Speaking of Waukegan….

          This weekend’s celebration of Ray Bradbury in his hometown brings to mind that other great son of Waukegan, Illinois, Jack Benny.

          Benny was already a vaudeville star when Bradbury was born in 1920.  No one I’ve never met has given me so much pleasure as Jack Benny: the laughs, the shared experience of listening to his radio programs with my family as a child and again with my own children, the wisdom in his interviews with people like David Frost and Dick Cavett, and the lovely anecdotes about ‘the stingiest man in the world’.

           Coming from Waukegan, he knew how to make running jokes out of town names.  Just the name ‘Waukegan’ would bring a smile to a listener’s face.  But the laughs – hysterical laughs – came in skits set in the L.A. railroad station when the track announcer intoned: ‘Train … leaving on track 9 … for Anaheim, Azusa and … Cuc-a-monga!’  What followed, usually with the wonderful Frank Nelson, has to be heard.  It can’t be captured on paper.

           A decade ago, I visited the Pomona Colleges.  To my delight, I discovered a single A team played in the next town, the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes.  Standing at the main entrance to the Epicenter, the Quakes’ excellent modern stadium, is a life-size bronze of Jack Benny, left arm stretched across his waist holding a violin at his side, his right elbow supported on his left wrist with his hand on his left cheek, and his face in its characteristic bemused mask.

          What I’d give for a miniature of that statue!

           The best Waukegan line did not come from Jack Benny but from his foil and friend, Fred Allen.  On learning that the tree honoring Benny planted at the Waukegan high school had died, Allen growled to his radio audience, ‘How did they expect the tree to live in Waukegan when the sap’s in Hollywood?’