Wednesday 26 June 2019

TV Tallu

You’re NBC. You’re paying a star on radio a large amount of money for a big show. In fact, “The Big Show.” But ad revenues are down because sponsors are moving to television.

What do you do? You put the star on television after a big publicity build-up.

Such was the circumstance under which Tallulah Bankhead made her TV debut.

The “glamourous, unpredictable” Bankhead had been hired by the network in 1950 to front a 90-minute radio variety show featuring big names, ostensibly to show listeners and ad agencies there was still life left in the old medium. NBC took it off the air after two seasons and a lot of red ink.

But maybe the problem was radio. The network decided to put her on television. And the timing was perfect. Bankhead’s controversial autobiography had just been released, raising her profile even more.

So it was that Bankhead debuted on “All-Star Revue” opposite Jackie Gleason on CBS on October 11, 1952. That same day, a small newspaper syndicate published a column about it. Bankhead’s opening routine that evening would be a critics satire co-starring Groucho Marx and Ethel Barrymore (hardly noted for her comedy). The syndicate decided to satirise the satire. The material is about at par with what I’ve seen from a transcription of the broadcast.
The Once Over

(Released by The Associated Newspapers)
Tallulah Meets The Critics
("Tallulah Bankhead is opening her first video program with a sketch in which, with Groucho Marx and Ethel Barrymore, she burlesques the "Arthur Meets the Critic' program."
News item)
Tallulah.—Well, Groucho, you read my book, of course.
Groucho.—Yes, I enjoyed every chapter of "Crusade in Europe."
Tallulah.—That's the wrong book.
Groucho.—Oh, I remember now, you wrote that new one, "Giant," with Edna Ferber.
Tallulah.—Buster, when I write about Giants they're plural and the scene is the Polo Grounds, not Texas. The title of my book was "Tallulah."
Groucho.—I wish I could make the questions that tough on my program.
Tallulah.—What part did you enjoy most?
Groucho.—I liked the part where the big fish towed you four days and nights and the sharks stripped It to the bones by the time you got back to Havana.
Tallulah.—That was Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."
Groucho.—My mistake. You're the author of "Tallulah the Old Girl of NBC." I read your other story, "Blood, Sweat and Tears."
Tallulah.—That was just the chapter in which I told of my row with Lillian Hellman and my experiences with Billy Rose, Leland Hayward, Louis B. Mayer and Somerset Maugham. Do you think my book has suspense and drama?
Groucho.—Yes. I think it falls somewhere between "Kon Tiki" and "Gone With the Wind."
Tallulah.—In my book I do not fight the Civil War all over again or cross the ocean on a raft.
Groucho.—Some of the people you wallop in that yarn will feel as if they had been through both experiences.
Tallulah.—Tell me, Groucho, has it a chance to be chosen the Book of the Month?
Groucho.—Only if the jury is spiked with Southerners, baby.
Tallulah.—Mr. Marx having indorsed (what am I saying?) my book, I turn to you, Miss Barrymore, for unfavorable criticism. Did you read it?
Ethel.—No, but I thought it wonderful.
Tallulah.—How could you enjoy it if you never read it?
Ethel.—That's the only way I could like it.
Tallulah.—What was your chief impression?
Ethel.—I thought it a little shocking in its candor.
Tallulah.—What did you expect, "Herbert Hoover's Memoirs"?
Tallulah.—Sum up, Ethel.
Ethel.—I would say few authors have told so much about so many for so much. But it will leave your public pretty sore. You confess to being in love with only two men, one of whom is dead. The other, who is still alive, you keep secret.
Tallulah.—Maybe I should boost sales by identifying the man now and end the guessing.
Groucho.—Not here, sister. Save it for my quiz show, "You Bet Your Life." Give the answer there and you can win a $2,750 jackpot!
Ethel.—And remember, Tallulah, NO PROMPTING!
Being a child of Broadway, Tallu naturally did what anyone on Broadway would do on opening night—go to a restaurant for a party and await the early newspaper reviews. This syndicated story appeared on October 15th.
Tallulah Goes to Rescue Of Big Show in Her Honor
NEW YORK, Oct. 15.—Tallulah shouted "Quiet!" in a southern accent that should have been heard clear back home in Alabama.
A few seconds before the microphone was dying and Sid Ceasar's [sic] master-of-ceremonies routine was falling flat on its face. For one, horrible moment it had looked as if the private "Little Big Show"—a magnificent $1 million worth of talent set to perform for the guest of honor—was going to do exactly the same thing.
Then, when the imperious "Quiet!" startled everyone into attention, Tallulah signaled singer Johnny Johnston. Johnny inched his way through a Pen and Pencil restaurant so jam-packed with celebrities you could scarcely tell Van Heflin from Eva Gabor. As comedian Ceasar walked away with an "I've had it" gesture, Johnny joined Tallulah at the mike.
Old Song
"Let's everybody sing . . . 'Harvest Moon,' Johnny said.
He and Tallulah gave with the first chords. And everybody followed.
It was the gol-darndest community sing ever staged, with Dorothy King and D. Sarnoff, Vivian (Guys and Dolls) Blaine, Cobina Wright Sr., Don Ameche, Eddie Arcaro and Beatrice Lillie just few of the members of the star-spangled chorus.
Thus was New York's gayest and most glittering party in many a moon climaxed.
The affair feted Tallulah. The reason was fourfold. It began at midnight, celebrating Tallulah's television debut of a few hours before. It was a "Ta Ta Talloo, saying goodbye to the inimitable Alabaman who goes to Hollywood for her part in the movie, "Broadway to Hollywood." It inaugurated host John Bruno's new policy of maintaining late hours for show folk and show-goers. And it was an excellent excuse for some 200 lucky friends of Tallulah's to have the time of their lives.
Wears Low-Cut Gown
Tallulah, wearing a low cut black velvet gown, entered regally to hold court at a table set against a backdrop of covers from her new book. Cass Canfield, head of Harpers Publishing Co; comedian Reginald Gardiner; Celebrity Service President Earl Blackwell; harried Publicist Michael O'Shea (who had everything from cops to autograph hounds outside to uninvited guests inside to worry about) were her table-mates . .. for a relatively quiet 10 minutes. Then the singing started.
The guests sang everything that came into Johnny's or Tallulah's minds. Then the two rambled the room, singing "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You."
The "Little Big Show" ended with a warm, Christmas-Eve-ish sort of feeling . . . with most of those who'd been slightly startled at "Silent Night" being included in the repertoire deciding maybe it was a fair idea after all.
NBC had a mild disaster on its hands. The show was kinescoped for the West Coast to be broadcast a week later. But some columnists in the West complained that the huge NBC hype machine caused their editors to leave space open for reviews on opening night, so they had to see the show right away. In 1952, that wasn’t so easy. After some frantic calls to 50 Rockefeller Plaza, a special closed-circuit line was opened so critics could see the show in a Los Angeles restaurant as it happened.

Perhaps that was a bad idea. Critics had mixed opinions. All of them didn’t seem to like the writing, some felt Tallulah rose above it. That’s not the best way for a network to start an expensive, promising show. On March 17, 1953, Variety reported Gleason outdrew Bankhead almost 2 to 1 on her final starring show of the season three days earlier, despite a change in writers (Neil and Danny Simon were now putting words in her mouth). It appears everyone had enough. Bankhead decided she’d go to Vegas where she could let loose far more than on television, and NBC announced on April 1, 1953 she would appear in a sitcom next fall. Bankhead and the other rotating stars joined together for a last broadcast on April 18th. All-Star Revue was cancelled by month’s end.

It turned out NBC had no plans for her. She appeared periodically on talk shows and, famously, as the Black Widow on Batman a couple of years before her death. In a way, she was another radio star who didn’t make the transition to television but she really didn’t fit either medium. The stage was her real home.


  1. Whenever I walk around the square of the old Downtown Huntsville, there's an old two story drugstore that still exists. I'm told by the remaining seniors who are in the know, that Tallulah was born on the second floor. Interesting. Loved the line John Hodiak yells at her after they have been at sea for many days in " Life Boat ". She kind of caresses him and he says: " QUIT SLUMMING !".

  2. And of course the tunnel under Mobile Bay named after her daddy... now closed to cars.