Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Monday, November 05, 2007

". . . and my name, darlings": The Way It Was, 5 November

1950: "YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE ENTERTAINED BY SOME OF THE BIGGEST NAMES IN SHOW BUSINESS . . . "---Thus does stage legend Tallulah Bankhead---following the individual self-introductions by the evening's guests: Fred Allen, Mindy Carson, Jimmy Durante, Jose Ferrer, Portland Hoffa, Frankie Laine, Paul Lukas, Ethel Merman, Russell Nype, Danny Thomas, and Meredith Willson---launch NBC's extravagant last-gasp effort at keeping old-time radio variety alive against the rise of television.

BANKHEAD: This is radio, 1950. The greatest stars of our time on one big program. And the most fabulous part about this, darlings, is that every Sunday we will present other stars of the same magnitude. Uh, pardon me if I sound like a name dropper, but, uh, let's look into three or four of the names we've lined up for next week's show: Groucho Marx, Fanny Brice, Jane Powell, and Ezio---Pinnnn-za! (Laughter.)

Well, now, don't just sit there with your mouths open, darlings---I know what you're thinking---you think such a radio show every week is impossible. And I'm sure that, after you hear our first broadcast, you're going to say that show was impossible. (Laughter.) Oh, no---that doesn't sound quite right, does it? (Laughter.)

But NBC says nothing is impossible. All it takes is courage, vision, and a king-sized bundle of dough. Each week, there will be comedy, drama, music, all performed by the biggest stars of the time. Of course, darlings, now and then a clinker may sneak in, but we're going to try---

JIMMY DURANTE: Just a minute, just a minute---I heard that last remark and I resemble it!

---Opening sequence, from The Big Show, series premiere, 5 November 1950.

And thus launches The Big Show with a classic musical patter routine from the Old Schnozzolla; a show-stopping stage musical condensation from Ethel Merman, Paul Lukas, and Russell Nype (including "The Hostess With The Mostest" from Call Me Madam); a classic slip fight between Merman and Bankhead, then Durante and Thomas (You stay outta this, No-Nose!---Durante to Bankhead); music from Carson and Laine; drama from Ferrer; a vintage satire from Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa; and, a rousing show-closing tribute to George M. Cohan (whose death occurred eight years to the day before the show premieres).

With each week's guests introducing themselves, closing each show otherwise by singing Willson's "May The Good Lord Bless and Keep You" sequentially, and Bankhead finishing with a soft-spoken tribute to American armed forces around the world (the show coincides to the Korean War), The Big Show will endure for two full seasons, with individual programs costing as much as $100,000 (huge money for the day) to mount.

Goodman Ace (who has retired from on-air performing to concentrate on writing) heads the show's writing staff of Selma Diamond, Frank Wilson, George Foster, Mort Greene, and even Fred Allen for the shows on which he will appear. Willson serves as both the show's musical director and a periodic on-air foil ("Yes, sir, Miss Bankhead?" becomes a near-running gag between Willson and Dame Tallulah), and Dee Engelbach produces.

As things will turn out, getting the top entertainers in the business to perform proves not necessarily a big headache. And neither, when all is said and done, will the otherwise notorious Dame Tallulah.

That show never paid any money, they worked for practically coolie labour, like $2500 a week. It was a prestige show . . . People wanted to get on it, because it was only one day's rehearsal and the next day you did it . . .

I had other offers to do television shows but I said no, this sounds like something I want to do. I'd never met Miss Bankhead, but I knew the legend that she was. She brought us that. A writer looks for something like that. He's got something there he can spark with.

---Goodman Ace, 1970.

The show will live up, indeed, to Tallulah Bankhead's series-premiere promise. Some of the biggest but also most forward-looking and enduring entertainers of the time will appear on the show. They will include jazz and pop titans Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine, Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, and Sarah Vaughan; comic giants Allen, Brice, Gertrude Berg, Bob and Ray, Victor Borge, Ed Gardner, Bob Hope, Martin and Lewis, Phil Silvers, Ed Wynn, and the irrepressible Groucho; actors Ethel Barrymore, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, and Ferrer; opera legends Pinza, Lauritz Melchoir, Robert Merrill, and Jan Peerce; and, legendary French chanteuses Edith Piaf and Lucienne Boyer, for openers.

As if to take television's bull by the horns, the show will also come to feature performers beginning to make the new medium's name---including Milton (Mr. Television) Berle, Imogene Coca, Bob Cummings, Joan Davis, Garry Moore, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Danny Thomas, and Paul Winchell. None of whom or which prevents Fred Allen, on the show's premiere, from delivering his classic wisecrack: "Television is a new medium, and I have discovered why it's called a new medium---because nothing is well done."

The Big Show was not just more grand than most radio shows---it was also more witty, smoothly produced, smart, and ambitious, with an interesting juxtaposition of guests, but it wasn't significantly different. It was just a more lavish, inflated revival of radio's earliest form---the variety showcase; you could almost hear the sequins . . . [but it was] as close to a Broadway show as radio could whip together each week.

---Gerald Nachman, in "We're A Little Late, So Good Night, Folks," from Raised on Radio. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.)

Bankhead---whose ability as an ad-libber and wit in her own right would be enhanced by Ace and company's weekly scripts---will admit in due course that she accepted the chance to host The Big Show because she needed the money, and nearly changed her mind when she feared she'd be little more than a glorified announcer with a name.

Brother, was she ever wrong . . .

Guess what happened? Your heroine emerged from the fracas as the Queen of the Kilocycles. Authorities cried out that Tallulah had redeemed radio. In shepherding my charges through The Big Show, said the critics, I had snatched radio out of the grave. The autopsy was delayed.

---Tallulah Bankhead, from Tallulah. (New York: Harper & Row, 1952.)

Delayed but not, alas, to be denied, at least in terms of The Big Show. NBC will lose an estimated $1 million on their investment (again, in 1950 that is phenomenal money on either side of the ledger), and The Big Show will expire as an ongoing production at the end of the 1951-52 season. But its ambition and quality will endure.


1919---PDGG Radio (The Netherlands) launches Soir, E-musical (or, Soiree Musical). The program, and the station, are the brainchildren of Hanso Schotanus à Steringa Idzerda, whose hope is that the program would sell radio receiving equipment his Nederlandsche Radioindustrie produced.

Idzerda launches the program three months after receiving his broadcadting licence, and broadcasts from his home in The Hague.

1942: SIGNING OFF---Radio Diego Suarez, a clandestine station on Madagascar, with pro-British sympathies while the island was a subject between Axis Japan and Vichy France (with the former believed thinking of pressuring the latter into allowing Madagascar to be used as had been what was then French Indo-China), makes its final transmission.


1941: VIC'S CHRISTMAS GIFT LIST---Vic (Art Van Harvey) enjoys a quiet game of solitaire until Sade (Bernadine Flynn) finds what she thinks is a rather extravagant Christmas gift list he almost threw in the trash, a list including names she's never heard of, on today's edition of Vic & Sade. (NBC.)

Rush: Bill Idelson. Announcer: Ed Herlihy. Writer: Paul Rhymer.

1945: PIANO LESSONS FOR JUNIOR---All it takes for Riley (William Bendix) to hatch that hare-brained idea is Gillis (Conrad Binyon) bragging about his piano-playing kid at lunch,
on tonight's edition of The Life of Riley. (NBC.)

Junior: Scotty Beckett. Peg: Paula Winslowe. Babs: Sharon Douglas. Announcer: Ken Niles. Writers: Leonard Bercovici, Alan Lipscott, Ruben Ship, Robert Sloane.

1946: MEL BREAKS THE NEW RADIO---The day after throwing Mel (Blanc) out for inadvertently breaking his new radio ("It was so beautiful it got me all confused . . . I threw out the radio and plugged in the crate"), Colby (Joseph Kearns) accepts a conciliatory gesture and lets Mel return---on condition he not even think about trying to repair the radio, on tonight's edition of The Mel Blanc Show. (CBS.)

Betty: Mary Jane Croft. Cushing: Hans Conreid. Zookie: Mel Blanc. Announcer: Bud Easton. Writer: Mac Benoff.

1947: THE DISCOVERY OF WEATHER---You'll never hear it examined and discussed quite the way it is on tonight's edition of The Henry Morgan Show. (ABC.)

Gerard: Arnold Stang. Additional cast: Art Carney, Florence Halop, Madeline Lee. Announcer: Jay Stewart. Writers: Henry Morgan, Aaron Ruben, Carroll Moore, Jr., Joe Stein.

1950: INDIAN BURIAL GROUNDS---Conklin (Gale Gordon) is in for a rude surprise when he thinks a piece of property he owns may sit on a sacred Indian burial site, on tonight's edition of Our Miss Brooks. (CBS.)

Connie: Eve Arden. Mrs. Davis: Jane Morgan. Harriet: Gloria McMillan. Walter: Richard Crenna. Boynton: Jeff Chandler. Stretch: Leonard Smith. Writer: Al Lewis.


1878---Henry M. Nealy (master of ceremonies: The Philco Theater of Memories; The Fitch Bandwagon), Philadelphia.
1885---Will Durant (historian: America's Town Meeting of the Air), North Adams, Massachussetts.
1887---Ralph Moody (actor: Gunsmoke; The Roy Rogers Show; Wild Bill Hickok), St. Louis.
1893---Theodore von Eltz (actor: The Saint), New Haven, Connecticut.
1893---Jean Sothern (actress: Pepper Young's Family; Red Davis), Richmond, Virginia.
1895---Charles MacArthur (writer: The Jumbo Fire Chief Program; The Chase and Sanborn Hour; Lux Radio Theater), Scranton, Pennsylvania.
1897---Jan Garber (bandleader: The Jan Garber Supper Club), Norristown, Pennsylvania.
1905---Mantovani (as Annunzio Paolo Mantovani; conductor/composer: Music in the Air; Of These We Sing), Venice; Joel McCrea (actor: Tales of the Texas Rangers), South Pasadena, California.
1911---Roy Rogers (The King of the Cowboys, as Leonard Franklin Slye; actor/singer: The Roy Rogers Show; Saturday Night Roundup), Cincinnati.
1913---Vivien Leigh (as Vivian Mary Hartley; actress: Lux Radio Theater), Darjeeling, India.


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