By Barry Stapleton
The Irish have always been known for their Irish Tenors. Every generation has their favorites. If you were raised in an Irish-American family in the 1940’s-1960’s, it would have been Dennis Day. Dennis Day was born as Eugene Dennis McNulty on May 21, 1918. He was one of six children born to Patrick and Mary McNulty and he grew up in the Bronx, in New York. His brother, James McNulty, would later marry Hollywood actress Ann Blyth.
That Dennis Day was born with a wondrous voice came to light when he was a boy. His talent was noted at Sunday school, where he sang. Later, he joined the great choir at New York’s famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral. However, Dennis was so extremely modest about his talent, his mother actually had to push him on-stage to sing at the many church socials and charity benefit shows the boy had volunteered to help. There was always a pleasant air of modesty around him.
Before he was scheduled to enter law school, Dennis recorded some songs to pass the time. One of these recordings was sent to Mary Livingstone, who, at the time, was hunting for a tenor for The Jack Benny Show.
In 1939 Dennis received his big break when he was asked to appear on the Jack Benny radio show as a replacement for Kenny Baker. This was a singer’s dream come true…to be chosen for a most important coast-to-coast show, then become a star overnight! The association of Benny and Day became an enduring and lasting one, from the early days of the radio series and on into Benny’s television program. During World War II he sang with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra while in the navy in the Pacific.
It was not only Dennis Day’s pleasing singing voice, but his gift for comedy which made him a favorite on the show and endeared him to a generation. Benny encouraged the development of Dennis’ character in his radio series, that of “the dumb kid,” always naïve and underpaid by Benny. A typical sketch would end with Benny saying “That kid drives me nuts.” The usual response a humble, “Yes Mr. Benny.” Each show included a selection sung by Dennis, usually a popular song, show tune or an Irish ballad.
On Dennis Days’ album Shillelaghs and Shamrocks! Jack Benny writes with his usual humor on the back “…When I grew up and got my radio show, I hired the best tenors I could find. For some reason they always turned out to be Irish. In the years that have passed I went through six of them. Actually there was a seventh, but he turned out to be Polish. He was taken care of by the Beverly Hills chapter of the IRA. …Dennis was the last to come along. He was a young man, fresh out of the Manhattan College Glee Club, and eager to sing. He cared only for singing. He was even willing to sing for free. I find this characteristic admirable in a man so I gladly accommodated him. I continued to accommodate him until he got an agent.”
The career of Dennis Day moved swiftly after his success on the Jack Benny show. It expanded into his own radio show, then the television program “A Day in the Life of Dennis Day.” He made numerous appearances on The Lucy Show and The Kraft Music Hall. His TV shows included guest spots on the Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Studio One, The George Gobel Show and Love, American Style. He also did numerous animated voice-overs in The Stingiest Man in Town, Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and The New Adventures of Huck Finn.
From 1947 to 1951 Dennis entered the Top 40 music charts seven times. His highest mark was #8 with Mam’selle in 1947. His Irish hit Clancy Lowered the Boom reached #23 in March 1949. Dennis Day was a guest at the Shamrock Club of Milwaukee’s St. Patrick’s Day Dinner Dance in the 1960’s and he appeared at Milwaukee Irish Fest several times. In 1948 Dennis married and with his wife, Peggy, they raised 9 children. He died on June 22, 1988 of Lou Gehrigs’ Disease.
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