By Ivan G Shreve Jr
On this date in 1900, the man who enjoyed an association with comedian Jack Benny for over thirty years was born in Lincoln, Nebraska—a man we know as Don Wilson. As Jack’s announcer, Don rhapsodized over the virtues of Jell-O, Grape Nuts and Lucky Strike throughout Jack’s long radio run, and would become an invaluable member of Benny’s repertory company along with Mary, Phil, Dennis and Rochester. And yet…there was a lot more to Don than just the endless series of “fat” jokes his boss would tell at every opportunity.
Described by old-time radio historian John Dunning as “a roly-poly Gargantuan,” Wilson stood over six feet and weighed around two hundred and twenty pounds. On radio, his employer often kidded him mercilessly about his size. What Benny never mentioned was that his announcer was a first-rate athlete; Don had played football at the University of Colorado before breaking into radio in 1923 (as a singer, no less, over KFEL in Denver) and later in life proved to be an excellent amateur duffer, frequently winning golf matches in Southern California with fellow NBC announcer Bud Stevens. By 1929, Wilson was working for KFI in Los Angeles, and soon after distinguished himself as an emcee, announcer and sportscaster (for the Rose Bowl games from 1930 to 1933), covering the Summer Olympic Games in the City of Angels for NBC in 1932.
Wilson had the announcing duties on Music by Gershwin, a quarter-hour on NBC Radio in 1934, when Benny heard him and insisted he come to work on his new series The General Tire Program. Don’s deep, resonant voice would become one of the Benny program’s trademarks, and his infectious belly laugh also put him in good stead with Jack, who loved to hear laughter from his cast and crew. Don’s relationship with his boss was also unique in that he appeared to be the only one of Jack’s employees who worried about losing his job—while Mary, Rochester and Phil weren’t shy about tossing insults and wisecracks at the Lord and Master, Don was a bit more deferential. The only area where Don would brook no disagreements was in the frequent battles he had with Benny when his boss would be mistaken about a statement of historical fact or improper usage of grammar; it was established that Wilson was the most educated member of the cast, and he wouldn’t hesitate to call out his employer when Jack was wrong.
It might have seemed that Don Wilson only had to show up for work on Sunday nights—but the announcer made the rounds on other programs, too. Don could be heard on a variety of syndicated programs, including network series like Tim and Irene and The Packard Hour, and the top shows from the Armed Forces Radio Service, Command Performance and Mail Call. He was Ginny Simms’ announcer for several years, and worked the daytime program Glamour Manor—which starred Kenny Baker, a one-time tenor on the Benny show. Other radio celebrities that allowed Don to make their sponsor’s announcements include Fanny Brice (as Baby Snooks), Victor Borge, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Jim & Marian Jordan (as Fibber McGee & Molly), Frank Sinatra (Light Up Time), Tommy Riggs & Betty Lou and Alan Young.
Jack brought Don to television with him in 1950, and while Benny toned down a few of his “Don-is-fat” jokes for a new medium (mainly because the audience could now see that Don wasn’t as enormous as described on radio), Wilson proved to be both the loyal employee and perfect foil. A running gag on the TV show would have Don decked out in some ridiculous get-up, generally resulting in his becoming enraged and prompting him to throw a tantrum by comically stamping his foot. Don also got big audience laughs in several shows that featured his fictional son Harlow (played by Dale White), whom Don was always shamelessly exploiting on Benny’s show. (Wilson’s fourth wife, Lois Corbett, also did double duty as his TV spouse…which she had previously done on radio as well.)
Don was often called upon to appear in movies featuring his boss—he appeared in Broadway Melody of 1936 and was seen joshing in the opening credits of Buck Benny Rides Again. His unmistakable voice is featured in the Benny vehicles Man About Town and Love Thy Neighbor…and in the 1958 Warner Brothers cartoon parody of The Jack Benny Program, The Mouse That Jack Built. But Wilson had a very impressive film resume despite the fact that he was typecast as an emcee and/or announcer; his vehicles include Meet the Missus, Du Barry Was a Lady, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Dick Tracy, Radio Stars on Parade, The Kid from Brooklyn, The Senator Was Indiscreet and Sailor Beware. He plays a sheriff in the 1941 B-western The Roundup, a romantic role (!) in Swing It Soldier (also 1941)…and perhaps his most famous acting gig, as gregarious boss J.C. Kettering in the Joseph Cotten-Marilyn Monroe noir Niagara (1953). Don also did the occasional guest shot on such TV shows as Death Valley Days, Harrigan and Son and Batman.
Copyright 2014 Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.