Imagine you’re 24 years old, have been doing a 15-minute local morning show for only a few months and suddenly you’re asked to make your network debut on a half-hour evening variety show.
That’s what happened to Robert Q. Lewis.
To me, at about age six, Robert Q. was the guy who suddenly replaced Merv Griffin as the host of the game show “Play Your Hunch.” What I didn’t know, being a kid and all, was that Lewis had probably gone through more shows than anyone else at the time. Radio and TV listings through the late ‘40s and into the ‘50s show a revolving door of time slots and programmes, none of them seeming to last very long.
Lewis first appeared on WEAF New York on November 20, 1944. Then C.E. Butterfield, veteran radio columnist of the Associated Press, reported the following April 7th:
New York. April 7—(AP)—A new comedy show which NBC believes offers possibilities, steps suddenly onto the network at 7:30 tonight. Assembled almost on the spur of the moment, it is being built around Robert “Q” Lewis, a 24-year-old broadcaster who has been displaying his talent in a local morning series six times a week, under the title “Listen to Lewis”. He is to have the help of Mae Questel, veteran mimic, with variety music coming from the Murphy Sisters and Dave Grupp’s orchestra. His humor, of the Zany Type, depends to a large extent on the use of contrasting voices. The program fills the time given up by the discontinued sponsored, series, The Saint. Lewis insists he inserted the initial “Q” in his name solely for identification purposes.
Actually, the “Lewis” was inserted as well. His real name was Robert Goldberg, born in New York and raised in the Bronx. You wouldn’t know it by his voice; Robert Q. always affected a bit of a cultured tone.
The story doesn’t explain why “The Saint” was suddenly pulled in favour of a non-sponsored show. But Robert Q. lasted until June 2 before his programme was replaced with a dramatic series. Mae Questel continued her career as the cartoon voice of Olive Oyl while Lewis moved back into local radio before another network shot, at CBS, in 1947. Despite what the New York Times declared was “fey humor” the show failed, though Neil Simon and Paddy Chayefsky were among the show’s writers.
CBS kept trying and trying with Lewis (he finally got out of his contract with the network in 1951). New York Herald Tribune radio columnist John Crosby decided Robert Q. was trying, too. This is from the Oakland Tribune, December 24, 1948.
Radio in Review
By JOHN CROSBY
Robert Q. Lewis, the strolling minstrel of the Columbia Broadcasting System, is back on a five-week schedule again (not broadcast in west), changing over from a once-a-week show (Sundays). At least that’s the way things sound as this is written. You never quite know where Lewis will be from hour to hour. Lewis has roamed all over CBS, from the Godfrey show to the late shift on the elevators or from Paley to breakfast, as the saying goes.
Either he's getting better or I’m getting less critical or the Christmas season has filled me with unwarranted benevolence. My current opinion, subject to change without notice, is that Robert Q. is a good-natured humorist whose efforts are certainly on the side of the angels.
A CBS press release refers to him as “honest, eager and thesauric” and after pausing briefly to look up “thesauric,” I feel inclined to agree with that description. The fact there’s no such word as “thesauric” either in Webster or Funk and Wagnalls hasn’t swayed me. There should be such an adjective, meaning encyclopedic, or full of largely useless information.
At any rate—to get this back into English—Lewis is a pleasant pixie who, I’ve always felt, worked a little too hard at being natural. He used to strain so widely at being casual he made me nervous which is hardly the idea. Lately he’s succeeded at informality, a difficult business, and the listeners can relax. His is a friendly, unassuming, largely satiric humor which ranges in quality from excellent to terrible—a wide range. Here’s Lewis concerning his Christmas show which took place last Sunday, the night of New York’s third largest snowfall. “Either it’s snowing outside or the Rinso people are overdoing it. This is our Christmas show and there’s no one in the studio except reindeer. I was hoping to have my favorite carol on it but Madeleine was busy.”
Lewis likes to poke gentle fun at Christmas customs, guest stars, announcers, capital gains deals, or anything else that happens to be on the back pages of the newspapers, leaving the front pages for the more eminent authorities like Gabriel Heatter.
He has a rather special attitude toward girls. Most of his girl friends seem to be homicidal maniacs of grotesque proportions. “We sat on George Washington Bridge and you dangled your feet in the water.”
For a long while there was a nasal girl named Ruthie who called him up every broadcast and confused him. This sort of routine: “Hello, Ruthie?” “Speaking.” “'What?” “What number you calling?” “You called me.”
He has no armor against puns, falling victim to almost any pun: “I dropped in to say hello to the High Lama. I said ‘Hi, Lama’. He has a cute girl—Lama Turner.” Lewis also suffers from self-deprecation, a weakness of all radio comedians. Many of their complaints sound too authentic to be funny. “I was practising my singing this morning. The canary threw himself to the cat.”
BURSTS INTO SONG
When he isn’t making jokes, he bursts into song, plays the slide whistle, heckles his announcer or does everything but turn somersaults in an effort to amuse—which indicates a nice generosity of spirit. As a singer, he is hard to define—falling somewhere between Helen Kane and Ted Lewis. In other words, cute, monotonous and vaguely ineffable.
His choice of songs is rather odd, too. He likes to sing some of the fact there’s a girl snail for every boy snail, a girl quail for every boy quail, a girl whale for every boy whale but there isn’t one for him.
Besides Lewis you’ll find Howard Smith’s orchestra, which sounds a little like 1922 Paul Whiteman, and the Ames Brothers, an excellent quartette, which spells the head man now and then but not often.
CBS hoped to move Robert Q. into television in May 1949 with a revue format but, instead, made him the summer replacement for Arthur Godfrey on the Chesterfield show. That began his career as the number one back-up host on TV. He finally got his own show on January 19, 1950, replacing “Film Theatre.” Here’s Crosby again, from February 20, 1950, saving his biggest dig for owners of nightclubs.
Television in Review
By JOHN CROSBY
Robert Q. Lewis claims his middle initial doesn’t stand for anything in particular. My own theory is that it stands for Quo as in “Quo Vadis.” “Whither Lewis?” people keep asking me. I snap back that I have no idea whither Lewis is headed or whither he’ll get there. (You can’t hang around Robert Q. Lewis very long without becoming afflicted with puns.)
Robert Quo has done about everything over at CBS except play Ma Perkins. His most recent venture is “The Show Goes On” which CBS rather too generously distributes both on television and on radio. On television, it’s an hour (not in West); on radio, the program is wisely pruned to half an hour (KCBS, 8:30 p.m., PST Fridays). If you don’t possess either a television set or a radio, drop in on CBS. He runs six of the elevators there. And in his spare time he took over all of Arthur Godfrey’s manifold duties while Godfrey was in Florida. There’s no money in it but he's getting lots of experience. (He hasn’t time to spend money, anyhow.)
BUYERS ON HAND
“The Show Must Go On,” to get down to it, is a switch on Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and on all the other amateur or semi-pro programs where the talent displays its wares in an effort to get jobs. Here, talent buyers, eager to give jobs away, are on hand. Lewis has rounded up the talent or what passes for talent. The talent does its stuff. The talent buyers shudder or smack their lips, depending on circumstances. Then they either buy the stuff or shrug it off.
To you, it probably sounds quite a lot like the other talent shows. To me, it sounds like a slave market. The buyers—booking agents, night club impressarios, a few Broadway producers—may hire the acrobats on the spot or take a 25-hour option on them. Or say no. No one, to my knowledge, ever says no. If worse comes to worst—and it frequently does—they take a 24-hour option, sneak out the side door and leave the country.
There are several dozen similar shows beating the bushes for talent. Lewis is last man to get a shot and the plumper quail have been brought down before he gets there. Consequently, you are likely to hear a good many, say, girl singers who under normal circumstances would never have got much farther than choir practice.
SEVERAL GOOD ACTS
You'll also hear a couple of good acts. One girl who looked and behaved quite a lot like Judy Garland was hastily snapped up by Ed Sullivan, an exercise of judgment of which I didn’t think him capable. A male comedy team made noises like a newsreel, an act as indescribable as Danny Kaye and almost as funny. For the rest—well, they got to beat those bushes harder.
On television, Robert Q. Lewis looks remarkably like Harold Lloyd, does quite a lot of muggling, double takes and Bob Hopeisms, and still has a lamentable habit of ruining good gags by running past them instead of stopping at the end. (On radio, he still resembles Robert Q. Lewis to a remarkable degree, though he is beginning to calm down a bit, a fortunate thing.)
There is nothing much the matter with “The Show Goes On” except it sounds like too many
other shows. Its greatest contribution, to my mind, is the intimate glimpses one gets of some of the night club owners, sharp-faced little ferrets in pin-striped suits, the sight of whom may keep some of the listeners out of night clubs for the rest of their lives.
“The Show Goes On” went on until December 29, 1951. Sponsor Gillette was unhappy CBS changed its time slot from Thursday to Saturday and cancelled. The show did accomplish something, but not for Robert Q. Billboard of March 25, 1950 reported Tony Bennett’s price tag jumped from about $125 to $750 on the basis of one shot on the show.
Lewis moved on, hosting his own shows or filling in. To show you how television changed, one of Lewis’ guest hosts in 1956 was a young man named Johnny Carson. Before doing “Play Your Hunch” in New York, he was hired in 1961 as a disc jockey by KHJ Los Angeles, arriving in a Rolls-Royce with his white poodle (the Rolls was part of his contract with the station). By 1972, Lewis had been hired by KFI and was opining to the Los Angeles Times that he couldn’t get work in television because he had overexposed himself and programmers thought he was too old. He was two months younger than Bill Cullen, 2½ years younger than Gene Rayburn and seven years younger than Garry Moore. By 1974, he was moved to the all-night show and was reviewing films for the station. He spent time acting in comedies on stage (Las Vegas was one of his venues) but he was a rare sight on television, and his name had become one from the past. It’s a little jarring seeing his face in anything but black and white.
Lewis effected an air of elegance on occasion. He was from an era where the elegant smoked. He sold Chesterfield cigarettes while filling in for Arthur Godfrey. He died of emphysema on December 11, 1991, age 72.
Here’s Robert Q. in one of his fill-in jobs, with a group of young men, a definitive panel and the best announcer in game show history, Johnny Olson. And a package of cigarettes.