George W. Benson, a local radio personality and professional entertainer, was been on the Delaware Valley's broadcast scene since the sixties. He passed away at 55 on Friday, June 21, 2002 at his home in Audubon, NJ, where he was a lifetime resident. Born on February 22, 1947, he began his career as a teenage DJ at high school dances. George had worked at several South Jersey radio stations over the years, but was probably best known for his stays at WIBBAGE, WIBG and FAMOUS 56, WFIL. At the latter, Benson assumed the air name "Bobby Mitchell."
The reason for this was simple. The station, which had gone through ownership changes, was trying to save money. In order not to have to purchase new jingles when weekend and fill-in jocks left, the name Bobby Mitchell was selected. When one left, the next person just assumed the moniker Bobby Mitchell and no one seemed to notice. George was one of these people.
In 1973, legend Joey Reynolds brought George Benson to WHLW in Lakewood, NJ. In the early eighties, George worked at WPEN Radio in Philadelphia.
George's great pipes allowed him to do voice overs on commercials broadcast on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and the Super Bowl. One of his longest running spots was for Ginzu knives. He also appeared often with Dr. Shock (a local horror movie show host) on Channel 17 in the seventies and in the early eighties, had his own television show on Channel 65 in Vineland. He was the Baron on the "No Frills Film Festival." Benson was a ringmaster at Six Flags' Great Adventure and hosted outdoor Halloween show in nearby Haddonfield, NJ. He also appeared at the Phillies games and the 75th anniversary of the Tastykake company. Benson also produced live Doo Wop shows at the Jersey shore.
Times got a little tight for Benson and in order to make ends meet, he added a side line. He was a clown. Well, yes. He always was a person that wanted to make you laugh, but that's not we mean. It was red nose and big, funny shoes time. He was hired by the Kiddie City toy chain to be Kasey the Clown. As part of this gig, he made personal appearances at area Kiddie City stores and appeared on TV and radio on behalf of the chain.
Broadcast Pioneers Board member Gerry Wilkinson recalled a couple of Benson stories as told to him by Gerry's lifelong friend Bruce Smallwood, who passed away in June of 1988. To differentiate between George and the jazz artist with the same name, Bruce usually referred to him as George "Go-Go" Benson.
The first story goes like this. Kiddie City was having financial trouble (this was shortly before the chain closed) and George wasn't being paid on time. In fact, the company was running two to three months behind. George really needed the money, and demanded payment. They told him that it would be at least two more weeks. Benson was reported to have said that if he didn't receive his money by then, they could get themselves another clown. Double meaning there, George. A fortnight later, George showed up for his money and there in the personnel office was someone dressed as a clown. Rather than pay up, they got themselves another clown. But no one could really replace George.
He struck out on his own as "ZAPPO, THE CLOWN." He did personal appearances like parties, independent store openings and a final slap at KIDDIE CITY, he was part of the grand opening of several TOYS R US stores.
Another Benson clown story told by Smallwood was that George was hired as Zappo to make an appearance at a three year old's birthday party. George said that he would arrive a half-hour early and change into his costume and apply his make up. However, the child's parents said NO. You have to arrive dressed as a clown. Now you may think that's the end of the story. But Smallwood thought of several possible scenarios. Imagine George driving down the road in full clown get up and a guy said to his wife, Look how that clown's driving. Bruce swore that the story was true that area police stopped Benson dressed as a clown. They looked at his driver's license photo, looked at George with a big red clown's nose, and said, "Yeah, that's the same guy in the picture," gave him a warning and let him go.
George Benson loved to make people laugh. Late in his career, he portrayed W.C. Fields at Ocean City, New Jersey's Doo Dah Parade and later at a few other events. George had a real passion for the old Fields' flicks.
George developed a heart condition in 2001 (he had a massive heart attack in September of 2001) and was on a list for a heart transplant. In February of 2002, TV personalities Sally Starr, John Zacherle and Soupy Sales appeared at a benefit for George to help raise funds. It was attended by hundreds of area well-wishers. He was so ill that he was unable to work since his heart attack.
Broadcast Pioneers member Kevin Fennessy said: "Since first hearing him on the radio in Atlantic City in 1968 (at WMID), George's booming and tuneful voice has been a constant reminder of what it means to be compelling behind the mike. For all of us in the business who loved him, for the millions of children that Zappo made smile, may our lord give him comfort at the end of his journey."
George is survived by two nephews, Robert and Thomas Benson; a cousin Ellen Benson and his faithful and loving canine companion, a rat terrier named Norton (after the Honeymooners character).
Relatives and friends were invited to attend his graveside service on Monday, July 1, 2002 at 11 am at the New St. Mary's Cemetery in Bellmawr, NJ.
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Researched and compiled by Broadcast Pioneers member Gerry Wilkinson
© 2002, All Rights Reserved
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