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It originally appeared in Tap Dancing, a short story collection, and is being reprinted in the anthology This Is My Funniest 2: Leading Science Fiction Writers Present Their Funniest Stories Ever, edited by Mike Resnick. This version is made available online for free for readers (non-commercial use only). It may not be modified from its original text. For more information, contact the author via <www.wildsidepress.com>. INVASION OF THE JACK BENNY SNATCHERS by John Gregory Betancourt It was 1946 in their minds when the black Packard pulled up in front of the Savoy Hotel. Gracie Allen sat inside, next to George Burns, who was driving. She hadn't had such fun since vaudeville. Times they were a-changing, as the old song went, and all the old performers were on the attack once more. As a valet took the Packard's keys, the hotel manager hurried to greet them. "Welcome, welcome!" he burbled happily. After all, it wasn't every day people of their stature visited the Savoy. They were there to help Jack Benny run a benefit show for needy millionaires. Jack had been in Los Angeles the day before, in Tokyo over the weekend, and in the Republic of Russia before that. George and Gracie always came when he called for help: he expected a tough audience The manager opened the door for her. "This way to the stage," he said. The marquee read: Mammoth Show Tonight! Jack Benny's Big Benefit of 2152 Proceeds Donated to Needy Millionaires! World Broadcast! Surprise guests! She smiled. Yes, Jack Benny was always a barrel of laughs with that violin of his and those wonderful blue eyes. And Mary Livingston, and Rochester, and even Don Wilson would be there. This would be nothing like the Antarctica show, whose cold audience (and colder ratings) had become almost legendary in the business. "We'd better hurry dear," she said. "Jack must have started without us. And can't we be Allen & Burns this time?" "Nope -- Burns & Allen, same as ever," George said. "I always get first billing. Not bad for a straight-man, eh?" "That's why I love you, dear." Arm in arm, they entered. ***** The guard at the stage door stopped them. He was a typical dupe and his name (tattooed lightly in blue on his forehead so it didn't show to the holocameras) only said "Chuck."
Betancourt / Invasion / 2 "Gosh, Miz Allen," Chuck said. He had a crew-cut, like all dupes. "Can I have your autograph?" From his pocket came the inevitable autograph book. "Certainly," Gracie said. She signed her name with a flourish. "There!" "Yours too, Mr. Burns?" "Sure, why not?" George signed the next sheet. "Say," he said when he'd finished, "How's Jack Benny doing?" "Not too well. People aren't pledging the money he expected. If this goes on, some needy millionaire may go hungry." "Well, I can see that's a problem. I'll liven things up with my old song-and-dance routine. That'll get things going." "You're going to sing?" Chuck said, "That's why they call me Sugarthroat Burns." "Get out," he said. Then he tore up George's autograph. "Out!" It didn't bother George, though. Together with Gracie he turned and marched out, around the side of the hotel, to the private entrance. When they knocked, Mary Livingston opened the door and let them in. She wore her hair very short, almost fashionable for the 50s, but certainly too short for 1946. Time often moved around; they'd obviously found a late model Jack Benny Show. Gracie decided to be polite and not say anything. After all, Mary Livingston had become an institution, just about. "Why, hello, George and Gracie," Mary said. "Come on in. We're glad you made it -- Old Sourpuss has been having problems." "We heard," George said. "The noise carries into the alley?" "Oh, look," Gracie said. "There's Jack now!" And, sure enough, there was Jack Benny on stage, looking swanky in a black silk tux from the Roaring Twenties. He certainly wasn't doing too well. They could see the pledge board and he'd only gotten ten cents. Rochester came up from the wings. "Hi, Miz Burns, Mr. Allen," he said in his throaty, bullfrog voice. "Hello." Gracie smiled. "Who pledged the dime?" "We each gave a nickel," Mary said. "It's all we could afford," Rochester said, "on what Mr. Benny pays us." Then Jack caught sight of George and Gracie and motioned them out onto the stage. "Ladies and gentlemen, George Burns and Gracie Allen!" After they'd both taken their bows, Gracie said, "I've got to go powder my nose, George. You talk to Jack for me until I get back." "But I'm supposed to be a straight man!" "That's okay, dear. Just say your lines quickly and they won't notice I'm not talking." With that, she turned and hurried into the wings, leaving Jack and a very puzzled George alone on the stage. "Can you believe that?" George asked. "Don't worry about it, George. I'm funny enough for the two of us." "So what seems to be the problem?" "I'm having a bit of trouble raising money," Jack said. "How about joining me?" "Okay, but you're going to have to change the name of the benefit." "Why ... to what?" he asked.
Betancourt / Invasion / 3 "Burns and Benny. I always get first billing." He paused so the viewers could laugh. "That's a running gag," he added. "Well..." Jack drummed his fingers on his chin and his eyes seemed to get lost in the distance. "Tell you what," George said, "I'll even pledge a dollar." He reached into his pocket, but Jack's hand was already there. "Sorry about that," Jack said, taking it out. "I got a little carried away." "Watch it," George told him. Jack took the bill. "Thanks," he said putting it into his own pocket. "Why'd you do that?" George asked. "Why, I thought you knew. I'm the needy millionaire the benefit's for." "Can I do my song and dance now?" George asked. Jack returned the dollar. "I don't need it that badly." Just as George was about to sing anyway, he felt dust and bits of plaster falling on his head. Chewing on his cigar, he paused and looked up. More plaster fell, then he glimpsed the night sky through a new hole in the roof. "What on Earth --" he began. Ropes dropped through the hole, then a dozen terrorists in pin-striped suits (and sporting tommy-guns) came slithering down. Several had on Green Beret caps; all wore mirrored sunglasses. Two of them grabbed Jack while the others held their tommy-guns pointed at the holocameras, as though covering the audience. "What's the meaning of this?" Jack started to say, but the man holding him only growled menacingly. "Ask him for his money or his life," George suggested. But rather than playing along, they stuffed Jack into a sling (despite his muffled cries of, "Well! Imagine that! I'm being kidnapped!") and quickly hauled him up and out of sight. Still covering the holocameras, the terrorists backed toward the ropes and began to climb. The last one to go whipped out a spray can and painted a slogan on the wall: ED LIVES! And then he, too, shinnied up the rope and vanished from sight. "Odd," George Burns said. He took a long pull on his cigar. "Must be Ed McMahon. He's always been jealous of comedians. "As a matter of fact, this whole business reminds me of Gracie's uncle Harvey. He used to do a lot of crazy things. He even trained pigeons for the army during the first World War. The birds would fly over enemy lines, scout out the land, and come back. It worked real well until the army found out pigeons couldn't talk. Then Uncle Harvey tried taping cameras to the pigeons' legs, but the pigeons refused to wind the film after each shot. So uncle Harvey got the bright idea of tying old men to the pigeons' legs instead. It made perfect sense. Old people are light, after all, and they're all shriveled, so there's no wind resistance. But that didn't help, either. The old men kept getting tired and the birds had to keep landing in parks to let them rest and if you think I'm going to finish this joke, you're crazy. "Maybe I'd better start with a little tap-dance instead. Orchestra -- how about 'Just We Two?'"
Betancourt / Invasion / 4 ***** In the wings, over the rising music, Gracie got over her shock at the abrupt kidnapping of Jack Benny. She hurried out onto the stage and interrupted George's intricate dance steps by treading on both his feet. "Ow, my corns!" he said. "Come on, dear," Gracie said. "We've got to find Jack Benny." "But the show must go on!" "Well, it can just go on without you." And then she took his arm and propelled him away. ***** The stage remained bare for a full minute. The pledge board hummed. The holocameras whirred. Then Rochester stuck his head out from around the curtain and his eyes got very big and white. "Mary, Mary!" he called. "What is it, Rochester?" "There ain't nobody out there!" "There isn't, Rochester." "That's what I said!" "Then why don't you go out and dance for them? Jack left his violin behind -- I'll use it." "Can you play?" "Would it sound any worse than Jack if I couldn't?" "I see what you mean." As Rochester stepped out, the electric pledge machine began to record donations from a sudden flood of incoming calls. ***** Gracie led George to the elevators, got into a waiting car, and pushed the button for the roof. They stood in silence, staring into the camera behind the mirror. At last George Burns said, "Okay, I give up, Gracie. What's going on?" "I'm supposed to find Jack." He took a puff on his cigar. "I suppose the roof’s as good a place to start as any." Then the doors opened and they stepped out into a park. Tall pine trees had been planted all around, and a cement walkway extended before them. Floodlights provided ample illumination. They walked until they came to a hunchbacked man busily ink-stamping hoof-prints onto the cement path. Whop, whop, whop went his huge rubber stamp. "Masked men . . . hoof-prints . . . does that tell you anything, Gracie?" "Yes," she said. "It must be that Georgie Jessel!" George said, "But what about 'Ed lives?'" "He ought to learn to spell his name right. Imagine all those poor children spelling their last names without capitals, all because of him!" "Let's question this fellow. Maybe he'll be able to tell us where Jack is now." "Good idea, dear." Gracie stepped forward. "Excuse me, sir, but have you seen Jack Benny around?" The hunchback stopped stamping hoof-prints long enough to shrug. Then he turned back to his work. Whop, whop, whop. "Say, maybe we could get this guy on our show next week," George said.
Betancourt / Invasion / 5 "Don't be silly, dear. Once you've heard one hoof-print, you've heard them all." "You're right. Let's go." And they continued down the path. Suddenly a man dressed all in black stepped out in front of them. A cape fluttered behind him, and a black cowl hid his face. He let out a fiendish, inhuman cackle. "The Masked Phantom knows!" "Oh, goody!" Gracie stepped up to the Masked Phantom and said, "You have the nicest eyes." On the path behind them they heard the whop, whop, whop sound getting closer. "You haven't seen Jack Benny, have you?" George asked. "I'll take you to him. Follow me." Giving another inhuman cackle, he turned and, with a billow of his cape, ran to the edge of the roof and leaped off. The cape opened into a kite, letting him glide away in the darkness. "Let's take the elevator down," George said. "My stunt double has the night off." ***** By the time they reached the parking lot, the Masked Phantom had vanished. But another clue was apparent: directly behind the hotel was a run-down warehouse. And from its high, narrow windows shone the glare of stage lights. Something was being videoed there. They hurried over and soon stood before the building's side entrance. The door creaked open before they could touch it, and in they stepped. It was dark; the floodlights were clustered at the far side of the building. "Jack?" Gracie called. They heard a muffled, distant shout: "Help!" A spotlight blinked on. Jack Benny stood in a small cage, suspended over vast piles of money -- every bill just out of reach. "Inhuman," George said. He snapped his fingers. "I've got it! Only Ed Sullivan could come up with a weird publicity stunt like this." Then other spotlights winked on, revealing other top performers in similar captive positions ... two Bill Danas, a Groucho Marx, three Dick van Dykes -- and dozens of others, all in bird cages. They began to shout for help. Their cries were pitiful. Gracie planted her feet and shouted, "Ed, you come out here this minute!" A low voice answered. "You called?" They whirled as a dappled gray stallion stepped from the shadows. He wore oversized pink sunglasses and seemed a trifle nervous in their company. "You!" Gracie said. "In the horse-flesh, so to speak. Welcome to my show. I've been capturing other comedians so my program will be top in the ratings. Now that I have you two, my collection's complete." "But . . . that makes no sense!" George said. "We're all on the same oldies network -we all get a fair chance!" "Who gives old horses a fair chance? They're going to put me out to pasture. I feel it in my bones!" "Don't be silly," Gracie said. "They couldn't do that." George said, "Tell him why, Gracie."
Betancourt / Invasion / 6 "It's really quite simple. Winter's coming on, and with all the fairs and circuses going to Florida, they'd never retire you. Think how far they'd have to mail you -- they don't make postage stamps in your denomination." "Besides," George said, "You're much too valuable for that. Think of all the glue factories that'll want you!" The horse moaned softly. "N-not the g-g-glue factory!" When he gave a whinny, a dozen men in pin-striped suits and sunglasses stepped from the shadows. They still held their tommy-guns, and they motioned for George and Gracie to march toward a pair of waiting cages. George said, "If you let us go, I'll be a guest on your show. That's bound to help your ratings. But we'll have to change the name of our act." "To what?" the horse asked. "Burns and Ed. I always get first billing." "I have a better idea!" Gracie said. "With Harry von Zell gone, we need a new announcer. You've got a wonderful speaking voice, Ed. Would you like the job?" "What about my partner?" "We'll work him in," George said. "It's my show, so I can do whatever I want." Ed kicked up his heels like a colt. "It's a deal! Let the prisoners down, boys." The fellows with tommy-guns turned and wandered toward the cages, shaking their heads sadly. One of them could be heard muttering, "Horses!" in disgust. Ed called, "Will-bur?" THE END
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