On Sunday evening, January 7, 1945, Anaheim’s war news weary residents sat down again to listen to the nation’s favorite radio entertainer, Mr. Sunday Night himself, Jack Benny. Heard locally on KFI radio at 4:00 P.M. (for NewYork broadcast at 7:00 P.M. EST) and sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes,this night’s broadcast would be like no other before and forever change our community of Anaheim. On this show, Jack’s writers conceived three new characters and devices that were to remain among the most popular in broadcasting. We learned about penny-pinching Jack’s underground “vault” with its outlandish protection systems as well as meeting a young Sheldon Leonard playing the gravel-voiced “Race Track Tout.” The third “bit,” intended as a once-used throwaway line, will be long remembered by three Southern California communities.
The story goes like this: the L.A. Union Station conductor (played by Mel Blanc) announces to Jack’s entourage heading to New York: “Train leaving on Track five for Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc----amonga!” While Jack seems oblivious to the recitation of these rhythmic names, the residents of Anaheim are in disbelief. Known as the capital of the Valencia orange empire and the pre-war training grounds of Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, the name Anaheim was never known as a household word or the subject of national radio comedy. Regardless the three stops were not even on the same Santa Fe Railroad line, the audience response to Mel Blanc’s booming announcement was very positive and this bit was used often during Jack’s radio years and was heard again when Jack came to Television in the early 1950’s.
The national recognition that these three towns were starting to receive (humorous or not) was not lost on their local Chambers of Commerce. Wartime issues were still of top community interest but once hostilities ended, efforts began to “adopt” Jack as each town’s native son. Every plan must have a leader and Anaheim had Mr. Ernest W. Moeller, the Secretary–Manager of the Chamber of Commerce. Moeller, Chet Burke (The Anaheim Gazette Editor), Cornelius Smith from Azusa and Clifton Chappell of unincorporated Cucamonga began a campaign in late 1945 to declare Jack Honorary Mayor of the three communities.
Anaheim at this time was anticipating a post-war boom and the Chamber of Commerce as well as many service clubs were advertising Anaheim as the future business center of the southland. In addition, the Anaheim Kiwanis Club, the sponsor of the Orange County Youth Symphony, was planning their annual Concert for January 1946 and with the help of the Chamber of Commerce, were hoping to have Jack Benny as their guest conductor. Plans began to quickly gel when on Friday January 11, 1946 the representatives from the Chambers of the three communities met and directed Editor Burke on the 13th, to wire Jack Benny a request to accept duties of Honorary Mayor of Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga. The telegram also asked that Jack accept the additional post as violin soloist of the Youth Symphony. Jack’s positive response of Monday January 14th was printed in full on the front page of the following Thursday’s Anaheim Gazette.
At last on January 20th, prior to Jack’s regular Sunday program, representatives of the three cities presented Benny, at the NBC Hollywood studios, with his badge of office as the first “triple mayor” in the history of American politics. With it went three oversized wooden “keys to the cities.” Jack’s program that followed was devoted almost entirely to his new honor, as “Honorary Mayor” of the three cities that he helped make famous. It was reported that the laughs by the studio audience were much greater that usual, consuming almost eight minutes of the 30-minute show.
Discussions continued in the local press about Jack actually broadcasting from one of the towns.
Anaheim’s newspapers came alive at the thought that the country’s leading entertainer would visit their city, running stories, political cartoons and even an interview with Anaheim’s mayor, Charles Pearson questioning his intention of entering radio! Plans were made for Jack to broadcast his coast-to-coast program from the Anaheim Union High School Auditorium sometime in late February or March. Anaheim’s eleven-year-old High School Auditorium could seat 1600 and was the largest venue in the three cities, putting Anaheim as front-runner in the race to see what city would host the entertainer first. Plans were made to distribute tickets by chance with blocks of tickets reserved for Azusa and Cucamonga residents.
Despite the extensive planning and municipal hoopla, conditions were never right for Benny’s visit during the remainder of 1946. The Orange County Youth Symphony’s concert was held as scheduled with a slight postponement due to conductor Miss Norma Perkins’s appendicitis operation. Occasional mentions were made of Jack’s “Mayorship” of Anaheim in the local press but no firm dates for a visit were ever published. The subject of Benny’s visit to Anaheim was still a matter of regular discussion in Anaheim business circles and the right time proved to be just around the corner.
Early in 1947, planning for Anaheim’s “Civic Progress Week” was well under way. Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, the City Planning Commission and various service clubs, this week of meetings and tours and kicked off with a gala banquet, would showcase Anaheim’s current and future growth. Anaheim’s newspapers were regularly reporting the plans of E. W. Moeller, Dick Gay, Ross Laird, Bill Cook, Norbert Faessel, J.B. Collings Ben Kaulbars and Everett Cone (all community leaders of impeccable credentials). By April 1947, program details were announced that included community planning lectures, industrial tours including Essex Wire, Southern California Citrus, Bridgeford Foods and the Granada Packing House with a visit to one of Anaheim’s new off-street parking lots. On Friday, April 25, the Anaheim Annies would open their Sunset League Softball season with a game at La Palma Park against their rivals, the Riverside Dons.
On Thursday April 17th, the Anaheim Gazette headlines finally announce that Jack Benny will be the guest of honor at the following Monday night Chamber of Commerce banquet to be held at the Elk’s Club. In addition to Jack’s regular comedy routine, he would introduce the new Miss Anaheim and perhaps play a violin solo for the lucky 340 who would receive the much sought after tickets. The Saturday April 19th Anaheim Bulletin tells its readers that Jack Benny will ride through town in an old Maxwell Automobile, the 1906 model supplied and driven by Santa Ana Superior Court Judge, Raymond H. Thompson.
Finally the big day that few thought possible “arrives amid a blaze of ignition sparks.” At 6:30P.M., Jack and Company were welcomed at the corner of Palm and Center Streets (today’s Harbor and Lincoln Blvds.) by Mayor Pearson and city officials. Benny was soon escorted to the corner of Palm and Cypress streets where he climbed aboard the waiting vehicle. The ancient roadster, sporting an auxiliary lantern and with Judge Thompson at the wheel, was inscribed “Jack Benny’s Maxwell.” His first visit was with the cadets from St. Catherine’s Military School, where Mr. Ric Chilson one of the cadets recalled years later, the excitement of having a Hollywood personality come to the school. Soon students seeking autographs as well as about 25 neighborhood boys on bicycles surrounded the entertainer.
The parade, now including the Maxwell, kids on bikes and a police escort, returned to Center Street and proceeded non-stop to North Los Angeles Street (today’s Anaheim Blvd.), followed by over 1500 cheering residents. Once arriving at the Elks Club at about 7:00 P.M., another crowd seeking autographs and a chance to see Mr. Sunday Night in person again met Jack and the Maxwell. Contemporary photos show a smiling Jack Benny and Judge Thompson surrounded by excited residents including Anaheim’s own Police Officer Joe Miranda (out of uniform), Frank Belmont, owner of the Granada Packing House and this writer’s six-year-old brother David Faessel and his childhood friend, Vincent Flynn. Amid an explosion of flashbulbs at the corner of Los Angeles and Sycamore Streets on a cool April evening over 50 years ago, the lives of a 53-year-old radio comedian from Waukegan and the community that he helped make famous were joined, at least for an instant.
The following week’s Anaheim Gazette headline screams: “Jack Benny Smiles, Jokes Way into Heart of Anaheim.” Newspaper accounts detail Jack’s comedy routine including his stories of Hollywood life as well as the efforts of the local Anaheim talent that sang, juggled and joked their way through the evening. Jack climaxed his act by playing his signature piece, “Love in Bloom” on his ever-present violin, much to the delight of the crowd. Upon being presented the inscribed gavel as “Honorary Mayor” of Anaheim by Mayor Pearson, Jack promised to try it out by driving 80 miles per hour out of town. The new Miss Anaheim, Phyllis Officer, was introduced to the party, while her proud father Ray looked on. In 1969, Judge Thompson recalled of the evening: “The streets were jammed packed with people, and I think the crowd was more excited than if I had been hauling the President.” And so Jack Benny’s first (but not last) visit to Anaheim fades into memory. The Civic Progress Week celebration continued through the rest of the week, ending with an address by Walter Elieson, Deputy Regional Director of the United States Commerce Department who was prophetically quoted: “You haven’t begun to see the growth that is coming your way.”
Jack Benny continued to use the “Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc----amonga” routine throughout his radio career and reprised it when his show came to the new medium of television in 1951. Mr. Milt Josefsberg, Benny’s long time writer and biographer noted: “We also eventually hit upon the device of Mel (Mel Blanc playing the train announcer) taking longer and longer pauses in naming the town of Cucamonga. Once we set a record by having Mel’s voice boom out, ‘Train now leaving on Track Five for Anaheim, Azusa, and Cuc---‘ and then we did a full five minutes of routines with other members of the cast before Mel finished that name ‘amonga,’ getting a scream and applause from the audience who anticipated its coming but didn’t know exactly when it would come.”
Having already appointed Jack Benny “Honorary Mayor” of the three noted communities in 1946, they finally got around to naming him an “Honorary Citizen” on December 15, 1965. At the Azusa Civic Center, with the Azusa High School Marching Band providing part of the afternoon’s entertainment and surrounded by the reigning Queens of the three Cities, Jack was presented proclamations by various officials representing the famous little towns that he helped make household names. Local old timers were quoted as recalling the popularity of Jack’s old radio show and the time he was appointed “Mayor.” Unfortunately, the nation’s humor appetite was changing and the 1963-1964 season would be Jack’s last on television. The entertainer, who was first to promote Anaheim long before Walt Disney or Gene Autry arrived, would only occasionally be seen now in the community’s living rooms on various walk-on roles, commercials or NBC specials.
Anaheim’s favorite entertainer again visited his local fans while appearing at the Melodyland Theater in early 1967. Jack appeared with a young Johnny Carson on Thursday January 12th as a warm up event to his January 24th debut showcasing Bobby Rydell and Vikki Carr. Johnny Carson who was appearing at Anaheim’s unique “theater-in-the-round” that week, joked with Jack and the crowd as they were named “Honorary Mayors” of the City. Anaheim Mayor Pro-Tem Cal Pebley, presented the pair with an oversize “key to the city.” The specially rigged “key” came apart into two pieces when tugged by the comedians, causing Jack to quip “Why is it I always get the rear-end” when he glanced at his part of the key. The 72 year-old Jack, now having the unique honor of having been Anaheim’s first and only “Honorary Mayor” twice, was presented a lengthy proclamation amid the cheering crowd. After the ceremonies, the pair climbed on a tandem bicycle for the benefit of the photographers. When Jack’s appearance at Melodyland closed on January 29, 1967, his visits to Anaheim ended but the community’s friendship and admiration of the aging Hollywood star had not dimmed.
Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc----amonga lost a friend at 11:52 P.M., December 26, 1974 when Mr. Sunday Night took his final bow. He left the world a lifetime legacy of humor but for the residents of Anaheim we lost a little bit more. The official Resolution of Appreciation signed by officials of the three communities, dated December 30, 1974 sums his life as follows:
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT HEREBY RESOLVED that the Cities of Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga, in deference to the lifetime of pleasure brought to a troubled world by the pleasant and soft-spoken violin player from Waukegan, Illinois, do jointly and unanimously convey their admiration and appreciation to the memory of MR. JACK BENNY….
Today, few remember his ride down Center Street, all of the adults in the published photos are gone now, some of the children too, even Phyllis Officer, Anaheim’s charming Miss of 1947 is gone now, taken by cancer. Anaheim’s proud Elks Club, a victim of declining membership and excessive debt has been gone for years as well. A few St. Catherine cadets faintly recall the big day over half a century ago when Hollywood arrived at their doorstep. Anaheim today is easily recognized as the home of Disneyland and Angels baseball, however over fifty years ago, a sleepy but awakening little town entered the nation’s consciousness with the help of a radio comedian from Waukegan, and the rest we say, is history.
- Steve Faessel