Monday is “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, with each Monday featuring a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four days of the week, that is). They’ll eventually repeat, but for now, we’re still on the initial installments of each of the various “Grab Bag” legends!
This is the first in a series of examinations of legends related to vaudeville and whether they are true or false.
VAUDEVILLE LEGEND: Jack Benny’s stage name came from not one, but TWO separate legal issues, one for each part of his name.
Benjamin Kubelsky was born in Chicago in 1894 and by his teens, he wanted to be a performer.
A more than capable violinist, Kubelsky was actually offered a regular gig with the Marx Brothers in 1911 as their official accompanist, but Kubelsky’s mother would not let him go.
By the next year, though, there was nothing that was going to keep Kubelsky from pursuing a career in vaudeville. He teamed up with pianist Cora Salisbury for a vaudeville musical act.
However, this did not sit well with famed violinist Jan Kubelik. He felt that a vaudeville violinist with a name like Kubelsky would detract from Kubelik’s reputation, and Kubelik’s lawyers contacted Kubelsky with words (and threats) to that effect.
Now almost certainly, had Kubelsky actually pushed the issue, he likely would have been okay, but if you’re an 18 year old just trying to break into the entertainment industry, you likely don’t want to ruffle any feathers if you can avoid it, so Kubelsky changed his name to Ben K. Benny.
He continued under this name for a few years, with little to no success. He joined the Navy in 1917 during World War I, and he would often entertain the troops with his violin playing. It was around this time that he began to work comedy into his act.
By the time the war was over, Ben K. Benny was ready to make a name for himself as a comedian/violinist.
However, that name he would make for himself would not be Ben K. Benny, as he was once AGAIN contacted by the lawyer of another entertainer.
This time, it was entertainer Ben Bernie who took issue, and here, the concern is certainly more justified.
Bernie was even also a violinist!!! (Bernie is most known today for his catch phrase, “yowsa yowsa yowsa”)
So Benny decided to take the common sailor nickname, Jack, as his first name.
And Jack Benny was born!
Soon, the violin became basically a prop in Benny’s comedy and he was a comedian through and through.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
One final little footnote, though – Benny had a popular bit on his radio show where he and Fred Allen pretended to hate each other and were “feuding” with each other. Well, Ben Bernie also had a radio show, and he ended up basically copying the bit exactly, only with Walter Winchell. I wonder if Benny sent a lawyer over?
VAUDEVILLE LEGEND: Buster Keaton received his nickname from Harry Houdini.
STATUS: I’m Going With False
Joseph Frank Keaton broke into the vaudeville business in 1899 as a member of his family’s vaudeville act, The Three Keatons when the young Keaton was only 3 years old.
He went by the nickname Buster, which is what he would go by for the rest of his life.
The act was based around a lot of slapstick, mostly involving Joe Keaton (the father) abusing his son, in a similar fashion to the antics of Homer and Bart Simpson on The Simpsons.
A major gag in the show would involve Joe picking up Buster and throwing him against the scenery, or into props or, occasionally, even into the audience!
There’s a famous story about how Buster got his nickname. As the story goes, legendary magician Harry Houdini was visiting the Keatons while they were all on tour (Houdini did, in fact, tour with the Keatons at the time) when he saw the young Keaton (still an infant at the time, so maybe around a year old) fall down a flight of stairs without injury or, in fact, any real reaction.
Houdini remarked, “That was a real buster!” (the term at the time was used to denote falls that looked like they could hurt/cause injury) and the name stuck.
That story was repeated for years and Keaton even told it in interviews for years.
But is it true?
I’m going with no.
The first thing you need to know is that Joe Keaton was a master publicist. He was well-known for planting stories with newspapers, designed to get the group into the news. Stuff like, “The Three Keatons were almost killed today by a train!” or “Buster Keaton was almost kidnapped today.” So a story about how a famous magician gave Buster Keaton his nickname? And in a story that happened to involve the young Keaton doing a pratfall, which happened to be what he was most known for at the time?
Sounds awfully suspicious, doesn’t it?
But really, even if a story might have been manipulated for good publicity, it does not mean that it is not mostly true (read the next legend for more on that note).
However, here is the real kicker for me.
The story changed over the years!
At the very turn of the century, right before Houdini hit it big, it was comedian George Pardey who was the fellow who named Buster.
Then, in another newspaper, it was Joe Keaton himself who named Buster, in reference to the child’s propensity for falling down.
THEN, once Houdini became suitably famous for such a story to really work in the media, THEN Houdini became the person who was there, and that’s how it stayed for good (because Houdini never actually stopped being famous – heck, he’s still famous NOW, a hundred years later).
So while it is not absolutely impossible that the story happened as it has been told, I just don’t believe it for those reasons.
Buster Keaton, by the way, in case you did not know, grew up to become one of the biggest film stars of his day, and one of the greatest film directors in film history.
Thanks to Robert Knopf’s The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton for the information!
VAUDEVILLE LEGEND: Will Rogers first made a name for himself in the New York scene by heroically roping a steer that had gone into the crowd during a Western performance at Madison Square Garden.
STATUS: Basically True
As I just said, the great entertainers often stretched the truth when it meant good publicity for them.
That’s only natural, right?
Well, in the case of Will Rogers, his big New York debut involved a dramatic story that, as unlikely as it sounds, apparently IS true – or, well, true enough, I guess.
Will Rogers began his career working on ranches and then later as a trick cowboy in a number of circuses, mostly overseas (South Africa and Australia).
In the early 1900s, he moved back to America and tried to take his act to New York and the great vaudeville scene there.
Here’s a picture of Will from those days…
Will got a gig performing in Colonel Mulhall’s Wild West Show, which also featured Tom Mix…
and Mulhall’s daughter, Lucille Mulhall…
The show made its way into the world famous Madison Square Garden in New York City in April of 1905. Rogers was making $20 a week in the show doing trick roping.
Well, during the show, things changed dramatically, when a steer broke loose from the show and actually charged the audience!
The exact details are not known for sure, but what IS known is that Will Rogers quickly roped the steer and helped save the lives of the people in the audience.
So when the papers the next day extolled the heroism of Will Rogers, thereby making him a household name (he would very soon be hired to his own vaudeville show, which would then, naturally, launch him into the national celebrity he would become in film and in print), they were correct.
The only question is how MUCH of an impact did Will have?
There were tons of cowboys on hand, and different reports in the papers report different versions of the story – in some, Will is the most notable hero – in others, Tom Mix and cowboy Jim Minnick were given most of the credit.
So, like I said before, just because something works as publicity does not mean that it did not actually happen!
Thanks to Ray Robinson’s American Original: A Life of Will Rogers for the information!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments, particularly other themes for future grab bag Mondays! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org