Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jack Benny in Duluth at first anniversary of Arena-Auditorium...

by Jim Heffernan
"When Jack Benny descended on Duluth in 1967 he didn’t seem that-all happy..."
Jim Heffernan (R) greets Jack Benny (9-13-67)
Photo by Charles Curtis–from Heff's attic

Don’t waste your time reading this unless you’re of a certain age, and it ain’t young. I don’t even want to guess at what age you might recognize all of the names. Well, my age, certainly

Don’t believe me? OK, Skitch Henderson. See what I mean?

But this is mainly about Jack Benny, who needs no explanation if you are old enough, although I once read a piece by Dick Cavett in which he wrote that he dropped Benny’s name to one of the Beatles – could have been John Lennon, no spring chicken himself were he still alive, but a Brit – and the Beatle asked “Who’s Jack Benny?”

Benny was brought to Duluth in 1967 to entertain at a civic celebration of the first anniversary of the opening of the Arena-Auditorium, which, at the time, consisted of the arena and the auditorium – nothing else. No Pioneer Hall, no Northwest Passage, no DECC moniker, no convention center and certainly no Amsoil Arena, having its grand opening as 2010 draws to a close. (Click HERE to view today's Duluth News Tribune story about the opening of the new Amsoil Arena.)

The revered comedian is pictured this week (Dec. 29) on the Duluth News Tribune’s entertaining web site blog, called the News Tribune Attic (click HERE), in which they cull old photos from the newspaper’s no-longer-used files (everything is electronically archived now). In a series on the early days of the Arena-Auditorium, the blog posting includes a photo of Benny cutting a large birthday cake commemorating the anniversary. Flanking him are Skitch Henderson (just Google him) and the late Monnie Goldfine of Duluth.

In the picture, Benny looks, at the very least, somber, even angry. Maybe he was not happy to be in Duluth, or not pleased to be cutting a cake, or not feeling that-all well. Who knows?

I wouldn’t bother to mention it, except that it brought back some memories for me. A News Tribune reporter at the time, I was assigned to cover the arrival of the great comedian at the Duluth airport – the old terminal, before they built the new terminal that they are now replacing.

So up to the airport a photographer and I went, with me giving the photographer strict instructions to be sure to get a shot of me interviewing Benny as a keepsake (not for publication). That’s one of the fringe benefits of newspaper reporting. And the photographer did. I have the photo – an 8-by-10 glossy of me in my tan raincoat standing beside Jack Benny, in a suit and tie, chatting, not posing.

In the picture, Benny looks, at the very least, somber, even angry. Maybe he was not happy to be in Duluth, or not feeling that-all well, or in no mood to be interviewed by the likes of me. Can’t say I blame him.

I don’t remember what he said, but I doubt it was funny. The next night I did attend his show in the Arena, and he was back in his old form. Never a laughing hyena, his style was subdued, with slow delivery and lengthy pauses as he folded his arms and looked to the right or left, himself the butt of his own jokes.

Checking Google, I see he was born in 1894 (I told you that you had to be old to care about this), so he was about 73 when he was in Duluth. He died in 1974 at age 80. Of course, to quote Benny himself, “Age is strictly a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

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