THE SUNSHINE OF A GREAT COMEDIAN
It was a sunny walk that I will never forget.
When you walk along Yonge with one of the most famous mugs in comedy, the fun is watching the people's reaction as they saw Jack Benny's face.
Some actually walked into sign posts. Some just stood and stared. And Benny smiled at them all.
Somewhere around Queen he told me how much he admired Stephen Leacock. And that's the reason for my story.
In the Toronto Star the other day, Rob Salem, while writing about the new and good CBC TV movie about Leacock and his wonderful Sunshine Sketches Of A Little Town, said that the Canadian humorist/economist's most famous book was not just acknowledged here at home "but also south of the border. Anecdotal history has Groucho Marx giving a copy to Jack Benny back when both were still struggling vaudevillians."
I'm not sure that's the way it happened. Not only was Benny closer to the brother Zeppo Marx, the way he told it to me, he first read Leacock in a scrawled line on the dressing room wall in Winnipeg. He was struggling and playing the Canadian loop of the vaudeville circuit that circled from Manitoba to Toronto and then Montreal before performers return to the States.
Benny was to die in a few months but there was no sign of his illness when he came to the the Toronto Men's Press Club for lunch in 1974. As president, I hosted the lunch on behalf of the club's executive, and then said I would ride shotgun when Benny talked about strolling back to the Royal York Hotel.
He was 80 but he loved to walk. He said he walked every day in every city where he performed. He told me about playing a Chicago night club when after the first show he headed out the door to stretch his legs. The club's owner ran after him, waving to the limousine at the curb. "I rented it for you," he said. Benny said he preferred to walk. The owner insisted. And Benny got stubborn. Finally the owner said that if Benny didn't take the limo, he was cancelling him because he didn't want to be known as the owner of the club where Benny was playing the night he got shot. I really didn't need Benny to tell me it was a tough neighbourhood.
So we walked and Benny talked and Torontonians gawked. And then he mentioned Leacock.
"Mr. Benny," I said, "I love Leacock and I'm proud of being a Canadian and I really like you. You don't have to praise Leacock just to make me feel good.
And Benny stopped in front of the old Birk's jewellery store and the crowd parted around us as if we were boulders in a river and he started quoting the sinking of the Mariposa Bell and the legendary yarn about getting panicky in the bank.
"Oh yes, John," he said, " I love Leacock."
The world did too. Salem is a fine writer but he didn't quite seem to grasp that Leacock was a world figure. As a McGill prof he authored a book on economics that was a world best-seller. In Orillia, which he named Mariposa, he was the cocky gentry that everyone gossiped about. (He was also a strange employer. He hired the father of James Bartleman, our former lieutenant-governor, to do chores, and when Leacock saved him from drowning one day, he phoned the item in to the Star so that everyone would know. Another Bartleman relative was hired just to clean the dogs' slobber off the sheets in the bedrooms.)
It wasn't unusual for Canadians to stride confidently on the world stage a century ago, particularly when it came to books.
Why even our governor-generals from England took their turn. John Buchan wrote the thriller The Thirty Nine Steps which was made into at least four movies, one of them by Alfred Hitchcock.
A forgotten huge success is Ralph Connor. His books about Upper Canada life, such as Glengarry School Days, were world best-sellers.
One of the most famous medical texts ever written, The Principles And Practices of Medicine, made Sir William Osler one of the most famous doctors and medical professors on earth. (And I prize the copies my father bought a century ago after he taught long enough to make enough money to go Western's medical school.)
I told Benny about the other famous Canadian writers and scholars. We never got around to Wayne and Shuster because there was no need. After all, everyone in show business knew about how they had appeared more on the world's top variety program, the Ed Sullivan Show, than any other act.
Benny was a nice man. Nothing like his stage persona where he acted the mean skinflint. One story illustrates that so much that I imagine his friends used to tear up when they told about the provision in his will. He had used his wife Mary Livingstone as a foil for his TV, radio and stage comedy. But every single day after he died, for the nine years that Mary lived, a florist delivered one single red long-stemmed rose to her.
They still tell stories about Benny, and young comics have said they watch his old TV shows for the timing when he delivered his lines. No wonder people loved to watch him for 60 years. And on that day on Yonge St. when he walked and talked as if life had been very good to him after those tough times when he and the other teenagers known as the Marx Brothers struggled towards their first break.