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A (Birth)Day in the Life of Dennis Day

Shortly after its premiere in 1932, The Jack Benny Program started a tradition of featuring tenor vocalists to entertain during the musical portions of the show.  James Melton, Frank Parker, and Michael Bartlett accepted the singing chores in the early years of the series, with Kenny Baker (who debuted on Jack’s show in 1935) sticking with the gig the longest in the 1930s.  When Baker decided to pursue other radio opportunities at the end of the 1938-39 season (amusingly, he would soon start hitting high notes on the program headlined by Jack’s “nemesis,” Fred Allen), his replacement was a singer who was just beginning his professional career in show business.  He was born Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty on this date in 1916 in New York City…but for the millions of devoted listeners who flocked to their radios every Sunday night at seven throughout the 1940s/1950s, he was better known as Dennis Day.

Dennis Day was raised in the Throggs Neck section of The Bronx in the Big Apple, and after matriculating at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary began attending Manhattan College.  Day‘s enthusiastic participation in the college glee club soon began to point the way toward a singing career, which Dennis had even engaged in during the summer of 1938 on NBC’s The RCA Victor Campus Club (a vehicle for Larry Clinton and his orchestra).  Day graduated in 1939 and considered continuing his education with law school at Fordham University.  But Kenny Baker’s decision to leave The Jack Benny Program after four years would change things for Dennis Day.

Baker had grown weary of his role as Benny’s singing simpleton. Having heard of Jack’s search for a replacement, Dennis Day submitted a photo and audition record to Mary Livingstone, Jack’s wife.  Livingstone convinced her hubby to give Dennis a tryout. The story goes that, during his audition, Jack asked the nervous young man a question and Day responded with a high-pitched “Yes, please?”  Whether or not this anecdote is true, Benny was clearly impressed with Dennis’ singing and agreed to hire him, with Day making his debut on The Jack Benny Program on October 8, 1939.

Dennis Day would soon stake his claim on The Jack Benny Program playing a naïve young teenager (his age on the show was estimated at nineteen even though the real-life Day was older) who drove Jack to distraction with nonsensical, silly statements when he wasn’t having to mow Benny’s lawn weekly (it was in his contract!).  Radio Spirits’ Elizabeth McLeod once noted in an essay on Dennis that “Baker established the basic characterization, but it was Dennis Day who nailed it down for all time,” further noting that “Dennis took the character into a delightful surrealism far removed from Kenny Baker’s goofy-twit interpretation.”  Day became a distaff version of Gracie Allen, whose “illogical logic” would eventually wear his boss down to the point where Jack’s only response was “Sing, Dennis.”

Dennis Day had a few performing tricks up his sleeve, however, that would soon make Jack Benny fans ask, “Kenny who?”  Day would display a sense of comic timing that was outshone only by his employer, and he also proved to be a gifted mimic, with flawless impressions of Jerry Colonna, Parker Fennelly (as Titus Moody), Bert Gordon (as “The Mad Russian”), and Benny’s “next-door neighbor,” Ronald Colman.  (One classic Benny broadcast has bandleader Phil Harris goading Dennis into impersonating Colman on the telephone, inviting Jack over…with the usual wacky complications ensuing.)  In just five years, Day would cement his position on the Benny program to the point where even when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy (he reached the rank of lieutenant) during WW2, his replacement—Larry Stevens—only stayed around long enough to “save his seat.”

Dennis Day would get an additional surprise once he was mustered out of the service.  Like his Benny co-worker Phil Harris, Dennis got a show of his own in the fall of 1946: A Day in the Life of Dennis Day.  (Both Harris and Day’s “two shows” would be used for much hilarity at their home base of the Benny program.)  The popular sitcom, heard on NBC from 1946 to 1951, featured Day playing a character named after himself (but not the famed vocalist from the Benny program—he took pains to remind audiences of this), a small-town nebbish who worked as a drugstore soda jerk.  Dennis courted a girl named Mildred Anderson (played by Bettie Miles, Barbara Eiler, and Sharon Douglas) who was mad about the boy even if her parents (Bea Benaderet, Francis “Dink” Trout) were a tad apprehensive.

In addition to his own show and his Jack Benny assignment, Dennis Day’s radio resume included appearances on The Camel Comedy CaravanThe Carnation Contented HourCommand Performance, Duffy’s TavernEverything for the BoysFamily TheatreFibber McGee & MollyThe Ford ShowThe Lux Radio TheatreMail CallOrson Welles’ Radio Almanac, and Suspense.  In addition, Dennis was warmly welcomed as a guest star on shows headlined by Fred Allen, Victor Borge, Bing Crosby (Philco Radio Time), Al Jolson (The Kraft Music Hall), Dorothy Lamour (on both Front and Center and The Sealtest Variety Theatre), and Jack Paar.  Day’s exposure on radio certainly didn’t hurt him in the recordings arena, charting hit songs like Clancy Lowered the Boom and Dear Hearts and Gentle People.

Radio kept Dennis Day busy, yet he still found time to make the occasional appearance in feature films (he appears with Jack, Phil, Andy Devine, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in 1940’s Buck Benny Rides Again) such as Sleepy Lagoon (1943), Music in Manhattan (1944), I’ll Get By (1950), and The Girl Next Door (1953).  Truth be told, Dennis established quite a foothold on the small screen—not only with his only series, The RCA Victor Show (which he shared with Ezio Pinza on an alternate basis for a time), but still playing that same “crazy kid” on Jack Benny’s TV show.  (Day was close to fifty years old by the time Jack’s show went off the air!)  Dennis made the rounds on shows like Alfred Hitchcock PresentsBurke’s Law, and The Lucy Show and before his passing in 1988 (at the age of 71) lent his unmistakable voice to animated Yuletide specials like Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and The Stingiest Man in Town.

Dennis Day left a large family behind. (He had married Margaret Ellen Almquist in 1948 and, being devout Catholics, they would eventually bring ten children into the world.)  He left a large body of work behind as well. Radio Spirits offers a collection from our birthday boy’s starring series, A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, plus there are Day encounters on our potpourri collections Comedy Goes West and Great Radio Comedy.  After you’ve checked out Dennis’ guest appearance on the May 2, 1944 broadcast of Duffy’s Tavern (available on our newest Tavern collection, Irish Eyes), dig deep into our Jack Benny sets—The Fabulous 40sThe Fabulous 50sThe Great OutdoorsJack Benny & FriendsOn the TownPlanes, Trains and AutomobilesSilly Skits, and Tough Luck!  Happy birthday, Dennis!

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