Today the variety show format is nearly unknown on American television. Saturday Night Live on NBC remains the sole survivor of the format, although it has traditionally concentrated on skit comedy much more than most variety shows. There was a time when variety shows were plentiful in the prime time line ups of the networks. In fact, there was a time when some of the biggest names of entertainment had their own variety shows. Judy Garland, Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra, and many others had turns as hosts of their own variety shows. Among the most successful of them all was Dean Martin.
The Dean Martin Show debuted on NBC on September 16, 1965. While the show was often raked over the coals by critics, it proved to be a hit with viewers. Not only did The Dean Martin Show prove to be a hit in its first season, but it performed consistently well in the ratings for every season it was on. The series lasted for nine years, until May 1974. Afterwards the series had a bit of an afterlife in the form of spinoff specials entitled The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts would continue until 1984.
Dean Martin was no stranger to television or to variety shows when The Dean Martin Show debuted in 1965. In fact, with former comedy partner Jerry Lewis, he was one of the guests on the debut show of a variety series called Toast of the Town on June 20, 1948; it would later become better known as The Ed Sullivan Show. Both with and without Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin had appeared on such shows as The Jack Carter Show, The Jack Benny Programme, The Steve Allan Show, The Perry Como Show, and many others. Neither was Dean Martin a stranger to hosting variety shows. Martin and Lewis had served among the rotating hosts on The Colgate Comedy Hour from its debut on NBC on September 10, 1950 to the show's demise in 1955. In 1964 Dean Martin was the guest host of ABC's variety show The Hollywood Palace twice. It was on one of The Hollywood Palace shows which Martin hosted that The Rolling Stones made their first appearance on American television (Martin's jokes at The Stones' expense has since become the stuff of legend).
It might then seem curious to know that in 1965 Dean Martin was not particularly fond of the idea of doing a regularly scheduled television show. The reason was simply that Martin felt that a television series would prevent him from accepting offers for movies and nightclub performances. When NBC then approached Martin about the prospect of doing a variety show, he demanded terms so outrageous that he was sure the network would turn him down. Quite simply, Dean Martin demanded an exorbitantly high salary, that he be required only to show up for the actual taping of the show, and the show be taped on Sundays. Much to Martin's surprise, NBC accepted his terms.
The Dean Martin Show debuted in the fall of 1965 to a strong start. Its original format was very basic. Dean Martin and pianist Ken Lane were the series' only regulars. While Dean acted as host and sang a few songs, much of the show was filled with big name stars. It was very soon that the ratings for The Dean Martin Show began to falter. Having made a very big investment in the success of the series, NBC brought Greg Garrison in as the show's producer and director. Garrison was a television veteran who had directed such series as The Kate Smith Hour, The Milton Berle Show, and Meet Corliss Archer. In conjunction with musical director Lee Hale, Garrison set about revising the format of The Dean Martin Show. Martin's role on the show was increased, while the number of guest was decreased. Both Garrison and Hale worked hard to make Dean Martin more comfortable with the show. In fact, it was not unusual for Garrison to overbook guests should there be a need to replace them. Garrison and Hale's strategy worked. The Dean Martin Show climbed back to the top of the ratings. By 1967 the show was so successful that Dean Martin received from NBC what may have been the most lucrative contract up to that time.
From that time forward the format of The Dean Martin Show would only change a little over the years. Each show would begin with the strains of Dean Martin's 1964 hit "Everybody Loves Somebody." Dean would then enter by stumble down a flight of stairs, which was soon switched to him sliding down a fireman's pole. Dean would sing a song, tell a few jokes, and introduce his guests. For the next hour there would be more songs (if a singer was the guest on that week's show, he or she would usually perform a solo number and later a duet with Dean), skits, and chat. The Dean Martin Show did have a few regular segments. At some point in the show Dean Martin would retire to his music room, whereupon there would be a knock on The Closet door. The individual in The Closet was always a celebrity guest and most of the time Martin had no idea who would be (this was done to keep his reactions spontaneous). Among the guests who emerged from The Closet were Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Jimmy Durante, Red Skelton, Flip Wilson, and many others. The Closet was conceived when Garrison needed a means for Martin's uncle, comedian Leonard Barr, to make a surprise visit to the show. In another regular segment, drawn from Martin's nighclub act, Dean Martin would start singing a standard which would invariably end in a gag. The show generally ended with a production number with Martin's guests, often in the form of a musical sketch.
For the show Dean Martin adopted the persona he had created after he had parted ways with Jerry Lewis--that of a drunken, slightly lazy, womanising playboy. This worked well with the atmosphere of the show, which was relaxed, affable, and unpretentious. Although the show was always taped, it very much seemed like a live show. Much of this was due to the fact that Dean Martin had demanded that he be present only for the taping of the show. For only two days The Dean Martin Show would occupy Studio 4 at NBC in Burbank. Saturday would be occupied by rehearsals and blocking the camera setups, with musical director Lee Hale standing in for Martin. On Sunday the show was taped. Although Martin memorised his scripts beforehand, he most often read from cue cards. If he flubbed a line, he simply made a joke and went on. There were no retakes, so that every error Martin made when straight onto tape.
As with many variety shows of the era, The Dean Martin Show did not air in the summer. There were no reruns. As a result, over the years the production crew behind the show would produce various summer replacements which would fill the timeslot of The Dean Martin Show. In 1966 The Dean Martin Summer Show (which didn't feature Martin at all) was hosted by comedy team Rowan and Martin, who would go onto host Rowan and Martin's Laugh In. In 1967 The Dean Martin Summer Show was renamed The Dean Martin Summer Show Starring Your Host Vic Damone. It was in during the 1967-1968 that it was decided the summer show should be a salute to the Thirties. The title for the 1968 summer series was inspired by the classic Busby Berkley musical The Golddiggers of 1933--Dean Martin Presents The Golddiggers. It proved successful enough to return for the 1969 summer season. For the 1970 summer season the show was moved to England and entitled The Golddiggers in London. In 1972 the summer replacement starred Bobby Darin in Dean Martin Presents The Bobby Darin Amusement Company. For 1973 the summer replacement series focused on country music, with the title of Dean Martin Presents Music Comedy. During the 1974 summer season, the show's time slot was filled by The Dean Martin Comedy World, which featured comics from all around the world.
The Dean Martin Show only changed a little over the years, but it did change.One of the changes to the show would come about because of its most successful summer replacement series. As mentioned above, it was in during the 1967-1968 that it was decided the summer show should be a tribute to the Thirties, executed as if network television existed at the time. It was Greg Garrison who had initially thought of the Thirties motif. It was Lee Hale who thought of the name The Golddiggers for the troupe of dancers and singers who would star in the show. Garrison and Hale then hired twelve women on the basis of their talent, attractiveness, and wholesomeness who would form the troupe. The Golddiggers made their debut on The Dean Martin Show during the 1967-1968 season. In addition to their own summer replacement series, The Golddiggers continued to appear on The Dean Martin Show and even appeared on other programmes (as well as appearing in Bob Hope's USO shows). In 1970 Greg Garrison and Nathan Hale picked four of The Golddiggers to peform as The Dingaling Sisters on The Dean Martin Show. In 1971 The Golddiggers were spun off into their own weekly syndicated show, Chevrolet Presents The Golddiggers. It ran for two seasons. Afterwards The Golddiggers did not appear on The Dean Martin Show, although The Dingaling Sisters continued to appear on the show until 1973.
It was in 1970, just as The Dingaling Sisters were formed, that a regular stable of comics was developed for The Dean Martin Show to help with its skits. Among the comics who regularly appeared on the series were Charles Nelson Reilly, Dom DeLuise, Nipsey Russell, Rodney Dangerfield, and others.
As hard as it is to believe today, The Dean Martin Show was for a time controversial. As the Sixties became the Seventies, the show increasingly became the target of feminists, who felt that the series promoted attitudes which objectified women. Garrison and Hale toned down many of the more sexist comments. Unfortunately, it was about that time that the ratings began to fall.
It was then in the fall of 1973 that The Dean Martin Show moved from the Thursday night timeslot it had held for its entire history to Friday nights. It also marked a major change in its format. Retitled The Dean Martin Comedy Hour, the show now featured a nearly half hour long "roast" segment patterned after the Friar's Club roasts, in which famous celebrities were roasted. A greater emphasis was placed on skits and a new country music segment was introduced. It was to no avail. The ratings did not improve. After nine years The Dean Martin Show was coming to an end. The roast segments had proven popular enough that they would be spun off into a series of specials, The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, which would continue until 1974.
Today it is easy to take The Dean Martin Show for granted as another celebrity variety show. It must be kept in mind, however, that in 1965 Dean Martin was a major star. He had a extraordinarily successful recording career, so much so that his hit "Everybody Loves Somebody" actually knocked The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" out of the top spot on the American music charts. As an actor he had appeared in such films as Rio Bravo, Toys in the Attic, and What a Way to Go. As a both a successful movie star and recording star, Martin was then able to attract top flight talent. Many big name guests appeared on the show over the years. Cyd Charisse, Bing Crosby, Van Johnson, Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Mickey Rooney, John Wayne, and Orson Welles all appeared on the show, many of them multiple times. As might be expected, fellow Rat Packers also appeared on the show, including Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, and Angie Dickinson.
The Dean Martin Show is part of my fondest childhood memories as one of those shows my family watched regularly. It formed part of our Thursday night ritual. Dad would cook popcorn (in a skillet--this was in the days before microwave ovens were common and he apparently did not believe in Jiffy Pop) and we would settle down to watch The Dean Martin Show. While I know that much of the humour must have went over my head, I did find the show very funny as a child. And even though my tastes ran to The Beatles, The Who, and The Monkees (that much has not changed), even then I enjoyed Dean Martin's singing. He was the first crooner and the first member of the Rat Pack of whom I became a fan. I watched the show until the very end, even though I thought in the final seasons that the roasts took something away from the show has it had been.
Apparently I was not alone in my love of The Dean Martin Show. Other big stars had tried their hands at variety shows before Dean Martin. Judy Garland had made a failed attempt at a variety show. Fellow Rat Packer had tried no less than twice. Dean Martin succeeded. And it must be kept in mind that for the nine years that The Dean Martin Show aired, he continued to appear in movies and in nightclubs, and he continued to record. In the end he proved to be one of the few major stars who actually produced a lasting, classic, television, variety show.