Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to vaudeville and whether they are true or false.
VAUDEVILLE URBAN 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?
The legend is…
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org