A dozen years before Johnny Carson took over the reins of the Tonight Show – and long before Jack Paar and Steve Allen redefined the genre - NBC began an experiment in programming that has, in one incarnation or another, lasted nearly 6 decades.
The late night variety show.
As you might expect, NBC was the first network to commit to a late night variety show, believing that it could pull audiences away from the incessant reruns of B movies (often with The Syncopated Clock as a theme song) usually found playing on the late, late show on the other channels.
The show came about due to the visionary work of Sylvester `Pat’ Weaver (father of actress Sigourney Weaver and brother to comedian `Doodles’ Weaver) who began his career as a radio producer in the 1930s (Fred Allen’s Town Hall Tonight), and who eventually became head of programming for the NBC radio network.
In 1949 he was brought over to the struggling NBC TV network in hopes that he could break the CBS’s stranglehold on the ratings. One of the first innovations that Weaver introduced came in the form of Broadway Open House which ran Monday through Friday from 11pm to Midnight.
The show was supposed to be hosted by comic Don "Creesh" Hornsby, but Hornsby died suddenly two weeks before the show premiered.
In a last minute bit of substitution, Morey Amsterdam, who already had hosted a variety show on the Dumont network, covered Monday and Friday nights and a brash young comedian named Jerry Lester did Tues-Weds-Thurs.
Lester had previously been the host of DuMont’s Cavalcade of Stars, but walked off the show earlier in the year. Filling in for AWOL Lester was a young comedian named Jackie Gleason, who moved the show to CBS and became a mainstay of TV for 20 years.
Amsterdam would leave Broadway Open House quickly, leaving Lester to cover five nights a week.
Lester was the master of `low comedy’, and his antics were what you might expect from a baggy pants vaudeville comedian of another era. Pratt falls, rapid fire deliveries (so if one joke fails, the next is already on the way), and juvenile antics.
He was, however, exactly what the late night show needed. Someone was lively, who was able to ad lib, and someone who could do an hour a night.
Lester padded his show with regulars,including dancer Ray Malone, accordionist Milton DeLugg, announcer Wayne Howell and vocalists Jane Harvey, Andy Roberts and David Street.
The show began in May of 1950, but in mid-June Lester hired buxom Jennie Lewis for a bit part, where she was to read some poetry, act dumb, and give the show some eye-candy. Lester named her `Dagmar’, and smirked about her `hidden talents’.
Dagmar was an immediate success, and became a regular member of the cast. While looking like the proverbial blonde Bombshell, Dagmar exuded a naiveté, a wholesomeness, that belied her outward appearance.
That make her attractive to men and non-threatening to women. It was persona that American audiences had never seen before.
By the end of the year, Dagmar was a sensation. American TV’s first sex symbol.
Her popularity grew to the point where she was getting more fan mail than the host, Jerry Lester. In 1951, out of frustration, Lester quit the show. Dagmar went on to host it briefly, before the show was canceled later in the year.
Lester, who died in 1995 after years with Alzheimer's, would go on to work on the stage, and occasionally on TV until 1975.
Dagmar would go on to host her own short-lived TV show (Dagmar’s Canteen), and made guest appearances on Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and Milton Berle shows.
But Dagmar’s days in the limelight were numbered as well. TV has always been a fickle medium. With the exception of a few appearances on talk shows, by the 1960’s Dagmar pretty much retired from show business.
Last month I featured a Frank Sinatra Show with Dagmar as a guest (see Sinatra With A Pencil Thin Mustache).
We’ve two full hours of Broadway Open House on the Internet Archive for your enjoyment. Sadly, most of these shows have been lost forever, since no one believed there would be any interest in preserving them sixty years ago.
Broadway Open House - 14/December/1950
Another episode of the first late-night variety program "Broadway open house". With Jerry Lester, Milton DeLugg, Dave Street, Ray Malone, Dagmar, The Mellolarks, Joan Lorre. Guest-star(let): Laurette Luez.
Broadway Open House - 30/January/1951
The first regularly scheduled late-night entertainment program on television. It was the forerunner of "The tonight show" and was broadcast from 5/29/1950 to 8/24/1951. With Jerry Lester, Milton DeLugg, Dave Street, Dagmar, The Mellolarks, Fletcher Peck, etc. Includes some original commercials
`Pat’ Weaver, who created this genre of late night programming, would end up creating the venerable Today Show for NBC, and pioneered the practice of networks (instead of sponsors) owning a show, and selling advertisements.
And for more Jerry Lester, we’ve an episode of the DuMont Network show – Cavalcade of Stars – available as well. This show is more of a traditional variety show, with guest stars and acts. Jackie Robinson is a featured guest.
Misc episode of 'Cavalcade of Stars'
1950 episode of The DuMont Network's 'Cavalcade of Stars', hosted by Jerry Lester. Also features a obscure singer, a well-known baseball player and some other people. Variety Series.
While none of these shows could be accused of being sophisticated, or even well polished, they are fascinating glimpses at a America and early Television from sixty years ago.
A little postscript.
Andrew Fielding, whom I’ve mentioned here on several occasions (his blog is in my sidebar, and he is the author of The Lucky Strike Papers, which I reviewed here) has a post about an alumnus of Broadway Open House; Milton Delugg, who wrote the hit song Orange Colored Sky.
For a lot more on the fascinating history of early television, point your browser to The Lucky Strike Papers blog.