Tallulah Bankhead might seem the least likely of such catalysts. But in 1950-51 the stage diva becomes the out-of-the-left-field-bullpen choice to spearhead what would come to be known as NBC’s most desperate bid to try cleaning up the damage done the network after Jack Benny and Bergen & McCarthy (who moved on Benny’s suggestion) defected to CBS.
Those defections put a big dent into NBC’s former Sunday night dominance, and the network decided to put a big kick into the evening in a bid to flatten CBS’s new Sunday power. As if to show they meant business, NBC put no less than its soon-to-be-legendary television president Sylvester (Pat) Weaver in charge of NBC’s radio programming.
Weaver sought to retrieve control from the advertising agencies; his forthcoming brainchild would have three sponsors. He also decided to take television’s burgeoning, vaudeville-inspired, in-your-face variety style (in Gerald Nachman’s locutions), by the gonads and hit back with a modernised version of radio’s earliest exercises as vaudeville on the air. Sort of.
The very concept of The Big Show was risky enough, even if the show did feature the absolute cream of radio, film, television, and musical talent. (Fred Allen, for one, forced to retirement as a full-time radio host, will appear so often he’ll seem like an unofficial co-host.) And, one of the most sterling (and expensive) writing staffs in radio: Goodman Ace (Easy Aces) headed a staff of Selma Diamond (an Ace protege), Mort Greene, George Foster, Frank Wilson, and (for his own Big Show appearances) Fred Allen.
To hear many observers of the time phrase it, putting a woman up front to host such a blowout might have been risky enough in 1950, but putting Tallulah Bankhead in that slot was either inspired or desperate, depending upon the view.
Almost nothing in Bankhead’s past suggested she had any inclination toward radio, and indeed she had a somewhat mercenary reason for taking it on: she needed the money, almost desperately. “I succumbed . . . only when poverty-stricken,” the formidable but then struggling stage actress would admit in due course. At the same time, Nachman would observe, “she was flattered to be asked to take on such a massive enterprise, which was meant to blow TW out of its fairly shallow water.”
It was, as she noted, “a lofty project” but “a little frightening.” At first, when she felt they were merely using her as an MC to announce the acts, she tried to back out. “Was I to be the sacrificial lamb, mute and disgraced, while the comedians and the singers had a field day?” she wondered. The producers were more alarmed when the great lady walked through rehearsals without any spark, but the first show proved everyone wrong. In her usual style, Tallulah surprised everyone, mostly herself.
That’s a polite way to put it. The great lady herself wouldn’t exactly be that polite when remembering what happened after the first Big Show aired in November 1950:
Guess what happened? Your heroine emerged from the fracas as the Queen of the Kilocycles. Authorities cried out that Tallulah had redeemed radio. In shepherding my charges through The Big Show, said the critics, I had snatched radio out of the grave. The autopsy was delayed.
Your heroine wasn’t exactly wrong . . . about the critics. Perhaps few were as effusive as the redoubtable John Crosby of the New York Herald-Tribune, whose passion for radio was equal only to his dismay in having all but written the medium off by the time The Big Show unfurled:
It was in practically every respect a perfectly wonderful show—witty, tuneful, surprisingly sophisticated and brilliantly put together . . . presided over and more or less blanketed by that extraordinarily vibrant lady known as Tallu . . . one of the fastest and funniest ninety minutes in my memory . . . The passages between her and her guests were happily lacking in that overwhelming mutual esteem which marks the pleasantries between most MCs and guests.
The Big Show‘s premiere was a hit with the critics but a disappointment in the ratings. The 5 November 1950 premiere pulled down a 5.7 Neilsen rating—not necessarily a burial but not quite what Weaver and NBC had in mind, especially considering the network was spending $100,000 per installment. A month later it will hit its ratings peak of 8.0, but it will finish its first season with a 5.5 average.
Big, splashy, sophisticated, and prestigious it might be, but The Big Show proves no match for the unstoppable Jack Benny and Our Miss Brooks on CBS, Drew Pearson’s news commentaries on ABC, or Mutual’s Roy Rogers Show and Nick Carter, Master Detective.
The following season’s 5.2 rating average will mean the end for the show and, in a way, the very concept of radio as a variety outlet. Perhaps no one would sum The Big Show‘s dilemna up better, if more cruelly, than The New York Times‘s media critic Jack Gould: it was “good enough to make one wish he could have seen it.”
Or, as spring training looms, play a little friendly husband-and-wife rivalry between (it depends on a) your point of view; or, b) whether you are a Brooklyn Dodgers fan) a famous/infamous manager and his tart spouse (Leo Durocher, then manager of the rival New York Giants, and actress Laraine Day, then his real-life wife). Which must prove a kind of orgasm for Bankhead: she’s a lifetime baseball nut and a devoted New York Giants fan.
Otherwise, enjoy Fred Allen, Bob Cummings, Jimmy Durante, Portland Hoffa (Mrs. Allen, of course), Judy Holliday (in an engaging scene from her film hit Born Yesterday), Frankie Laine, and Jane Pickens.
Hostess: Tallulah Bankhead. Announcer: Ed Herlihy. Music: Meredith Willson, the Big Show Orchestra and Chorus. Writers: Goodman Ace, Fred Allen, Selma Diamond, Mort Greene, George Foster, Frank Wilson.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
The Couple Next Door: The Jewelry Store Robbers (CBS, 1958)—Peg Lynch, Alan Bunce. The police are on the phone with disturbing news that perplexes half the Arbuckles, who may have heard what turned out to be a robber in his office building, while unnerving the other half.
Boston Blackie: Blackie Loves Helen (Syndicated, 1948)—Richard Kollmar, Jan Minor, Maurice Tarplin. Mary finds out the hard way but doesn’t think it’s the real thing—with good reason, considering for whom Helen Carver works and what she really wants from Blackie.