Most of you will puzzled by the enigmatic title, which seems to be an oxymoron. How can someone or something be both last and first at the same time? Well, read on, and I will demonstrate to you that it is a fitting title.
Chances are few of you have heard of Irving Benson. I know that I never had. If anything, the name sounds like it belongs to a Jewish waiter at the Carnegie Deli. But, no, Irving Benson was believed to be the last surviving headlining comic from the vaudeville circuit.
Irving Wishnefsky was born on January 31, 1914 in Brooklyn, NY, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. He began appearing in talent shows before his tenth birthday. Soon after, he won an amateur dance contest, and by his early 20s he was already part of the burlesque and vaudeville circuits, touring the country as a comedian. For those who are unfamiliar with these genres I will provide a brief synopsis.
Vaudeville was a form of live entertainment popular in the US and Canada from the 1880s to 1930s. A troupe of entertainers would perform in small venues, such as clubs or small movie houses. A show would include a wide variety of acts, such as singers, dancers, magicians, comedians and even animal acts. Each act would be unrelated to the others, and the performers might travel from town to town separately or together. The order of performance would be from the least popular or accomplished to the best or most famous, which would perform last. Burlesque shows were similar, but more off-color and would include strippers and similar less reputable “entertainment.”
The popularity of these genres waned in the 1930s as movies and radio took hold. Many famous entertainers we know from radio and/or television had their start in vaudeville or burlesque, including The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Red Skelton, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Kate Smith, Bing Crosby, and many, many others. Vaudeville is gone, but not forgotten. It is fondly remembered by fans as a romantic link to their youth.
At some point, Wishnefsky changed his name to Irving Benson, perhaps, to sound less ethnic or, perhaps, just to enable it to fit on a billboard. As we know, this was very common in those days. He was a contemporary of some of the famous and familiar names listed above. At first, being the unknown newcomer, he performed at the bottom of the bill, but eventually he worked his way up to the top as a the featured “first comic,” or “top banana,” as it was sometimes called.
During WWII Benson did his part by touring with the USO entertaining the troops. Later he was a popular guest on tv variety shows, working with such as Milton Berle and Johnny Carson. His most memorable schtick was to pretend to be a heckling spectator in the audience. For example:
Berle: “Why are you applauding? I didn’t say anything yet?”
Benson: “That’s why I’m applauding.”
Berle: “Is there something about my performance you don’t like?”
Benson: “You stand too close to the camera.”
Berle: How far away would you like me to be?”
Benson: “You got a car?”
Carson: “I’ve got a million jokes in the back of my head.”
Benson: “How come they never reach your mouth?”
In 1979 he appeared on the tv show Happy Days. In 2010 his life was the subject of a tv documentary aptly named “The Last First Comic.”
Benson died on May 19 at the ripe old age of 102, the “last first comic,” and the last connection to a way of life long gone.