If you grew up in the 1930s through the 1950s, you probably set those five letters to music as you read them. If you did so, you were responding to what some authorities consider the first “commercial ad jingle”... one that was created by a musician who once lived in Kankakee.
The five-note J-E-L-L-O jingle was heard for the first time at 7 p.m. Oct. 14, 1934, when Don Bestor’s orchestra played it as the opening theme for a radio program starring popular comedian Jack Benny. The program aired nationwide over the NBC Blue Network; the dessert product would sponsor Benny’s Sunday night program until 1942.
Bestor, who had lived in Kankakee from 1913 to the early 1920s, was well-known to radio listeners even before becoming associated with Benny’s show. In 1922, when most radio receivers still were primitive “crystal sets,” the music of Bestor’s orchestra went “on air” over pioneer Pittsburgh radio Station KDKA. The musical program was broadcast by a remote hookup from the ballroom of the downtown William Penn Hotel. For the rest of the decade and into the 1930s, Bestor-led orchestras played regularly in many hotel ballrooms and nightclubs. The group regularly was featured on radio stations in towns where they were appearing, such as WLW in Cincinnati and WGN in Chicago.
Bestor’s musical career began early: he learned to play the piano while growing up in a small town near Madison, Wis., and by the age of 16, on the road as pianist with a traveling vaudeville orchestra. He later organized his own band, touring theaters in the Midwest.
The young musician took a career detour — as well as a physical one — in 1913, when he settled in Kankakee and became manager of a newly opened theater. The Court Theatre, located on the north side of Court Street, midway between Schuyler and Dearborn avenues, was a “movie palace,” showing silent films (“talkies” didn’t start appearing on theater screens until the late 1920s). Since silent films often were accompanied by a “sound track” of live piano music, it’s likely that Bestor served as both theater manager and piano player.
He possibly also had become, by 1919, the owner of the Court Theatre, since he was listed as “proprietor” in that year’s city directory. Evidence that he was active in the community was his further city directory listing as a member of the Kankakee City Council (“alderman, First Ward”).
Bestor’s last appearance in the Kankakee City Directory was 1921; he was not listed in the 1922 volume. There also was a change in the listing for the Court Theatre: it was now owned by the Majestic Amusement Co., along with two other local theaters, the Majestic and the LaPetite.
In 1922, Bestor (then 33 years old) resumed his musical career. Edgar Benson, a Chicago entrepreneur who managed some 50 dance bands and orchestras, hired the young man as director of his most important group, the Benson Orchestra of Chicago. “Bestor took over the Benson baton, and swiftly won an enormous following,” noted a 1933 magazine article profiling Bestor’s musical career. “You see, he wasn’t just a stick waver. He knew music, too. Furthermore, he understood dance tempo … while [band leader Paul] Whiteman was teaching the east how to dance, Bestor was giving lessons to westerners.”
A year after becoming leader of the Benson Orchestra, Bestor was back in the town where he had lived for almost a decade. On Feb. 12, 1923, the orchestra was featured during dedication ceremonies at Kankakee’s new National Guard Armory on the east side of Indiana Avenue, midway between Court and Oak streets.
“The American Legion guarantees this will be the biggest dance event in years,” proclaimed a postcard promoting the event.
Bestor remained with the Benson organization until 1925, based primarily at the well-known Marigold Gardens ballroom, but also playing other venues such as the Trianon Ballroom and the Drake and Blackstone hotels. The group recorded regularly for the RCA Victor phonograph label.
For the remainder of the 1920s and early 1930s, Bestor fronted his own orchestra, playing dance clubs and hotel ballrooms across the eastern United States, and recording for the Brunswick label. By 1932, his orchestra was a fixture on the New York music scene, airing four evenings each week over radio station WEAF. In the summer of 1933, the group was in the Lake George resort area, playing aboard a “show boat” and being broadcast via a remote hook-up.
Then came “The Jell-O Program,” starring comedian Benny and Bestor’s studio orchestra, in October 1934. Striking up his orchestra in response to Benny’s command, “Play, Don, play!” each Sunday evening, the one-time Kankakee movie theater manager had become a nationally known bandleader.
Bestor wrapped up his musical career in the 1940s. Little is known about his later years; he died in Metamora in January 1970, at the age of 80.