Wednesday 11 June 2014

The Start of Something Big

On July 27, 1953, WNBT in New York began broadcasting a live, local 40-minute show that eventually became one of the greatest success stories in television. It brought increased fame to Steve Allen once it was expanded and put on the NBC network about 14 months later. It did the same for Jack Paar. And Johnny Carson. And...well, by now you’ve figured out it was “The Tonight Show.”

How did the show get on the air in the first place? There was some corporate wrangling going on. Knickerbocker Beer began sponsoring an hour-long, late-night comedy-variety show starring Jimmy Blaine on rival WABC in April 1953 while WNBT was airing dusty movies.Broadcasting magazine of March 16th revealed it was a $750,000 deal, the largest amount of local time ever sold to a single TV sponsor. But, suddenly by the end of June, Blaine was fired. A month later, his show was fired. Knickerbocker moved from WABC to WNBT and sponsored a brand-new late-night comedy-variety show starring Allen. A Billboard magazine story dated June 27th reveals that Knickerbocker’s agency, Biow, had an option on the Allen show and picked it up before Piel’s Beer’s agency, Young and Rubicam, could grab it. Knickerbocker sponsored Allen on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only; the show was sustaining for a while on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The Long Island Star Journal gave a preview of the show the day of its debut. It aired opposite movies “The Miracle Kid” with Tom Neal (1941) on WCBS, “Deputy Marshal” starring Jon Hall (1949) on WATV, and news on the other channels.

Radio and Television
By John Lester
Arthur Godfrey Returns to Air Tonight
Tonight’s big event, bar none, will be the return to the air of the celebrated CBS redhead, Arthur Godfrey, on his “Talent Scouts” series, CBS-TV, 8:30 to 9 P.M. (Arthur returns to his “Friends” show Wednesday night, CBS-TV, at 8, and to his morning simulcast series next Monday, but more of these things anon.)
The event of next importance—considerable in importance, too—is the debut tonight of a series on WNBT called “The Steve Allen Show,” which will run Monday through Friday from 11:20 to midnight hereafter.
“The Morey Amsterdam Show” will fill its time each Saturday night.
This latter series will star Morey and certain of his “Breakfast With Music” gang (WNBT, Monday through Friday, 9 to 10 A. M.) including Milton Delugg and his orchestra and singer Jean Martin, and others, according to present plans.
STEVE ALLEN, of course, will star on “The Steve Allen Show” as emcee-host and will have such regulars as vocalists as Helene Dixon and Steve Lawrence (it was erroneously announced that Bill Lawrence would be featured on this show some weeks ago) and the band of Bobby Byrne.
Allen will also present top stars of the entertainment field as guests from time to time and will lend the nightly series in the general direction of comedy-variety.
It has taken the 31-year-old Allen a long time to get around to late night operating again, through no fault of his own, and it will be interesting to see what he does about it.
The quiet, slyly-humorous Allen, who once was referred to by Groucho Marx as “the best Allen since Fred,” actually made his big splash in broadcasting as the star of a late night series in Hollywood.
In fact, he was something of a sensation out there and numbered among his most loyal nightly fans many of the great wits and wags of the movie colony, including Groucho, Jack Benny, Red Skelton and George Burns.
A good ad-libber, a song-writer and musician in addition to being a comic and wit, Allen was lured to New York by CBS about three years ago but, as is frequently the case in show business, was given practically everything but the kind of thing he had done best in the past—a night time assignment.
At least I don’t remember one.
Probably his latest show and certainly his best, was the “Songs for Sale” series Saturday nights.
This new nightly “Steve Allen Show” is strictly a local operation at the moment and will be seen only on WNBT, although the network is watching it carefully and will begin feeding it to some of its other owned-and-operated stations as soon as it shows definite signs of getting itself together.
AS A RESULT of his late “live” show, WNBT’s feature pictures will be moved back on the schedule from 11:20 to midnight, immediately following Allen and his crew, with the station signing off much later than in the past, at 1 or 1:30 A.M., depending on the length of the picture.
NBC executives feel there is very little “long range future for feature pictures in prime time,” meaning the valuable 11 P.M. to midnight hour, and feel they can better attract a much better audience with a “live” variety show built around Allen and other stars.
The fact that feature pictures of quality have become more and more difficult to get in the recent past has also had considerable bearing on their decision to turn to some “live” policy, preferably of the comedy-variety type.
New, first rate and first run pictures, of course, are just about impossible to rent and who knows that better than you?

The Star Journal didn’t review the show (it critiqued Godfrey the next day), but the Brooklyn Eagle did. The continual references to Fred Allen in these stories seem superfluous unless you realise how respected Fred was amongst critics for his quickness and wit. This is from the edition of August 2, 1953.

Steve Allen’s Still Punching Away to Please the Viewer

“MIS-TER AL-LEN,” she'd call in a high, quavering voice. And he'd invariably answer, “Why Portland! What are you doing here?” As if he didn't know!
Even though Fred Allen's TV efforts have not been world-shaking to date, I've always considered NBC's well-guarded precincts to be his special province. How Steve Allen managed to crack these precincts, and come up with a five-times-weekly, 11:20 p.m. to midnight, show on Channel 4, I'll never know.
“The Steve Allen Show,” which had its premiere on WNBT last Monday night, is another attempt by this clever comic to please the viewer. That’s right. “Please the viewer.”
I've watched Steve's work closely ever since he arrived here from the West some three years ago. He had been induced to give up his disc jockey show out there by C. B. S. who offered him ordinate quantity of pelf.
Steve was given a 7-7:30 p.m. spot by CBS-TV, and in a burst of originality seldom equalled by any group of individuals, the Channel 2 producers titled the program the “Steve Allen Show.”
Steve's humor and deft handling of people was brought into national prominence one Monday night when Arthur Godfrey suddenly took off in a racing balloon, and Steve was rushed in to fill the breach on Arthur's “Talent Scouts” program.
The critics, en masse, hailed Steve as “a comer” the following day. Actually, Steve had done nothing more on “Scouts” than he had been doing for a long time, i.e., pleasing the viewers.
CBS-TV “rewarded” Allen with an afternoon program of his own because of this, which they promptly named the “Steve Allen Show.” This gave people who retired before 7 p.m. a chance to know Steve, and he got to know quite a few of them. In fact, all afternoon viewers at that time comprised only a few, so you might say that Steve knew all his viewers.
Last Summer, Allen was seen on Channel 2 on alternate Thursday nights as the star of some sparkling, big-time productions under the heading, “The Steve Allen Show.” These presentations drew high praise from the critics, enjoyed a fine Nielsen rating, and pleased the people mightily. Shortly afterward, CBS-TV failed to renew Steve's contract.
After viewing Steve's late evening efforts on WNBT this past week, I'm not too sure about anything concerning the program except its title, which is you-know-what.
Emcee Allen has surrounded himself with a group of capable jazz musicians led by Bobby Byrne, and Helene Dixon, a shapely and talented singer from Greenpoint, who sings equally well in a prone or supine position. Steve Lawrence, an 18-year-old tenor from Brooklyn's East New York section, usually warbles vertically. So, root, root, root for the home team!
The show is held together (if I'm not using that term too loosely) by Steve, who plays piano, does comedy, skits and interviews members of an almost unbelievably nondescript studio audience. It's really too much to ask of one man.
Steve is again going all out to please the viewers on this one, but he needs help. Any volunteers?

Allen needed more help than the reviewer realised. Allen recalled many years later how his first vocalist had won the audition for the show by singing three songs. But those were the only songs she knew and she was incapable of learning any others in time for the next week’s broadcasts. He appeared to be referring to Helene Dixon, even though she went on to a recording career for several labels. Weekly Variety of September 30th reported Coral Records vocalist Eydie Gorme would be joining the show, no doubt to the delight of Steve Lawrence as the two began dating. And Allen once explained how the studio WNBT found for the show was not designed for the audience interviews that made him so successful on the West Coast.

But the problems were slowly overcome. A new producer came in. Allen hired one of the two writers of the dead WABC show, Stan Burns, who would later go on to script “Get Smart,” “The Carol Burnett Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” An additional sponsor was found. The network was watching, too. Daily Variety reported on February 24, 1954 that “Tonight” would grow out of the WBNT late-nighter. On September 27, 1954, Allen’s show (despite what Variety called “multiple headaches attending station clearances”) was given a network time slot. It’s never been given back.

Next week: “Tonight” debuts


  1. NBC had given the late night time period an earlier try, with Broadway Open House, but there was nearly a two-year gap between that show's departure and the arrival of Allen's show on Ch. 4.

  2. Yeah, J.L., I left that out of the post because this show (at this point) was strictly on WNBT, though I suspect Pat Weaver was sitting on another floor waiting for the bugs to get worked out sp he could then move it (with its sponsor) onto the network.