A Theatrical Homecoming
Area residents who attended Friday evening’s production of “Mr. Benny”were treated to a one-night-only, one-man-show featuring Jack Benny; well, almost.
Tim Newell, a Westfield native and 1983 graduate of Westfield Academy who studied vocal music at JCC, entertained an audience at Jamestown Community College’s Scharmann Theatre with an intimate backstage-dressing-room recreation of the beloved American radio and television personality, Jack Benny.
According to Bob Schlick, coordinator of theatre at JCC and longtime friend of Newell’s, when he first heard about the production, back in the early 2000s when it was still called “A Lunch with Mr. Benny,” which was directed by Phil Knoerzer, he wanted the show to come to JCC then. Unfortunately, it wasn’t yet the right time for it. But, more than 10 years later Newell and the original Buffalo-native playwright Mark Humphrey brought the production back to life, and Schlick wasn’t about the let the opportunity pass by again.
“I’m a big fan of Jack Benny – he was a brilliant comedian,” Schlick said. “When I heard Tim had brought the show back, I thought, ‘It’s probably even better now because he’s closer in age to what we remember of Jack Benny.’ So, I was very happy when he said yes, that he’d come.”
Newell, who after graduating high school was accepted to the Berklee College of Music, Boston, and began placement procedures in hope of studying musical theater, came to find that shortly after arriving at the school, it wasn’t right for him – mostly because it’s a jazz school, he said.
“I withdrew and I came back to Westfield,” Newell said. “I talked with my folks, and I said, ‘What I would really like to do is apply to Jamestown Community College.’ I think the idea was to come here for two years to get an associate (degree), and then maybe transfer to Fredonia. I have to be honest, I didn’t graduate from JCC. I came here, took classes, but when it comes to academia – I’m just not a very good student. But, then I came back in 1984 with a concentration in vocal music and somehow found my way into the theater department where I met Skip Broska. I performed on this stage (Scharmann Theatre) that long ago, and I haven’t been back to Jamestown in about 27 years. … It’s a wonderful homecoming – first and foremost.”
Although he performed in several local productions, as well as a few in Buffalo, it wasn’t until 1998 that Newell began working with Humphrey on “Mr. Benny.” According to Newell, he approached Humphrey one night at a place called Ray Flynn’s in Buffalo to propose an idea that had been proposed to him by Lorna C. Hill, artistic director of Ujima Theater Company.
“She said, ‘Someone needs to write you a play and you play Jack Benny,’ and when I proposed the idea to Mark he said, ‘Sure,'” Newell said. “He started writing the play to what it is right now, and created a great foundation. But, I’ve tweaked it since to give it more of a Benny flavor, flow and more actor friendly too, and Mark was gracious enough to let me play around with it.”
In its early stages, “Mr. Benny” did quite well, selling out shows and winning awards for Humphrey and Newell. The show eventually made its way to New York City in 2003 before it was retired. The project didn’t see the light of day again until the spring of 2012, when Newell was in a play with his good friend Saul Elkin, of Shakespeare In Delaware Park and Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York, who asked him how he felt about playing Jack Benny again.
“I said, ‘It’s time – sure lets do it,'” Newell said. “It had a very successful run in February and March of this year. It played for four weeks, 16 performances, and of the 16, 11 of them sold out. It was a wonderful revision of the play. It wasn’t a remount, but definitely a revival. Bob (Schlick) and I had been friends since the 1980s, and he asked how I felt about bringing it to JCC at the Scharmann Theatre – I said, ‘Absolutely.’ One thing led to another, and here I am at opening night – It’s very exciting. In fact, I have to say on Monday I did a radio interview with Jim Roselle of WJTN and then we came back to JCC. I hadn’t been in the theatre yet, but when he opened the doors – so did the floodgates. It’s very emotional, because it’s really where I got started. There’s nothing like being on the stage of your college, where you started to formulate, grow and cultivate yourself as an individual.”
The next production to appear on the Scharmann Theatre stage is set for November. The JCC Uncommoners will present “Anything Goes,” a Broadway musical featuring the work of American songwriter and composer Cole Porter, beginning with opening night on Friday, Nov. 8. The show will continue Saturday, Nov. 9, Nov. 15-17, and Nov. 22-23. All performances are scheduled for 8 p.m., with the exception of Sunday, Nov. 17, which is set for 2 p.m.
For more information, call 338-1187 or visit www.sunyjcc.edu/uncommoners.