Broadway Open House
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Broadway Open House is network television's first late-night comedy-variety series. It was telecast live on NBC from May 29, 1950 to August 24, 1951, airing weeknights from 11pm to midnight. One of the pioneering TV creations of NBC president Pat Weaver, it demonstrated the potential for late-night programming and led to the later development of The Tonight Show.
The show was originally to be hosted by comic Don "Creesh" Hornsby (so named because he yelled "Creesh" often), but he died of polio two weeks before the premiere broadcast. Hornsby's popularity at the time with celebrities who caught his act can be judged from this anecdote by Sharlotte Spencer (in her book From CIA Wife to Sobriety):
- I knew Don Hornsby, from my days in Long Beach and Belmont Shore when Bob Hope was helping Don get his start. Don was appearing in the San Fernando Valley at the Sportsmans Lodge. One evening, Bob and I, Monty and a friend went out to see his show. The showroom was all on one level and sitting in front of us were Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman, Bill Holden and wife (Brenda Holden). I kept scooting around but couldn’t see around Ronnie, so I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "If you will just move an inch that way, I could see the show." Well, he didn’t move and sat up straighter than ever. Needless to say, he never got my vote! Even Holden smiled and shook his head.
Hornsby's replacements, hosting different nights each week, were Morey Amsterdam (Monday and Wednesday) and the raucous Jerry Lester (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays), the brother of character actor Buddy Lester. However, Amsterdam soon exited the show, leaving Lester the sole host, performing sketches with his crew of sidekicks (including some of the earliest TV appearances of brassy Barbara Nichols), running through standard nightclub comedy routines and introducing the show's vocal group, the Mello Larks. Lester's signature bit was to twist his eyeglasses at a 45 degree angle on his face. The show had occasional guests, including Lenny Bruce, who appeared May 1950 and Charlie Parker who appeared October 31, 1950 (an audio recording exists of his appearance on the show), and there were also audience participation bits, such as having women from the audience join the female cast members in modeling fur coats. The sponsors included Anchor Hocking glassware and Blatz Beer.
However, devising new material night after night became a treadmill of desperation. The solution was to hire bosomy blonde Jennie Lewis, who was given no script and told, "You just sit there and act dumb. Your name is Dagmar." With her new name, she sat on a stool with a sign around her neck saying "Girl Singer," did breathing exercises, and soon performed as a reader of poems and plays, while Lester made occasional jokes about her "hidden talents." Her appearances created a sensation, leading to much press coverage and a salary increase from $75 to $1,250. With Dagmar getting all the attention, Lester walked off his own show in May 1951, and Dagmar carried on as host. On July 16, 1951, she was featured on the front cover of Life, and the show came to an end one month later.
Dagmar's run on Broadway Open House and her appearances on other shows (Colgate Comedy Hour, The Milton Berle Show, Masquerade Party) made her the first major female star of television, and she soon had her own show, Dagmar's Canteen, making guest appearances during the late 1950s with Jack Paar on The Tonight Show.
Cast and crew
Other Broadway Open House cast members were tap dancer Ray Malone, accordionist Milton DeLugg, announcer Wayne Howell and vocalists Jane Harvey, Andy Roberts and David Street. The show's opening theme music was "The Beanbag Song" by DeLugg, Lester and Willie Stein. A second theme was the song "It's Almost Like Being in Love." DeLugg often played a song he wrote with Stein, "Orange Colored Sky", which became a hit for Nat King Cole.
Ray Buffum and Jac Hein were the producers. Hein and Joseph C. Cavalier directed. Stan Burns and Allan Sherman were the writers. The program was developed by Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, a programming vice-president at NBC who had started his career as a production assistant on Fred Allen's radio show Town Hall Tonight in the 1930s. After the 15-month run of Broadway Open House, Weaver further developed his ideas on a local show over NBC's New York station starring Steve Allen, which eventually took to the network in 1954 as The Tonight Show.
Steve Allen remembered Hornsby, Broadway Open House and Fred Allen in a 1997 interview:
- NBC had tried unsuccessfully to do late night television with the comedian Jerry Lester and with Morey Amsterdam in the early 1950s, but that did not go over well with the viewers. I'm not certain the quality of the show had anything to do with it. At that point in time, you still had a limited number of television sets and television had still not come to a lot of the medium-sized cities around the country. I think you had a lot of people in the network executive suites who were convinced 11 o'clock was just too late for people to stay up and watch television. If that original show (Broadway Open House) had been done five years later, they may have changed their minds, because they did a lot of the same kind of humor we did later... Any time a performer dies in the process of doing a television series or a Broadway show, it's a difficult proposition how to proceed in good taste. With Fred Allen, this was in the mid-1950s and while he was never as successful in television, he had been an icon in radio... This may have been the first time, or at least one of the first times, a performer in television died while in the midst of doing a regular show. A comedian named Don Hornsby was supposed to do NBC's first late-night show, but he died two weeks before the show went on the air, so the audience had not yet seen him. But Fred Allen was one of the great humorists in the history of entertainment to that time, and the nation was still in shock because people had just seen him the previous Sunday night.
- McNeil, Alex. Total Television: a Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. Penguin, 1985.
- Spencer, Sharlotte. From CIA Wife to Sobriety.
- Life. July 16, 1951.