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July 25: When Jack Benny Visited Fargo

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If you are of a certain age, you remember the talents of Jack Benny (1894-1974), the famous comedian and violin-player who started out in vaudeville and then became successful in movies, radio, television, and nightclubs.

He was funny because of his supposed faults. When Jack Benny played his theme song, “Love In Bloom,” it always sounded squeaky and off-key, although he was actually a talented violinist.

Jack Benny pretended vanity about his age, claiming to be 39 well past his prime. His schtick also included fostering the image of a penny-pinching cheapskate, a stingy and tight-fisted miser. His most-memorable radio sketch involved a bandit trying to rob him.

The robber commanded: “Your money or your life.”

Silence from Jack Benny, followed by even more silence.

The bandit repeated: “Look, Bud, I said ‘your money or your life’.”

After another pause, Jack Benny, exasperated, said: “I’m thinking it over!”

It was on this date, in 1939, that Benny visited Fargo. The radio star was on an extended vacation, driving from Michigan through the Upper Midwest en route to Banff National Park in Canada.

The 45-year-old celebrity was driving a brand-new Buick, and he stopped at a Fargo gas station to get fuel, a bug screen, and to get the dead bugs cleaned off his windshield.

While his car was serviced, he went for breakfast at the Gardner Hotel. Reporter Roy P. Johnson of the Fargo Forum interviewed Benny that morning. Mr. Benny told Johnson that this “was not his first visit to Fargo.”

“I was here many years ago, in vaudeville,” he recalled. “You see, I have been in ... show business quite a while. I started 28 years ago.”

Reporter Johnson had a good conversation with the radio star, noting that Benny wasn’t trying to be funny. He was visiting as an ordinary tourist, a bit weary, wishing it would cool off, a trifle concerned about grasshoppers clogging his radiator, and looking forward to a rest in Banff.

Benny then continued westward, driving to Bismarck for a noon meal and then to Canada, his 1939 Buick Roadmaster convertible now sporting a radiator bug screen he got in Fargo.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, Retired MSUM History Professor

Roy P. Johnson, “Jack Benny, Beard and All, Eats His Breakfast in Fargo,” Fargo Forum, July 26, 1939, p. 5.
“Beret Me Boys,” Bismarck Capital & N.D. State Record July 25, 1939, p. 1.”
“Jack Benny Buys a Ticket,” Minneapolis Journal, July 25, 1939, p. 2.
“Jack Benny,” Manitowoc [WI] Sun-Messenger, July 28, 1929, p. 1.
“Human Touch Essential For Radio Work,” Kingston [Ontario] Whig-Standard, July 31, 1939, p. 11.
Kathy Fuller-Seeley, “The Jack Benny Program, March 28, 1948,” 2004, Library of Congress, www.loc.gov, accessed June 20, 2023.
“TV, Radio Comic Jack Benny, 80, Dies of Cancer,” Minneapolis Tribune, December 28, 1974, p. 4A.
“Jack Benny,” www.emmys.com/bios/jack-benny, accessed June 20, 2023.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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