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Published: Friday, 3/18/2005

Benny's humor is alive and well

BY MIKE KELLY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Jack Benny could be funnier just standing on stage staring at his audience than most comedians are while telling their best jokes.

That's the report from Eddie Carroll, who knows more than most people about the late comedy icon - after all, Carroll has been portraying Benny on stages all over North America for more than two decades.

Carroll, 71, brings his one-man show, Jack Benny: Laughter in Bloom, to Tiffin's Ritz Theatre on Tuesday afternoon as part of the theater's Matinee Series.

In a telephone interview from his home in Encino, Calif., Carroll explained that Benny had a unique approach to comedy that discouraged other comics from stealing his punchlines, as many of them did with each other in those days.

"Benny didn't do jokes," he said. "He had his own special attitude, and you can't steal an attitude."

One of Benny's most effective techniques, Carroll said, was to lead the audience to a certain point in a story, then just stop and stare at them with an expectant look on his face, as if waiting for them to read his mind.

"He knew how to use a moment of silence, getting people to come up with their own punchlines, which would be funnier to them than anything he could have come up with."

A native of Edmonton, Alberta, Carroll got his start in Canadian theater and worked as a writer in radio and television. After moving to Los Angeles, he spent two years in the Army, where he wrote and produced shows for Armed Forces Radio and Television. After his military service, he tried acting and recorded a comedy album.

It was about this time that he met Toledo native Jamie Farr, another struggling young talent, in an acting class. The two became fast friends, and together they formed a production company that would develop a number of projects for television networks and movie studios.

"This was way before [Farr's signature TV show] M*A*S*H," Carroll said. "We became such good friends that we were like brothers, and we still are. I saw him just last week."

Over the years, Carroll has logged countless TV and stage appearances, and worked in more than 200 commercials. He's also done a lot of voice-over work, most notably providing the voice of cartoon character Jiminy Cricket for Disney ever since the character's original voice-over artist, Cliff Edwards, died in the early 1970s.

To prepare his Benny performance, Carroll researched the late comedian thoroughly - he had worked with him in the past - and wrote the show himself, then spent months preparing for the role, working on Benny's walk, his gestures, and his delivery.

The show opens with a short film of some of Benny's funniest TV moments; the film concludes with a freeze-frame of Benny in his typical pose. As the image slowly fades, Carroll, in the same pose, is illuminated off to one side of the stage. In no time, the audience is immersed in the illusion that it's Jack Benny they're seeing up there on stage.

For the next 90 minutes or so, Carroll-as-Benny shares stories of Benny's life in vaudeville, radio, and television, including plenty of humorous anecdotes about colleagues and other stars.

Carroll insists he's not a comedian, and adds that he's not doing a Benny impression, either.

"An impression is an overblown caricature," he said. "What I do is try to re-create reality. I approach it as an actor would Hamlet, as Anthony Quinn created Zorba the Greek." His show has been likened to Hal Holbrook's one-man show on Mark Twain, and James Whitmore's on Will Rogers.

Jamie Farr also has some experience with one-man shows, having recently filled in for Frank Gorshin in the role of George Burns in the traveling show, Say Goodnight Gracie, which played in Toledo last November.

Does Carroll think he and his old buddy might team up on stage sometime, with him as Jack Benny and Farr as George Burns?

"Geez, I don't know, not unless Jamie and I write it ourselves," he said. "Maybe sometime for a benefit we might go out there and just wing something."

Eddie Carroll's one-man show, "Jack Benny: Laughter in Bloom," will be presented at Tiffin's Ritz Theatre Tuesday at 2 p.m., as part of the Ritz's Matinee Series. Tickets are $14 and $18, and can be purchased at the theater box office, 30 South Washington St., by phone at 419-448-8544, or online at www.ritztheatre.org.

Contact Mike Kelly at: mkelly@theblade.com

or 419-724-6131.



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