Jacky Benny (l.) with Eddie Anderson

Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky) was born in Chicago, Illinois, on this date in 1894. His parents were immigrants from Poland and Lithuania. One of America’s favorite comedians in vaudeville, on radio and TV, and in film, Benny was married to Sadye Marks, who some say was a cousin of the Marx Brothers and who played his stage girlfriend in most of the incarnations of his show. Another key character, his African-American valet, Rochester van Jones (played by Eddie Anderson, pictured with Benny), was edgy for his day insofar as he both sassed and gave instructions to his white “boss.” (Scroll down to see a segment featuring Benny, Anderson, and Mel Blanc.) Benny spoke regularly about the racial diversity of the U.S. armed forces during World War II and, after the war, instructed his writers to avoid all racist stereotypes. His 1942 film with Carole Lombard, To Be or Not To Be, portrayed stage artists participating in the Polish resistance to Nazism. Along with Bing Crosby, Edgar Bergen, and Eddie Cohen, Benny also helped the American Federation of Radio Artists negotiate its first national contract in 1938 (with CBS and NBC); within two years, 70 percent of radio shows had been unionized. Benny’s comic persona was vain, cheap, and thin-skinned, yet somehow lovable, in part because he demonstrated a vulnerability that was rare for male leads. Benny died in December 1974.

“I’m like Will Rogers, I never met a man I didn’t like… well, Eichmann maybe.” —Jack Benny