TERRY BENNETT & JOY
a special blend of Chicago television
He delighted children weekdays as the guy in the beige turtle-neck sweater with the oversized "J" on the front starring on Jobblewocky Place over WBKB-channel 7. On Saturday nights, he would take on a totally different persona- that of Marvin, the host of Shock Theater 10 pm on the same station. On both series he teamed with his wife, the former Joy Ann Page as Pamela Puppet, his precocious 12 year old ward on JB and Dear, the faceless victim of Marvin's macabre sense of humor on Shock. But Terry Bennett loved to entertain children first and foremost. Bennett's name seldom pops up in discussions about Chicago children's television. We hear about WGN-TV's classic shows, Bill Jackson's accomplishments, the warmth of "Miss Frances," but Bennett's work is often ignored. The Video Veteran hopes to correct that oversight.
He was born April 25, 1930 and gained an appreciation for the art of ventriloquism at the age of 10. His uncle presented him with a Charlie McCarthy figure for his birthday. By 14 he was entering talent contests and even performed in a stint with a group that toured with the USO. Not even out of his teens, he was being approached by New York agents for appearances on several network television shows including DuMont's Arthur Godfrey Show and CBS's The Kate Smith Hour. By his twenties, he was opening for headliner acts in nightclubs and theaters in New York, Miami, Washington D.C., and New Orleans, It was during this time that Bennett had begun a friendship with Frank Marshall. Marshall was highly regarded among ventriloquists as a master of his art. After a three month development, Marshall created the figure that would become Red Flannels. By the time Bennett was 23, he had been entertaining audiences for thirteen years, traveling across the country, appearing with stars, and even did a two year stint in the army stationed in Orleans France. Of course, Red Flannels came with.
Terry Bennett had met his future wife while performing at a Florida gig in 1950. Three years later, on June 18, 1953, they married in New York and embarked on a one year Canadian tour with Red Flannels in tow. When they returned to the states, they chose Chicago as the place to be to try out the act they'd been honing for the last year up north.
In 1954, Bennett joined the staff of WBKB-channel 7 where he took on the responsibilities of writer, producer, on-air promotion director, and program development coordinator. As if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, he also created the familiar logo for the ABC-TV network and promoted the network's many offerings including Maverick and Tennessee Ernie Ford's variety/music hour.
It was at WBKB that Bennett created, produced, and wrote Jobblewocky Place where he introduced to his young television audience a stable of ventriloquial and hand puppet characters including Timothy Timber ( a sailor character and another Frank Marshall creation); Uncle Louie ( a talking picture); Mr. Head (a box with a voice); Mr. Engineer; Bertram Turtle (the largest and sleepiest turtle); and Rusty Hinges (an angry little boy), also a Frank Marshall original. Airing weekday mornings from 8 to 9, the preschool program earned several awards including three nominations for Emmys.
Along with Dr. Horwich's Ding Dong School at rival WNBQ-channel 5, Jobblewocky Place was one of the first children's programs to weave education and moral lessons into a popular and entertaining format. Bennett also created and produced the short-lived but outstanding The Wacky World of Mr. B, also on WBKB. In a 1963 letter of endorsement from ABC-TV vice-president and general manager of WBKB Sterling "Red" Quinlan, Quinlan wrote:
Terry Bennett is indeed a triple threat man. He has done some of the outstanding kid shows ever seen in Chicago. He produces. He writes. He does an acceptable job as a staff announcer. He is a good master of ceremonies. He is a stable asset to any station's roster.
In 1957, Bennett was presented with an interesting challenge. Screen Gems had packaged 52 of the old Universal horror films for the local TV market, including 1931's Frankenstein. The management of WBKB thought it would be a good idea if the movies had an emcee, someone they hoped would be more popular to watch than the old films themselves. In a ABC-TV interdepartmental memo to all talent and directors at WBKB, program director Dan Schuffman mused:
If you think about it for a moment you'll realize that these pictures are a curiosity for most people. Those who have seen them will want to see them again just to check- were they as good or bad as they remember them? For new viewers, they mean excitement and suspense- tension relievers. For all viewers there will be a host or hostess on the show who will help give them an excuse to watch. Many people will be reluctant to admit they want to watch a Frankenstein movie, but they can always say "I just watched to see what the M.C. is going to do next." Thus goes the twisted humor of most of us.
The host of the aptly named Shock Theater (Theatre in some promos) was Bennett's new character Marvin the Near-Sighted Madman. Donning thick glasses and a black turtle neck sweater, Bennett found the role difficult to portray, needing three days just to get into the mood. In describing Marvin, Bennett called him confused. "Doesn't everyone get a boot out of hacking off somebody's fingers?" Despite Bennett's initial misgivings, Marvin and Shock Theater became a huge hit. Premiering Saturday night at 10 pm on December 7, 1957 directly opposite The Best of MGM on CBS, Shock Theater opened with the aforementioned classic Frankenstein and introduced a myopic darkly attired character with a macabre sense of humor. A week before the series premiere, WBKB talent and directors were warned that their shows may be visited by "representatives of the Nether World" kicking off a ongoing promotional campaign for the new series. Bennett was on hand to do the live on camera promos during the station breaks.
Scarcely over a year later, Shock Theater was a certified hit with Chicago's viewing audience. Long time Chicagoan Marcy Campagna remembers staying up late to get the wits scared out of her. One never knew what Marvin would do during the next commercial break or what despicable thing he would bring upon Dear. Bennett played it all for laughs, especially satirizing the movies. But sometimes Bennett would get "serious" and give what he called "a straight dramatic reading." Bennett wanted to frighten the hell out of his audience. During one such "reading" Bennett announced to his audience that he would ingest poison and describe the sensation of one being in the throes of death. The station received hundreds of letters. The show gained so much popularity that management decided to expand the series an additional half hour after the movie. This new segment, called The Shocktale Party, Marvin and Dear are joined by Shorty, resembling the Frankenstein Monster played by Bruce Newton; and Orville, a grotesque character created and portrayed by Ronny Born. The show even boasted a studio "Shocktale" band called The Deadbeats. The band performed "lullabies to die for," "cremation concertos," and "music for murder." Bennett wrote and arranged much of the band's numbers, just as he would do during the week on Jobblewocky Place. He would often use the same musicians on both shows.
At the show's peak, it had spawned a fan club, The Marvin Fan Club, and phone calls to the Bennett's home in Schiller Park at 4 am from fans of the show. Letters and presents began to pour in. Bennett was a genuine Saturday night celebrity. However that celebrity status didn't endear him to the parents whose children watched the same man host a children's show during the week. Says Bennett "...They really thought I was crazy like Marvin." But all good things must pass, and Shock Theater was cancelled despite a petition that drew thousands of signatures of fans begging for a return of the show. Bennett could now return full-time to the thing he loved most- entertaining children and being a ventriloquist.
Just as Terry Bennett was retiring his Marvin character, a new character was being created by the multi-talented performer. But this time it wouldn't be on television but at home in a new role as "dad" when the Bennetts adopted a boy whom they named Kip. The new parents arranged their working schedules around the baby. Joy would appear on Jobblewocky Place three days a week arriving home before noon to relieve the housekeeper watching the baby. Terry would write the next day's show the night before at home. Terry and Joy even enjoyed being the subject of a Chicago Daily News Sunday magazine feature that saw the Bennetts at home with their new son in 1961.
In 1962, Bennett and family pulled up the stakes and moved back to New York. Joy Bennett would recall years later in 2001...
Briefly put, we left Chicago because our shows had come to an end. An era was passing- and Terry was offered a fairly lucrative position at WPIX-channel 11 on 42nd St. in New York. And family was there. We bought a house in New Rochelle and Terry became a producer.
From 1962 to 1967, Bennett would produce some of WPIX's local fare, including David Susskind's Hot Line, The Clay Cole Show, The Chuck McCann Show, and The Sammy Kaye Show. According to Bennett's resume, he was also responsible for program development and concepts, script and budget supervision and supervision over videotape production of both programs and commercials. In 1965, he was persuaded to create and host a children's show after he regaled other technicians, staff, and talent, most of who were unaware of Bennett's Chicago past, with his ventriloquism and comedy. The program was dubbed Let's Have Fun and it would prove to be the last show Bennett would do. Airing on Sundays, Red Flannels was there, along with Rusty Hinges. In later weeks, the roster would include many of the characters created on Jobblewocky Place, as well as The Talking Shoe ("Shoes have tongues", Bennett points out, so they should be able to talk"); The Moon Man; Hugo, The Answer Hand (the smartest glove in captivity); Peter Parrot (who tries to repeat everything you teach him); Three Smart Men (three talking disembodied heads on a shelf); and others. As if history was repeating itself, Bennett earned and achieved the same respect and admiration in New York as he did back in his days at WBKB. Proud to have him as one of their "top" children's personalities which also included "Capt." Jack McCarthy, Hank Stohl (of The Surprise Show), and Carol Corbett, WPIX promoted Bennett and the others in a huge pre-Christmas advertising campaigned sponsored by Remco Toys. But by 1967, changes were in the wind again. Joy Bennett remembers...
By 1967, the era of live shows utilizing staff musicians had come to an end. He was primarily a performer, a ventriloquist, an actor, and writer. In those days there were few avenues open and he turned to advertising and free-lance. Commercials had become big business!
Indeed, throughout his tenure in broadcasting, Bennett enjoyed a parallel vocation in advertising. He had started out in 1952 as a writer and media supervisor for Polk Bros., at the time the largest furniture and appliance store in Chicago. In 1956, he co-founded Lazar-Bennett Inc., where he took on the position of Creative Supervisor and originated advertising concepts for such clients as McDonald's, Ronco Construction, and the now defunct Community Discount Stores. This past experience helped Bennett secure employment after the cancellation of Let's Have Fun in 1967. He would move on to become Advertising Manager of Castro Convertibles, handling the radio, television, and print advertising for an eleven market area. In 1968 he would take on the additional but similar responsibilities at Chock Full O' Nuts, a regional coffee company. By 1972, the New York market became very tough and the Bennett family (which by now included two more children, Jill, born in 1966, and Kerry, in 1967) decided to move to Tampa, Florida. In a letter written to The Video Veteran in 2001, Joy Bennett reminisces about those final years...
...Terry did a six hour talk show using his many different voices as if they were real guests appearing on the show. He appeared as M.C. on many telethon telecasts and even had a newscast show. He engaged in free lance advertising and conceived B.K. The Lion for the Burger King chains doing most of the publicity stunts himself.
Sadly, after a two year illness, Terry Bennett passed away on October 12, 1977. He was only 47 years old. Joy Bennett enjoys a quiet life, still in Florida, with her family. Red Flannels, Terry's dummy that appeared with him throughout his career, can now be viewed at the Vent Haven Museum in Ft. Mitchell Kentucky where each year a convention is held at the nearby Drawbridge Hotel. The four day event gathers together 500 to 600 ventriloquists- both young and old. Bob Isaacson, who the Bennett's had first met in the fifties at WBKB, and was also a ventriloquist himself, was the one who persuaded Joy to donate Red Flannels to the museum. Joy then gave Isaacson Terry's remaining puppets in appreciation for the love he held for her late husband and his talent.
He began in New York, moved to the Windy City in the 1950s where he became on of the most beloved and popular children's show hosts. He also created an atypical character for a late night horror movie show which gained him the admiration of the teenage set and night owl TV viewers. Lightning struck twice when he returned to New York. Terry Bennett's short life spawned a whirlwind of original ideas, creative characters, and imaginative productions. Over the years, Bennett's Chicago work has been largely forgotten, perhaps due to Joy Bennett's retirement from the business, losing contact with old friends and colleagues. Indeed, Jobblewocky Place and The Wacky World of Mr. B. were sadly absent from Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications grand opening of their permanent exhibit honoring the pioneers of Chicago children's television in April 2001. Terry and Joy Bennett seem to fill that bill. The Video Veteran hopes this retrospective helps in some small way.
TERRY BENNETT & JOY America's Most Novel Ventriloquist Act Fast patter, good looks and outstanding talent...Variety One of the greatest vent acts we've seen...N.Y. Daily Mirror Left us limping with laughter...Eddie Cantor Four voices at once left us hypnotized with amazement...N.Y. Journal American Sparkling talent...Chicago American Youth, charm, and talent, combined to offer a laff-loaded, fun-filled, gag-gilded treasure of an act...Walter Winchell CLUBS, HOTELS, THEATRES, AND NOW...TELEVISION
copyright 2001 Steve Jajkowski