Friday, March 14, 2014

The Dorothy Lamour Disaster

Dorothy Lamour at the radio mike.
Ghost voices, technical difficulties and an overenthusiastic opening night crowd bedeviled a radio broadcast featuring Dorothy Lamour as the “femcee” at the premiere opening of oilman Glenn McCarthy’s Shamrock Hotel in Houston, Texas. On the evening of March 17, 1949, Glenhall Taylor, producer of The Sealtest Variety Theater, agreed to allow the program to originate from the Herald Room of the new Shamrock Hotel. The usual format of the program involved two guest spots each week: one performed a comedy sketch, the other a dramatic sketch in which Lamour herself usually took part with the guest star. Music was provided by Henry Russell and his Orchestra with vocals by the Crew Chiefs Male Quartet. For the evening of March 17, Hollywood screen actor Van Heflin and comedian Ed Gardner were in attendance to appear on the broadcast. What followed was a scrambled program which faded several times and was off the air completely at others, now considered one of the biggest disasters for NBC in the calendar year of 1947. Thankfully for Glenn McCarthy, Dorothy Lamour’s nation-wide radio broadcast was the only “casualty” of the glittering formal opening of his twenty million dollar Shamrock Hotel. While Lamour told the press the whole thing was “unavoidable,” her name was briefly tarnished in newspapers across the country that week.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 people jammed into the 18-story hotel’s dining rooms for a $42-per-plate dinner marking the formal opening. The confusion was too much for Lamour’s radio broadcast which was scheduled at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. As the radio show began, many guests were still hunting for their seats and the hubub was so great that Lamour and her guest stars, Heflin and Gardner, had to shout over the microphone to be heard. “The crowd was still entering the room at the start of the program and we had trouble getting started,” Lamour explained. “Later the public address system failed and we departed somewhat from our script.”

NBC Publicity photo
The program suffered numerous line breaks and was of low quality with the actors’ conversation repeated when they obviously thought they were off the air. The continuity of the program suffered most with ad-libbing in an attempt to keep the show moving. At approximately 9:32:42, a telephone conversation going on at the source of the program came over the air and, although muffled, was intelligible. Radio listeners might have wondered if they had bad frequency on their own radios. Because the attendees arrived late, instructions were never given to prevent the high background noise that was picked up by the microphones. Lamour herself made several attempts to get the cast back on the script but to little avail. Gardner ad-libbed freely after an attempt to tell his “Two-Top Gruskin” routine failed. Instead, Gardner announced the names of prominent guests in the ballroom for the benefit of the radio listeners. The dramatic spot between Van Heflin and Dorothy Lamour suffered most with little of the actual script broadcast.

At Chicago, NBC officials said line failure, “probably at the Shamrock Hotel,” forced piano standby music to be used during most of the first 12 minutes of the show. The direct cause of the error was never reported publicly, to avoid pointing full blame toward the correct source. In Hollywood, it was an NBC spokesman who blamed the whole thing on an “over-enthusiastic opening night crowd,” adding that, “at one point, two diners seized the microphone and shouted into it.”

In New York, another spokesman said network executives were conducting an investigation to determine whether any profanity went out over the air. Dorothy Lamour insisted no profanity was involved.

The network at Chicago, the controlling point of the broadcast, stayed with the show for the first five minutes, during line breaks and low quality, in the hope that difficulties would clear momentarily. NBC delivered multiple “One Moment, Please” announcements, then cut to the piano music as filler until 9:43:15 when NBC brought the chaos back to the air.

Dorothy Lamour press photo from NBC.
Under contract with the sponsor and the radio network, the advertising agency made sure a recording of every broadcast be transcribed. It is for this reason that every episode of The Sealtest Variety Theater exists in recorded form... including this episode. Fans of old-time radio and vintage Hollywood have sought out this recording to listen to. Yeah, there were complications during the broadcast. Without knowing the history behind the recording, fans of vintage radio broadcasts would question what they were listening to. Larry and John Gassman provided a superb 45 minute presentation about this broadcast, with audio samples, at the recent REPS convention in Seattle, Washington. Attendees first hand were able to learn about this program and laughed as they heard the excerpts, with full understanding of what was going on behind the scenes. 

As for Ed Gardner, who flew to Houston early that morning to participate in the broadcast... He flew back to New York City the morning after and, a week later, took his entire family on a probably much-needed vacation (Honolulu or Miami, depending on varied sources). 

Ironically, this was not the first time the Sealtest radio program suffered technical difficulties. For the broadcast of October 3, 1946, similar technical difficulties occurred on the same program. AT&T trouble between Denver and Omaha prevented the first two and a half minutes from being broadcast nationwide. Meanwhile, due to Chicago operating error, an announcer apologized to the listening audience and music filled the remaining minute and a half. The WEAF program portion failed to go through for the same reasons, resulting in a standby announcer apologizing and introducing a transcribed orchestra which failed to go out due to engineering trouble. WEAF also had dead air for the first minute and a half.