CHAMBERS’ CORNER: Mr. Morrison Meets Jack Benny

Shamrock

The Tribune’s T.N. Morrison, left, interviewing star of radio, stage, screen and television, Jack Benny at the Skylon. (File photo by Bob Chambers)

This is Chambers’ Corner ….. the occasional occupant of a corner of this blog, where Bob Chambers, an Evening Tribune photographer from 1957 to 1970, will present some of his photographs from that era …… Readers are asked to please comment!

By Bob Chambers

Found the print. Ran in the paper August 13, 1969. Taken in the lounge of the Skylon, you can see the view of fields (yes, farmland then) outside. Tommy has pen in hand. He’s typically dark-suited and bow-tied. I wish I knew what Benny was saying ….. gee, I guess I could make up almost anything now, nearly 50 years later.

For another view from the Skylon, I’ve included a picture of one my favourite models of that era (1967 – 70ish). The contrast shows how the clothing worn by older men, like Mr. Benny (75 at the time) and Mr. Morrison (he was 61) , would not identify the year, or even the decade (but possibly the century) that the picture was taken in, whereas Lesley Walker’s attire puts her image in the late 1960’s for sure. Lesley, from Fonthill, was an amazing model because of her dancing and acting ability, along with her extensive wardrobe. – Bob Chambers, Tribune photographer 1957-1970

Your comments are invited and appreciated by the photographer/author.

By Joe Barkovich, Scribbler-at-large

WELLAND – A St. Patrick’s Day column about T.N. Morrison is a tradition for me, going back to when I was still with the local daily newspaper. This was out of respect and admiration for the man – the Managing Editor – who hired me in April, 1969. Mr. Morrison, as I called him throughout our association – not Tom, not Tommy – made a lasting impression. He was a great newspaper man, a great mentor, a great friend.

But I’ve departed from the norm for this year’s St. Paddy’s Day tribute, opting instead to present a piece written by “Shamrock” Morrison himself. Entertainment was one of his interests while at The Tribune and he interviewed many stars of yesteryear for the newspaper, to the delight and pleasure of many. Trib photographer Bob Chambers was able to dig out the print of the photo that ran with Mr. Morrison’s feature and it appears as one of the shutterbug’s Chambers’ Corner offerings, an occasional feature here on the blog.

Interestingly enough, it’s also the photo that was chosen to accompany the farewell column marking Mr. Morrison’s retirement in 1972. It was headlined: Tribune’s Tom Morrison Reminisces Over 43-Year Newspaper Career. Now, here’s the feature, complete with Mr. Morrison’s byline (what an honor!) and upper case, boldface subheads – remember them? –  based on the interview with the great Jack Benny:

By T. N. Morrison

“How lovely. . . . and isn’t the Canadian side so much prettier.”

It was the first remark made by Jack Benny as he viewed the panorama from the lounge of the Skylon Tower at Niagara Falls yesterday afternoon, an ideal day for visibility.

The lounge was the setting for the weekly press conference Melody Fair producer Lew Fisher arranges for the stars appearing in the big tent in North Tonawanda. This week, Benny is holding forth in great style and the attraction is enhanced by a smashing performance by singer Shani Wallis of “Oliver” fame.

Obviously pleased with the reviews following Monday night’s opening show, the renowned comedian said he forwards certain reviews to his wife, Mary. These are notices that are either critical, or show an understanding of his approach to comedy.

To Jack, Mrs. Benny is the ultimate critic. “She has an uncanny sense of what’s good for me and what I can do best and if I’m off the beam I hear about it in no uncertain terms.” The remark was conveyed with a conviction that spelled absolute respect for Mary’s judgment.

LEISURE ELUSIVE

“You’ve been 39 for so long haven’t you thought about retiring?” we asked.

“Well, I am working less, or maybe I should say I think I am,” he answered.

“I’d love to have five or six consecutive weeks off and a chance to enjoy my beautiful California home, but just when I think I have it arranged, a benefit or something else comes up.”

What about Canadian apppearances? Well, in his vaudeville days he played Toronto and Montreal frequently. A few years ago he was booked into O’Keefe Centre and had a very successful two-week run. But the place is so big, he’d be content with one week if he ever goes back. He doubted if capacity would result in another two-week stand.

The same candor was shown when he related being approached about five years ago for a possible engagement at the Canadian National Exhibition. “My style of comedy, with its nuances and other characteristic identifications just isn’t appropriate for that type of show,” he said.

He had remembered playing Shea’s Theatre in Buffalo away back and we suggested that he also performed at a theatre in Niagara Falls, N.Y. when that city would get vaudeville from Thursday through Sunday. That’s where we first saw him, too many years ago. “You’re probably right,” he said, “because we used to play what we called ‘split weeks’ on the Keith-Albee circuit.”

Could he recall how many announcers he employed on his radio show before Don Wilson became the permanent fixture. There were several, he said, but the names eluded him except for the late Paul Douglas.

TOP VOCALISTS

What about singers prior to the advent of Dennis Day?

Well, there was the great Ethel Shutta, Jimmy Melton, Frank Parker and Kenny Baker. And if these names don’t mean much to the younger set, they’ll have to take our word for it that they were class, in capitals.

One of the pauses during the interview came when it was necessary for Jack to pose with a grand little chap in aid of the fight against muscular dystrophy. The attention and concern the lad received from the star was whole-hearted.

At this point the conversation turned to his benefit concerts with symphony orchestras and a prize example of his inability to arrange leisure time occurred when he suddenly remembered the plight of the Buffalo Philharmonic and yelled to an aide to make sure that he looked into the possibility of assisting in the preservation of this group.

Besides helping worthy causes in his appearances with symphonies, Jack hopes that the new listeners he attracts will learn to appreciate good music and become regular patrons. He confessed that his own taste had veered to the classics as a result of his deep involvement in this aspect of his career. Many of his friends were in the symphonic music field and in the latter years his association with them and the big orchestras had resulted in Jack Benny playing his violin more than ever before.

Discussing his comedy routine, he suggested that basic humour doesn’t change a great deal. Oddly enough, however, where tried and true formulas kept succeeding in America, he had to prepare completely new shows in alternate years for his bookings in England. “They’re really sharp over there, but what an audience,” he commented.

FILM COMMENT

The talk got around to his films and he remarked that the chore of memorizing lines for movie roles was something he would no longer undertake. But he expressed pride in the fact that one of his top movies, To Be Or Not To Be, continues to be shown in first class theatres in England and on the continent.

He expressed disgust over the erotic productions swamping movie theatres today. “I can’t bring myself to believe what’s being shown in some of these concoctions,” he said, “but I’m sure the saturation point is approaching and I feel also that they’ll fade out because most of them are without story form.”

He talked about the moonlanding astronauts and said he was terribly sorry he was unable to accept President Nixon’s invitation to this evening’s dinner honoring the intrepid trio. “But my wife will be there,” he said brightly.

Jack wore a light grey jacket, slacks in darker grey, a blue shirt and blue ascot tie.

STAYING IN SHAPE

He debated longer than the newsmen over choice of beverage and finally settled for iced coffee, with sugar substitute. Along the questioning route he suddenly yelled: “Has anyone got a cigar?” Lew Fisher was johnny-on-the-spot with a long one. A few puffs satisfied the entertainer. He’s careful about health but admits to slipping occasionally. “I keep a close check on my weight and exercise every day in my room, but it’s so boring.”

In a show like that at Melody Fair this week, Jack Benny’s talents show to much wider advantage than the impact he registers as star of screen, stage, radio and television. In view of the success he has enjoyed through the lens, speaker and tube, we’re saying a lot. Being interviewed he proved to be a receptive person with warm friendliness and a solid sense of values.

lesley

Lesley Walker, photographed at the Skylon. (Bob Chambers file photo)

 

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