Friday, August 19, 2011

The Big Show: The "Lost" 1951 Broadcasts

Tallulah Bankhead during rehearsals.
The Big Show was an NBC house-built package and an innovation in show business deriving its name from the fact that the talent roster each week included “the biggest names in show business” -- name guest stars chosen from ranks of music, drama, comedy in stage, motion-picture, concert, radio and television were all “top performers” in their own fields. The Big Show was the first program ever to be presented under NBC’s new sponsorship plan known as “Operation Tandem,” in which sponsors were offered participation in sponsorship of five top evening programs each week, no more than three sponsors to be included in each 30-minute program time. Prior to this, radio programs primarily featured only one sponsor throughout the time slot (although the same sponsor was able to promote more than one of their own products.) The “Operation Tandem” shows were described over-all as the “Five Show Festival” including programs whose formats were varied to offer drama, variety, music, comedy and mystery.

The format of The Big Show was a variety program with repartee, music, dramatic sketches, comedy routines, excerpts dramatized from recent motion pictures and current Broadway hits, novelty monologues and instrumental and vocal novelties, special “spots” paying tribute to outstanding members of show business and other salutes to the more serious side of living such as the meaning of living and playing in a country like America, etc. The Big Show ran a total of two seasons and by the time the second season premiered, excerpts of recent motion pictures had been dropped in favor of current Broadway hits. 

Program guide handed out every week.
A great array of name guest stars each week were featured, averaging eight stars each week. The program was directed by Dee Engelbach, with James Harvey as the NBC producer (first season). Script writers included Goodman Ace, Welbourn Kelley, Frank Wilson, Mort Green, Selma Diamond, George Foster, Joel Murcott, plus a number of collaborators depending on the guests’ needs. The musical background, bridges and specialties were arranged and in many cases composed especially for the program by the program’s musical director, Meredith Wilson. Special lyrics from time to time by Sammy Kahn. The chorus and choir consisted of 16 voices. Choral Master Max Teer oversaw the vocals for the first season, Ray Charles for the second, with over all musical direction under orchestra leader Meredith Wilson.

Sponsor Breakdown 
September 30, 1951 to April 20, 1952, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m., EST 
6:30 to 7 p.m.        Portion sponsored by Reynolds Metals Co. on straight contract
            (not part of Operation Tandem)
7 to 7:30 p.m.        Portion Tandem Available (sustaining under Tandem
            open to Tandem sponsors)
7:30 to 8 p.m.        Tandem Sponsors
            September 30, 1951 to April 20, 1952    Leggett & Myers
            September 30, 1951 to April 20, 1952    Whitehall
            October 28, 1951 to April 20, 1952        American Chicle
            December 23, 1951 only            Western Union (straight contract)
            January 13, 1952 only                Buick, division of General Motors
            February 10, 1952 only             Elgin, division of Illinois Watches
Commercial announcer for Reynolds Metals: Bert Cowlan
The Leggett & Myers commercials on “Operation Tandem” were recordings featuring the “Chesterfield Stars.”

Production Breakdown
Dee Engelbach
NBC Producer: James Haupt
Writers: Goodman Ace, Selma Diamond, George Foster, Mort Green and Frank Wilson. Others such as Joel Murcott and Dorothy Parker are indicated under their retrospective episodes.
Music: Arranged by Sid Fine. All music supervision by Meredith Wilson.

The first two broadcasts of the second season, September 30 and October 7, were transcribed from broadcasts done overseas. Since this is the first of many articles about The Big Show, and because the September 30 broadcast exists in recorded form, we’ll focus on the season premiere later on. Every episode from the first season exists and is presently circulating among collector hands, so for this article we’ll focus primarily on the second season episodes, the “lost” episodes of 1951. (We’ll explore the 1952 broadcasts later.) 

Broadcast of October 7, 1951. 
Ben Smith is the announcer for the Paris broadcast.
Guests: Josephine Baker, song-stylist
Gracie Fields, British comedienne and vocalist
Joan Fontaine, motion picture star
William Gargan, motion picture star
George Sanders, motion picture star
Georges Guitary, French singing star
Fernand Gravet, French actor and comedian
Francoise Rosay, the great French movie and stage actress
Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa
Paul Durand, associate conductor for the orchestra composed of Paris musicians
Meredith Wilson, conductor
On tonight’s program, Joan Fontaine does a scene from Letter From an Unknown Woman with George Sanders in the role of “the Man,” in the classic love story by Stephen Sweig (which was made into a 1948 movie starring Joan Fontaine). Fred Allen and Tallulah Bankhead then do a take-off on the story. Another special feature was the presentation of a scene from Dr. Knock, a comedy which starred the late Louis Jouvet, a distinguished actor who died a few weeks prior. In Jouvet’s memory, Fernand Gravet and French players play the scene in a special adaptation of Dr. Knock. Josephine Baker sang a medley that understandably drew an ovation from the Paris audience.

Trivia: In Paris, the audience, filling the 2,200-seat Empire to capacity, applauded lustily throughout. The French liked particularly the tasteful tribute paid to the late Louis Jouvet by Tallulah Bankhead and the rest of the cast. Some critics, however, felt that Josephine Baker stole the spotlight on this broadcast, not Bankhead. “As far as the audience was concerned,” the London Daily Mail continental edition said, “the star was Josephine Baker.” It added: “Tallulah herself received a good reputation. While all the other women walked modestly on stage in evening dresses of black lace and black velvet, Josephine made an entrance as though she was at the Folies Bergere in a billowing white gown of chiffon with sparkling silver sequins and an African type hair-do pyramiding up a foot above her head. Her signing of jungle songs brought down the house.”

The Paris newspaper France-Soir, surprisingly, termed Bankhead “truly irresistible,” and “an astonishing woman… something of a national institution,” and then mused: “Decisive, positive, she looks a lot like a Sunday school teacher. Yet she is celebrated for her extravagances and her audacity.” This was, however, the only French newspaper I have been able to find that spent more praise on Bankhead than Baker.

The October 7 broadcast originated from the stage of the Empire Theatre in Paris, France. The program was recorded on September 24. The tape was then shipped to the United States where the network edited it for airing. Part of the 90-minute program was aired on the Light Program portion of Radiodiffusion Francaise, but the entire broadcast was not heard over European networks. The French system could broadcast only part of the show, since it had previous commitments for airtime. Pre-broadcast interest in the program was heightened by the opening of the Medical Congress, which would see the first demonstrations in France of the CBS color television system. Equipment was brought from Germany, where it was used by the Economic Cooperation Administration for the recent Berlin youth rally, for demonstration in surgical operations during the Congress. Two events occurring at the same time were making the French more conscious of American show biz than they had been for some time.

The chorus which backed the show last week in London was imported to France, but it was found that a local group, headed by Edith Constantine, who played opposite Edith Piaf at the ABC, was okay. Several changes were made in the tape recording of the program before the October 7 broadcast. Gracie Fields sang some tunes from The King and I but since they could not be cleared for the U.S., she taped other tunes for the U.S. version. In addition, Georges Guetary, originally scheduled for the show, could not get a release from manager Maurice Lehmann, for whom he was currently starring in Don Carlos at the Chatelet. As a result, he taped some material for insertion in the program when it aired in the U.S.

“From a comedy standpoint, it rated with the best of the crop, thanks to sharp, brittle scripting that found Tallulah Bankhead, Fred Allen, George Sanders and Gracie Fields in fine fettle,” reviewed Variety (obviously commenting about the U.S. broadcast version). “In contrast to the previous week’s ‘playback’ of the London-originating Palladium show, which made too determined an effort to ‘go British’ and in the process got into an uncomfortable groove, last Friday’s frolic, obviously pattered to the taste of Americans in Paris, was spirited, bouncy and laugh provoking.” 

The iconic Tallulah Bankhead.
Broadcast of October 14, 1951 
Shirley Booth, star of Broadway
Jimmy Durante, comedian
Ethel Merman, musical comedy star
George Sanders, British movie star
Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa

The theme of this episode (and what could be described as the title of the broadcast) is the “Southern Show Train” which originated in New Orleans and brought passengers to The Big Show from New Orleans, Natchez, Birmingham, Memphis, Atlanta, Columbus (Ga.) and Montgomery (Ala.) to attend the broadcast at Centre Theatre in New York, where The Big Show broadcasts originated. The train arrived the night before, October 13, and the passengers were entertained by Tallulah Bankhead, broadcast officials and sponsors. For the audience, the climax of the festivities was attending the broadcast of October 14. The running of “Show Trains” for the broadcasts from time to time originated last season and continued for this season, only once, with a “Southern Show Train” originating in New Orleans. Another purpose of the Show Train was to help publicize the new season of The Big Show, through newspaper articles in numerous cities. The broadcast included the old South theme applied throughout comedy and music.

This is the only episode of the series to feature no dramatic sketches. Music and comedy routines with the “insults” of Tallulah Bankhead and Ethel Merman heaved mutually for the feature spots. Bankhead did a dramatic reading by reciting names from the telephone directory in a highly melodramatic manner to prove to Ethel Merman that the telephone directory could be dramatic material for a fine dramatic actress. (If that seems repetitive, it’s because that was how the lines were delivered on the program, emphasizing silly humor.) Fred Allen did a monologue, a take-off on An American in Paris (1951), which just had its New York opening ten days prior. Allen apologies to MGM for what they were about to do to the story. Shirley Booth sang songs from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Jimmy Durante sang “I’m a Fugitive from Esquire,” with jovial references to his costumes. A medley of Southern songs was presented by the orchestra and chorus, including “Laura Lee.” Meredith Wilson featured his revised version of “Aura Lee,” the old Southern song which the West Point cadets now use under the title of “Army Blue.”

Trivia: During the pre-broadcast warm-up and also the entertainment following the actual broadcast, the various Southern guests were introduced to the audience and various gifts were exchanged between Tallulah and guests. Near the close of the broadcast, Bankhead thanked the Southern Show Train guests, mentioning that she had just been invited by the Natchez delegation to attend the Natchez Pilgrimage next Spring. The King and Queen of the Pilgrimage presented her with a special ante-Bellum costume which Bankhead wore when she attended the Pilgrimage.

Broadcast of November 4, 1951 
Joan Davis, singing comedienne
Herb Jeffries, vocalist
Evelyn Knight, vocal star of concert stage
Groucho Marx, comedian
George Sanders, British movie star

This broadcast originated from Hollywood instead of New York. The Reynolds commercial was provided by transcription, so announcer Bert Cowlan is still heard hocking Reynolds wrap. The “Tandem” commercials and the continuity announcements were done by a Hollywood announcer, Wendell Niles, marking his only appearance on the program. The regular announcer, Ed Herlihy, did not make the trip to Hollywood and remained in New York.

During this broadcast, George Sanders starred in a radio version of the classic Honore de Balzac short story, The Mysterious Mansion (1830). Sanders played the role of Monsieur de Merrett, a French nobleman whose wife deceives him by entertaining a Spanish officer. When her husband returns unexpectedly, she hides her lover in a closet and tells the husband there is nobody around. The husband says he trusts her so well that he will never open the door to the closet where he had dared to think someone was hiding. Instead, he calls in a stone mason and has the closet sealed shut immediately. The role of the wife was played by Lurene Tuttle. Barney Phillips was cast in the role of the man. Tallulah Bankhead does a satiric monologue about the men who sit at the “left” at dinner parties. The monologue is provided by Dorothy Parker. Since this episode originated from Hollywood, this marked the only broadcast of the series Lurene Tuttle and Barney Phillips, character actors, would make on the program.

Broadcast of November 11, 1951 
Morton Downey, vocal star
Jerry Lester, comedian
Jackie Miles, satirist
Ken Murray, emcee and comedian
Sophie Tucker, comedienne and singing entertainer
Ann Sheridan, motion picture star
June Valli, vocalist and youthful RCA recording artist

Back in New York after last week’s one-time performance from Hollywood, the remainder of the series would be broadcast from the Big Apple. Jackie Miles does a monologue about Miami, followed by a story about golf. Ted Shapiro, pianist, accompanied Sophie Tucker in a medley of some of the songs she made unforgettable. Ann Sheridan than presented a radio version of the Fay Grissom Stanley story, The Last Day of All, recently published in Twenty Great Tales of Murder (1951, Random House), in which a wife and her husband poison each other and will at last be free of each other. Martin Blaine, radio and stage actor, played the supporting role of her husband. Sheridan played Sari, the wife who would rather see her husband dead than give him up to another woman. June Valli no doubt appeared as a result of the sponsor’s involvement. Following the guest spots, Tallulah Bankhead paid tribute to the observance of Armistice Day and read the letter written by Pfc. John J. McCormick, Marine, to two small daughters on the eve of his death in Korea. He felt a premonition that he might not live to write another letter, so he explained the meeting of living -- and dying -- for Freedom.

Trivia: Ted Shapiro, who accompanied Sophie Tucker, was the co-author of “A Handful of Stars,” the opening theme song for The Big Show.

Broadcast of November 25, 1951 
Actors Dane Clark and Martha Scott co-starred in presenting a scene from the new 1951-1952 stage play, The Number, by Arthur P. Carter. Act One, Scene Three was done with Dane Clark as Dominic, small-time bookmarker, and Martha Scott as Sylvia, telephone bet-taker for one of the larger bookmakers. The story concerns the way these two people fall in love over the telephone, but realize that their lives will be in danger from the “Syndicate” if they ever meet. You see, in this “profession,” bookmakers and bet-takers are to be only “voices” over the telephone.

Mary McCarthy, comedienne and musical comedy star, is accompanied by Graham Forbes, her regular accompanist. George Sanders joined Tallulah Bankhead in presenting the diminutive drama, Catherine Parr (1927), by Maurice Baring, with Sanders as King Henry VIII and Bankhead as Catherine Parr, the sixth and final wife. Drama concerned a breakfast discussion between the King and Catherine, with an argument starting about the way eggs are prepared for His Majesty. Martha Wright, night-club and Broadway star, currently doing her first big Broadway role as the Nurse in South Pacific, was also a guest. Phil Foster, comedian, did his own version of the “Egg Story” satirizing the Catherine Parr play. Foster pretended to be serving breakfast to the drug store counter clientele. Most of the guests took “bit parts” as they entered Phil’s drug store. Foster also did a monologue on naming babies. Foster’s “Naming Babies” monologue was written by Danny and Doc Simon. Martin Blaine, who played more supporting roles on The Big Show than any other actor, did supporting roles in the scene from The Number and other sketches. 

Tallulah Bankhead, Jack Carson, Ed Wynn and Fred Allen

Broadcast of December 2, 1951 
Dolores Gray, singing star of Two on the Aisle, sang “Shrimp Boat.” Ginger Rogers and Paul McGrath presented Act Two, Scene One of the Louis Verneuil comedy, Love and Let Love (1951), in which Rogers played Valerie King, toast of Broadway, and McGrath did the part of Charles Warren, her long-time friend and adviser. The Broadway play ran a total of 51 performances from October 19 to December 1, and just concluded a healthy run on the New York stage the day before this broadcast. George Sanders, dramatic star, did a take-off on Love and Let Love which Rogers and McGrath presented moments prior. Tallulah Bankhead took the role of Valerie King in the Sanders version. Lauritz Melchior, operatic star and concert singer, sang Leoncavallo’s Mattinata. Later, Tallulah, Sanders, Melchior and the choir sang “I Wish I Wuz” (I wish I wuz a singer at the Met…”) Near the end of the numerous verses, the other guests joined in.

After the drama, the following comedy was presented: Wally Cox, comedian, did his original monologues “Dufo” (Dufo was a friend of mine, a crazy guy…) and “The Hinker” (about the man who wanted to invest in a night club). Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa did a take-off on his “Allen’s Alley” by knocking on the doors of all the guests to take a poll. The question is: “How many people like Tallulah Bankhead on Sunday night’s Big Show?” Allen and Portland also did a sketch, “The Allens at Home,” to show Ginger Rogers how the Fred Allen family normally live.

Broadcast of December 9, 1951 
Ann Southern and Robert Cummings, reprised their starring roles in the Broadway comedy, Faithfully Yours, by Bush-Fekete and Mary Helen Fay, presented an excerpt from the play with Southern as Vivian Harding and Robert Cummings as Thomas O’Harding. The Broadway play ran for a total of 68 performances from October 18 to December 15, 1951. The story concerned a wife who was interested in psychoanalysis and who interpreted her husband’s every action in the light of “complexes.” The husband was a man of routine -- had a day and a time for everything -- except love making. The love making, however, was what saved the marriage. Ed “Archie” Gardner, star of Duffy’s Tavern, told his story about Two-Top Gruskin, the famous baseball player on Duffy’s team, Duffy’s All-American Irish Yankees usually referred to as the D.A.A.I.Y. (This is the same monologue that Gardner recited on numerous other radio programs many times over.) Gardner also joined Tallulah Bankhead in a take-off on the Faithfully Yours excerpt presented a short time earlier by Southern and Cummings.

Eddy Arnold, the “Tennessee Playboy,” RCA Recording star, and specialist in American Western music, was a guest and sang a couple songs. Considering RCA was one of the sponsors, his appearance on the program came as no surprise. Hildegarde sang “All Will Come Right” and later joined Bankhead in an "insult contest." Jean Carroll, comedienne and night-club entertainer, did a monologue about her husband -- how she met him, how other men affect her, how her husband always sends her on vacations via bus so she won’t have the trouble of going to the airport, having her luggage weighed and maybe getting air-sick. Carroll was wearing a mink coat for which she paid $5,000 -- as Tallulah asks, “Is that with the tax or did you get it in Washington?”

The program concluded with a night club act in which Tallulah Bankhead was the main entertainer, supported by all the guests. She played the piano in this scene (she really does play the piano) with a few bars of “Rustle of Spring,” interspersed with her vocalizing of a medley including a few bars of “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “You Go To My Head.”

Trivia: Even though Thanksgiving came and went, the Reynolds Metals sponsored segment (7 to 7:30 p.m.) offered a free copy of “Roasting Turkey in Metals Wrap.” Radio listeners were to write in to Turkey Department, Reynolds Metals Co., Louisville, Kentucky. This was the sponsor’s apparent attempt to gauge the size of the listening audience. A free book was offered almost every week beginning with this broadcast.

Broadcast of December 16, 1951 
Jack Carson, comedian and TV star
Merv Griffin, vocalist, new RCA recording star
Sarah Vaughn, vocalist and recording star
Henny Youngman, comedian
Phil Silvers, comedian and current star of the Broadway hit, Top Banana

Actress Rosalind Russell did a presentation of the A.E. Coppard story, Fifty Pounds (1948), the story about a young couple who have only love -- but no money. The man is a writer who is too proud to allow his wife to work. Finally, she decides to leave him because she can no longer bare the pain and frustration that comes to him every time he gets another rejection slip. Just as she is packing, she learns that her former employer has left her 80 Pounds! Because she knows her husband’s pride, she realizes he will not accept money from her so she mails him 50 Pounds “from an admirer who has read his works in the past.” She sees him open the envelope and put his 50 pounds into his pocket. He never tells her about the gift and bids her a fond, but heartbroken, farewell when she insists on leaving and working. His response reveals to her the true worth of his “pride and ideals.” Russell played Lally, the girl. Martin Blaine played Phil, the husband. Carl Frank was cast as the solicitor who informs Lally Repton of her bequest.

Tallulah Bankhead presented a tribute to CARE and senders of CARE packages. She told the story of CARE at Christmas and read a letter from a recipient of a CARE package, Mrs. Bertha Kekkonen, Helsinki, Finland, who wanted to know who sent her a CARE packet. “If the sender is listening, please contact Paul Conly French, Executive Director of CARE,” Bankhead explained. “Mrs. Kekkonen wants to thank the sender personally.”

Broadcast of December 23, 1951
 Comedian Milton Berle did a serious dramatic role in the radio adaptation of the modern story, “Christmas Present.” Berle played Stardust Jackson, with Tallulah Bankhead in the role of Lorna. Martin Blaine was in the supporting cast as Dan. Once big names in show business, Lorna and Stardust quarrel; now they meet both “on the road” with a little show playing a snow-isolated North Dakota town on Christmas Eve. Joel Murcott wrote the original script. (Note: Not to be confused with the Christmas sketch written by Murcott for the December 23, 1948 broadcast of the Sealtest Variety Theatre.)

Robert Merrill, operatic star, sang “Credo” from the opera, Othello. Margaret Truman, soprano, included among her songs the lovely holiday offering, “Oh, Leave Your Sheep.” Ozzie and Harriet Nelson were also guests. Alec Templeton, pianist-composer, did several of his original “impressions” including one of Tallulah singing “Ain’t She Sweet.” Tallulah read “Touch Hands” written by William Harrison Murray, especially for the Christmas season. The entire cast and guest roster joined in singing Christmas carols as part of the closing numbers on the program.

Broadcast of December 30, 1951
The New Year’s Eve program. Joan Davis, comedienne, performed a couple of skits. Jackie Miles did a monologue about his success in the horse-racing world where he placed his wagers regularly. Gertrude Berg, in her familiar role as Molly Goldberg, joined Tallulah in a review of the favorite Big Show programs of the past (excerpts of recordings of past shows) which took up the majority of the entire broadcast. Tallulah then read the Dorothy Parker monologue, “The Waltz.” Johnny Johnston and Georgia Gibbs, vocalist and night-club entertainers, performed together. Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa joined Johnny Johnston in doing a take-off on Tallulah’s reading of  “The Waltz.”