Sunday, 14 April 2013

Someone Had to Take on Lucy

These days, we’re used to television shows appearing and disappearing on the network schedules at the whims of executives reading columns of numbers (shares, demographics and so on). How different it was in earlier days.

Into the early 1960s, time slots could very well be controlled much as they were in the radio days—by sponsors and their ad agencies. If they bought the time, they could basically tell the network what to put there. If they bought a show, the network miraculously found a place for it. The people involved in the show themselves got caught in the middle. And that’s what happened to Dennis Day.

Dennis rose to fame as a singer on the Jack Benny radio show where he also displayed a talent for impersonations and crazy dialects. That landed him his own radio show and when television needed talent, popular radio stars were targeted for transition to the new medium. So Day ended up in TV in a sitcom featuring a janitor named Charley Weaver who went on to greater fame. Day may have been popular on radio but there was a TV star more popular—Lucille Ball. And that’s who Day ended up battling for ratings. You can guess at the outcome. But you probably can’t correctly guess why Day ended up in that time slot. The pull of the sponsor came into play. Dennis talked about it in this interview with the Associated Press.

Dennis Day Is Called Brave to Buck ‘Lucy’ Show

HOLLYWOOD, Apr. 7 (AP) — Nominated for the bravest man in TV: Dennis Day.
“I wouldn’t say I was the bravest,” says Dennis. “Maybe the unluckiest.”
I have selected Dennis for the video medal of valor because he is the fellow who has had to face Lucille Ball on an opposing network, In most locations, the Dennis Day Show is on at the same time on Monday night as “I Love Lucy.” This took real nerve, since “Lucy” has drawn the biggest audience in TV for the past two years.
“Believe me, it wasn’t my idea to go opposite Lucy,” Dennis told me. “I wanted to do my show on film. My sponsor, RCA, didn’t want me to. The only way I could get permission was to agree to take the spot opposite Lucy. So I did it.
“I took a chance and I failed. I think it was a mistake putting such a similar show opposite Lucy.
We both have situation comedy. We had good mail from people who said they had switched over to watch us. Once they made the change, they seemed to like our show. But watching ‘Lucy’ is too great a habit for the majority of viewers. We just couldn't fight it.”
The show, has been dropped by RCA, which Dennis says is concentrating its fortune on the transition to color TV. Dennis still is under contract to NBC and will be back next season—in a different time slot, you can bet.
“Still, I didn’t do so badly,” he added. “When I started, out the sponsor said if I hit a 7 rating, I’d be doing all right. If I made 14, I’d be a hero, and over 30 would be sensational. The show got up into the 20s, so they can’t complain. In Canada, where I don’t have to face Lucy, ours is the No. 1 show.”
In this country, “I Love Lucy” has maintained a rating in the 60s, or roughly three times the Dennis Day audience. Industry observers feel Day has definitely cut into Lucy’s audience, since the show used to rate head-and-shoulders above its competition. Now it has to fight “Dragnet” for top honors.
I asked Dennis why he insisted on filmed shows us against live, which he did in his first two years on TV.
“I think film is a lot better for a show like mine,” he remarked. “Sometimes I play as many as eight different characters in one sketch, which would be impossible to do live.
“When I was doing the show live, it was nerve-wracking. One character I did required a one-minute costume change, so it always had to come after a commercial. Even so, I was always wondering, ‘Will the zipper work?’
“To get from one scene to another, I would have to race the length of the stage. I was breathless, but I would have to break into a love song with the girl in the show.”
Of course, another advantage in filming is the moola. Live shows can never be recalled; the Kinescope is destroyed a few weeks afterward, Dennis remarked. But films can be shown over and over again.
Dennis owns them outright. He has lavished money on them, often taking a loss from his own pocket. The films are more expensive than most other shows because he uses a full orchestra to accompany his songs. Most of the other films use canned music or vocal backgrounds to avoid paying the musicians’ union its required 5 percent.
“But the films are all mine,” said Dennis, adding a tribute to his Lucy opposition: “And virtually no one has seen them yet.”

But Day never did get another shot at TV stardom. He continued making appearances on the Jack Benny television show and guesting elsewhere. Perhaps appropriately, one of his shots was on “The Lucy Show.”


  1. Dennis seems to have tried to follow Jack's lead, in both owning his show and going to film to not just make it easier for scene and costume changes, but for future re-runs. The problem of course is just like today, you've got to build up enough shows on film to put into re-runs, which would have been tough facing "I Love Lucy".

    (As for the kinescopes, there are companies today that do have the technology to upgrade kinescope images, which I'd love to see someone do to the Benny show's kinescopes. But you'd have to be assured of a market first before anyone's going to take the time and effort for the restorations).

  2. The show that eventually successfully challenged Lucy was "Laugh In".