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'For Heaven's Sake--sing, Dennis . . . '

October 22, 1985|JACK HAWN

"Oh, Mr. Benny. . . ."

Even before television, when radio was king, those three words gave him away. No question who spoke them. Inevitably, they would be followed by thunderous studio applause.

With his high-pitched, choirboy voice and his feigned naivete, a leprechaun-like Irishman named Dennis Day used to give Jack Benny fits in one corny skit after another.

A talented mimic who could speak in dozens of dialects, Day always bantered with Benny for a few minutes until the comedian, finally exasperated, would heave a sigh and say, simply, "Oh, for heaven's sake. Sing, Dennis."

And the young tenor would sing his heart out--an Irish heart, of course.

His selections ranged from such lilting ditties as "Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, That's an Irish Lullaby" to the lively, foot-tapping "MacNamara's Band"--and, not surprisingly, he's still singing them.

Although his career may not be flourishing as it once did, he continues to work steadily, hopping around the country, singing mostly Irish songs--but not always. In Miami, for instance, he frequently sings in Yiddish, playing to the heavily populated Jewish community.

"I do a lot of personals, conventions all over--East, Midwest," said Day, who was born in the Bronx and christened as Owen Patrick McNulty. "I was in Canada this past summer, small fairs . . . the Irish festival in St. Paul, Minn."

But locally, he has performed only occasionally in recent years, including an engagement in Downey about three months ago, when he teamed with his sister-in-law, Ann Blyth, for the first time ever professionally. The duet went so well, Day said, that they agreed to an encore tonight at El Camino College in Torrance.

Seated in the shadow of a stuffed, 8-foot sailfish that dominates his large den, Day talked about his prize catch off Mazatlan 20 years earlier, his career, family and private life during a recent interview at his home in Brentwood.

Nestled snugly in a canyon off Sunset Boulevard, the two-acre estate has been home to the Days since 1951, but the house--described as Connecticut Colonial--has had to be expanded to accommodate a growing family.

Attempting to name his married children, Day got stuck, smiled uncomfortably and said, "I have a tough time remembering the kids."

That's because there are 10 of them (six boys), which explains the need for a nine-bedroom home. He recently took an option on a house in Kauai, where he hopes to get back to some serious deep-sea angling after neglecting the sport for years.

A devout Catholic, Day has been appointed a Knight of Malta and Knight Commander with Grand Cross of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. He performs frequently at church functions and, in fact, is scheduled to emcee a dinner later this month in San Antonio for Archbishop Patricio Flores after warming up with a couple of concerts in New York.

Day also discussed his passion for antiques--his wife of 37 years, Peggy, owns a shop in Santa Monica called the Old House--his former hobby of collecting silver coins (a contract once stipulated that he be paid $25,000 in silver dollars for a performance in Reno) and other interests. But, mostly, he focused on Benny.

" 'That kid drives me nuts.' He used to call me that, even when I was in my 40s," the singer said, laughing through misty eyes.

Confirming his birth date as May 21, 1921, Day cracked a still-boyish grin and added, "I'm 39 and holding--like Benny used to be."

Benny died the day after Christmas, 1974, at age 80, but for decades the legendary, straight-faced comedian never admitted to being a day over 39.

"He got a good run out of that," said Day, again laughing at the memory of a man he grew to love and respect during their 35-year association. "There was an empathy between us. He was like a father to me."

Nonetheless, it was Benny's wife, Mary Livingston, who was responsible for launching Day's career. After listening to a recording the singer sent her, she persuaded her husband to give the young Irishman a two-week tryout.

And so, fresh out of Manhattan College in New York and "scared stiff," Day boarded the Golden State Limited for a three-day, four-night train trip to Hollywood and eventually moved into the spot vacated by Kenny Baker. (Baker died two months ago at 72.)

"I joined Benny Oct. 8, 1939," Day recalled faster than he could name his offspring. "I'll never forget it. Two weeks went into practically 35 years."

Benny's radio program, which began in 1932, Day said, ended in 1954, and his TV show lasted another 10 years.

"Tight?" Day rhetorically responded to a question about the comedian's reputation as a cheapskate. "Nah. He paid us well enough we didn't have to go out and do guest appearances on other radio shows. He was very generous, always sent us a beautiful gift at Christmastime."

One particular Christmas--1957--Benny showed up at the house in a Santa Claus outfit, beard and all. The disguise was impressive, Day said, but when he produced his squeaky violin, even the kids had to laugh.

"Benny was the straight man for all of us--Rochester, Don Wilson, Phil Harris. . . . There was never any jealousy on the show."

As for the future, Day envisions no drastic changes in his performance schedule, "as long as the voice is still there."

"I never thought I would make a living at singing. I was going to go to Fordham, to be a lawyer," he added. "Benny changed all that."

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