He said some of his most enjoyable shows were when he traveled with Jack performing for military audiences. Jack would try to move the brass, so the enlisted men could have front-row seats.

Wilson did announcing work for a variety of programs in the heyday of radio. He worked with Bing Crosby, Fanny Brice, and Alan Young. He also worked for Chesterfield when they sponsored a show with Glenn Miller.  When Miller went into the war, Harry James took over that spot, and Don continued working with him.

Wilson said in the early years of television, they did two live presentations, one for the east coast and one for the west coast.  In between they would tweak lines and rehearse those changes. Eventually, the show was taped, so the cast did not have to do two live performances.

Radio Guide, in addition to other award groups, awarded Don the Announcer of the Year Award for fifteen years straight.

While on Benny’s show, Don also made several appearances on other television shows in the fifties and sixties. He showed up on Screen Directors Playhouse in 1955 and on The Red Skelton Show in 1959. He was a preacher on Death Valley Days in 1959.

Photo: radiospirits.com

In the sixties, he could be seen in the Mel-O-Toons in 1960 which presented short, five-minute stories often based on fairy tales. He was also on Harrigan and Son in 1961. His last role was after Jack Benny went off the air. He was Walter Klondike, a newscaster spoof on Walter Kronkite, on Batman in 1966.

Watch Batman Season 2 Episode 18 - Dizzoner the Penguin Online Now
Photo: yidio.com

Don passed away due to a stroke in 1982.

I really enjoyed listening to several interviews with Don. He was so appreciative of his career and the people he was able to work with during his entertainment opportunities. Listening to someone who was able to get in on the beginning of radio and then do the same thing with television was very interesting and informative. I hope he realizes how much we all appreciated him.

Jack Benny: Perhaps the Nicest Guy in Television

Photo: cinema.ucla.edu

We kick off this new year getting to know one of my favorite entertainers, Jack Benny. While many radio stars had a hard time transitioning to television, Jack, along with his best friend George Burns, made it look easy. Jack’s radio show started in 1932. In 1950 he decided to make the leap to tv, and his show would be on the air until 1965 when he decided it was time to quit.

The series produced 258 episodes. Jack tested the water first, appearing randomly on television before settling into a weekly schedule ten years after the first show debuted (From 1955-1960 he was on every other week). George Balzer and Sam Perrin would write for the show for the entire run, given credit for 255 episodes. Ralph Levy, who helped George and Gracie get their show underway, came on board in 1951 and left in 1962. The well-respected Fred De Cordova directed the most episodes, 75.

Photo: thisdaybenny.com 

Jack’s first shows were filmed at Burns’ McCadden Productions studio and later at Universal Television. His opening and closing monologues were done in front of a live audience but a laugh track was inserted for consistency. Jack brought his quirky radio crew with him: Don Wilson, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Dennis Day, Mary Livingstone, and Mel Blanc. Benny’s wife was Sadie Marks. He met her at age 14 in 1919, and they didn’t exactly hit it off. However, in 1927 they realized they were in love and married that year. Benny asked his wife to fill in for a live comedy show to play “Mary Livingstone.” Sadie did and showed her comic persona. She began to appear regularly and later legally changed her name to Mary Livingstone.

Photo: pinterest.com

Benny understood the radio show was so successful because listeners bonded with the characters and considered them friends. Television just added another dimension for viewers to be able to see the characters.

Jack always underplayed his character, often giving the best lines to his cast. He had great timing, knowing when to tell a joke and when to say nothing. It was often said that he did not say funny things, but he said things funny. His catchphrases, “Well” (with a long pause) and “Now, cut that out” are still part of pop culture today.

In the classic age of comedy, sponsors were the key to survival, and Jack was always able to obtain some of the most well-known companies. During his run, he was sponsored by Lucky Strike, Lever Brothers Lux, State Farm Insurance, Lipton Tea, Miles Laboratories, and most memorably, General Foods’ Jell-O. The sponsors never minded that he often made fun of them or their ads. Often, they were some of the funniest moments in the show.

The first show aired in October of 1950. Benny’s first line on that live Sunday night telecast was, “I’d give a million dollars to know what I look like!”

The show’s format didn’t vary much from week to week. Typically, it began with a monologue. The orchestra might play a song or Jack and announcer Don Wilson might have a discussion such as:

DonWilson: I don’t think you know how much it means to me to do the commercial. After all I’m not a funny man. I can’t sing or dance. I don’t lead a band. What are you paying me for?

Jack: Don, you’re hanging yourself.

Photo: oldtimeradiodownloads.com

The cast would discuss a current situation, often referring to Benny’s age or frugality, or Mary would read a letter from her mother. Dennis Day would then sing a song followed by a skit, a mini-play, or a satire of a movie. Before Carol Burnett’s incredible movie satires, Jack Benny’s writers created some humorous shows. One example was a 1952 show. It was based on Gaslight from 1944. Called “Autolight,” it starred Barbara Stanwyck.

Photo: youtube.com

Jack continued to feature special guest stars, was a penny pincher, refused to admit he was over 39 years old, and continued to drive his old Maxwell. Here he is with Marilyn Monroe discussing his age:

Marilyn Monroe: What about the difference in our ages?

Jack: Oh, it’s not that big a difference. You’re twenty-five and I’m thirty-nine.

Marilyn Monroe: I know, Jack. But what about twenty-five years from now when I’m fifty and you’re thirty-nine?

Jack: Gee, I never thought of that.

Photo: worthpoint.com

Jack’s view on saving money: “Any man who would walk five miles through the snow, barefoot, just to return a library book so he could save three cents – that’s my kind of guy.”

Photo: imdb.com

Mel Blanc not only “played” the Maxwell but portrayed a variety of characters. Once Benny made the comment, “There’s only five real people in Hollywood.  Everyone else is Mel Blanc.”

Viewers today criticize the way Rochester was treated on the show, but when comparing Benny’s show to Amos ‘n Andy and other shows during the time period, a stark difference can be seen. Rochester was the first black actor to have a recurring role on a radio show. He called Jack, “Jack” or“Mr. Benny” and quite often got the best of him by outwitting him or pointing out one of his deficiencies.

Here’s a typical conversation between Jack and Rochester:

Jack: What do you think of this card I wrote for Don? “To Don from Jacky, Oh golly, oh shucks. I hope that you like it, it cost forty bucks.”

Rochester: It would’ve been hard to rhyme a dollar ninety-eight.

Jack Benny: We’re a little late, so good night, folks.

Photo: americacomesalive.com

The character interactions and the great skits are what made the show so popular. In Jim Bishop’s book about President John F. Kennedy, A Day in the Life of President Kennedy, he wrote that JFK was too busy to watch television, but he always made time for The Jack Benny Show.

Photo: tvnewfrontier.blogspot.com

Jack passed away in 1974. In real life, he was the opposite of the character he played, very generous and a gifted violin player.

His papers, including television archives of his series and special broadcasts and more than 296 television scripts were given to UCLA.

The Jack Benny Program can currently be seen early mornings Sunday through Thursday on Antenna TV.