Benny Rubin: An Also-Ran
Due To Discrimination
One Of The Brightest Talents On The Orpheum Circuit Was Never Given The Biggest Of Spotlights Simply Because His Ethnicity Shone Through Just A Little Too Much For The Tastes Of The Times
Benny Rubin and his vaudeville taps.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special For Modern Times Magazine
Jan. 11, 2016 — Waiter … taxi driver … man at bar … roulette croupier … janitor.
Comedian Benny Rubin’s career after performing in vaudeville on the Orpheum Circuit was a litany of bit parts in movies and on television that could be clocked with an egg timer. Although Los Angeles after the advent of talking pictures was chock-full of former two-a-day headliners who couldn’t scare up a gig, Rubin was a special case – one of Hollywood’s first victims of reverse discrimination.
With dark, saucer-shaped eyes and a pronounced proboscis, Rubin had what casting agents considered, a Yiddishe Punim. Ironically, in a town largely founded and run by Jewish movie moguls sometimes just a generation removed from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, looking or sounding too Semitic was a drawback. After all, these powerbrokers had a fervent desire to weave themselves into the American tapestry; they were also dream merchants selling their idealization of America to an overwhelmingly gentile audience. And so, the prejudice and repudiation.
However, trouper that he was, Rubin shouldered the bias and soldiered on, appearing in movies during the 1930s, as a semi-regular on Jack Benny’s television show in 1950 and in slurry of other TV shows from Perry Mason and Adam-12 to Gunsmoke throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
But that was much later.
A self-described “Boston original,” Rubin got his start in vaudeville before the 1920s really began to roar, and was shocked when playing the Midwestern theaters of the Orpheum Circuit for the first time in 1922, that he didn’t see “cowboys and Indians in the streets.”
Audiences in St. Paul, Minn., (Rubin was making $62.50 a week then, he remembered exactly) weren’t as “fast” as audiences in the big eastern cities like New York, he said. “It’s not that the people in Minneapolis or wherever weren’t as smart … it’s just that … if you were living in New York, it was a tough hustle to make a buck. It’s tough when you get into trouble and rough to stay out of it, so your mind works faster. In places like St. Paul, your stomach would go into waltz tempo. They are nice, neighborly people there; they know each other. It’s like: ‘Hey, Charlie, how ‘ya doin?’ kind of thing. So if you made a flip remark and the audience didn’t get it, some acts would say that they were dumb. But they weren’t. They just moved in waltz tempo.”
We asked him about performing on a vaudeville bill with George Jessel, but almost before we got the question out, Rubin pre-empted us with: “Cut! Who next? I don’t want any bad talk. I hate a lot of people, and if you mention them, I’ll say, ‘Cut!’”
The rest of the interview was like negotiating a booby-trapped killing field connected to a laugh track; we never knew what names might trigger Rubin’s wrath. It actually became a kind of game with us throwing out names and Rubin punching back remembrances like he was rushing the net at Wimbledon.
Us: What about Jack Benny?
Rubin: The closest friend I ever had. I was with him in 1926 when he changed his name from Kubelsky to Benny.
Us: Jackie Gleason?
Rubin: I’m a teetotaler and you’d see a guy like Gleason and he couldn’t wait to get on a bill with Pat Rooney so they could get drunk together.
Us: The comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey?
Rubin: Didn’t like Woolsey much because he lived off Wheeler. Woolsey was a bad straight man who, nonetheless, called himself a comic. If it weren’t for Bert Wheeler, he’d have been parking Model-T’s.
Us: Milton Berle?
Rubin: He was a dirty bastard … still is. His mother would go see other acts while Milton performed. Then she’d go backstage and give all the best jokes to Milton. But then when Milton found out what was going on, he stole them himself!
In the parlance of the day, Rubin performed his act (mostly) as a single (no need for unfunny straight men slowing things up) in an act that used his gift for mimicry and dialects. In fact, during the 1930s, Rubin was considered among the greatest show business dialecticians around and even worked for a time as a vocal coach.
“Like I said before, being a Jew kid in Boston was tough. The Irish kids – and later the Wops – used to punch us around. That’s where I began to perfect different dialects. That’s also the time I took boxing lessons. I had a helluva record: 30 fights and I never won one of them!”
Although Rubin saw Bill “Bojangles” Robinson perform his legendary stair dance, Jack Benny play the violin and Burns & Allen trade barbs with each other on stage, he reserved his greatest praise for a staple of vaudeville, it’s veritable backbone: the animal acts.
“There was a guy with a dog named ‘Louie,’ and that mutt wouldn’t do a damn thing on stage, which I thought was brilliant,” Rubin said. “No matter what he said, the dog wouldn’t budge. You can use whips or treats to teach animals stage tricks, but to teach a dog to do absolutely nothing – that’s great!”
When we met Rubin, he lived in a rather shabby apartment building on a stretch of Hollywood Boulevard that we surmised might’ve become fairly dicey around dusk. In fact, our interview almost never came about. We had to pass a kind of half-assed quiz to prove that we were really two journalists who, as we told him, came from Minnesota.
At his apartment building speaker box, after we rang his number, Rubin’s voice came on asking us what the meaning was of “Ma-Han-Khaato.”
We were flummoxed and that egg-timer was apparently ticking. “Ma-Han-Khaato?” We told him we didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Oh, no … you’re not getting in. Get the hell out of here!” he said.
It didn’t help that Rubin had an epic head cold and his phlegmy pronunciation of “Ma-Han-Khaato” was channeled through an ancient apartment squawkbox that, in turn, emitted a high-pitched hiss that made passing dogs yowl.
Suddenly, it occurred to us that he might have meant “Mankato,” a small farm town in southern Minnesota. Either that or he was fluent in another dialect – Ojibway. As we suspected, it was the town not the tribe and he buzzed us in.
Rubin told us he was semi-retired but that if his agent called, he’d work at “the drop of a hat.”
During our visit (after giving us a look at the wooden clogs he used when dancing in vaudeville) he showed us a miniature silver star embedded in faux marble and framed in a shadow box. He said that since the entertainment community had never honored him with a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s “Walk of Fame,” family members had come up with their own commemoration.
To us, the makeshift token seemed defiant and a bit sad at the same time, but Rubin was long past holding grudges (excluding any venom reserved for George Jessel). Suffused by the encompassing love of his family and with memories indestructibly intact of a long career in the business he loved, Rubin seemed to practically glide across the room to replace the plaque in its prominent place on a credenza.
It had taken him nearly half a century (with a life’s worth of triumphs and tragedies wedged in between), but it seemed to us that Rubin had finally learned to move in waltz tempo.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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