Saturday, January 16, 2010

Broadway Open House: American Television's First Late Night Network Show

If the current controversy regarding The Tonight Show has done anything, it has reminded people of its long history. Most people know that the show dates back to 1954. What many people may not know is that it was not the first late night show on American television. That honour would instead go to Broadway Open House, which debuted a full four years before The Tonight Show.

Broadway Open House was the brainchild of legendary programmer Sylvester "Pat" Weaver (brother to comic Doodles Weaver and father of actress Sigourney Weaver), who would also create Our Show of Shows, The Today Show, and The Tonight Show, not to mention invented the very concept of the special. In 1950 the networks were expanding their programming, particularly then number one network NBC. By that year NBC had already filled nearly every available slot in primetime. It was Pat Weaver who realised that late night might be a possible time that NBC could schedule programming. After all, already by 1950 people's viewing habits with regards to television was very different form their listening habits with regards to radio. In the days of Old Time Radio most people would listen to their favourite programmes from 7:00 PM Eastern to 10:00 PM Eastern, then shut their radio off. They approached television very differently, however, not turning the set on until 8:00 PM Eastern and then watching it until they went to bed. Because of this Weaver realised that audiences may be willing to stay up a little bit longer to watch television.

The result of this was Broadway Open House, a comedy variety show that would air weeknights at 11:30. Sadly, the first late night programme on television would not get off to a smooth start. After a talent search, NBC hired young Los Angeles comedian Don "Creesh" Hornsby (his nickname came from a nonsense syllable he would shout during performances) to host the show. Unfortunately, Hornsby died of polio only shortly before the show was set to premiere. NBC moved the debut of Broadway Open House from May 22, 1950 to May 27, 1950, then filled Hornsby's place with such guest hosts as Pat Harrington, Martin and Lewis, and Tex and Jinx. In June NBC hired two new hosts for the show. Morey Amsterdam would host Broadway Open House on Mondays and Wednesdays. Jerry Lester would host the show on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

Vaudevillian Morey Amsterdam was not only a veteran of nightclubs and radio (he had his own show on CBS), but of television as well. He was one of the men who hosted Texaco Star Theatre before Milton Berle was chosen as its permanent host. From 1948 to 1950 he was the star of his own show, The Morey Amsterdam Show, first on CBS and then on DuMont. He was so well known for his wit and his ability to come up with a joke on the spot that he was called "The Human Joke Machine." Jerry Lester was a comedian and song and dance man, a veteran of both the burlesque and Broadway. He had even appeared in movies as early as 1933. On television he had been the host of DuMont's revolutionary variety show Cavalcade of Stars. His appearance on Tex and Jinx's talk show on NBC resulted in an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the audience. As a result, Pat Weaver offered him a spot on Broadway Open House.

While it was the first late night show, Broadway Open House was not one quite as we know them today. Although stars did sometimes stop by for informal chats, the programme was not a talk show in any sense of the word. Instead it played more like a comedy revue straight out of vaudeville, with stand up routines, skits, and the sort of off colour humour that would be found in later late night shows. Like later late night shows, Broadway Open House had its own troupe of regulars, including choreographer Ray Malone, bandleader Milton Delugg (later musical director at NBC), and singer Joan Lorry. It would be Jerry Lester's addition of another member to the cast that would be his undoing. Lester hired statuesque actress and model Jennie Lewis for the show and renamed her "Dagmar ( a reference to the youngest daughter on the then popular show Mama)." In addition to her modelling career, she appeared in Olsen and Johnson's Broadway revue Laffing Room Only and the Broadway comedy Burlesque.

As Dagmar, Lewis's role was to have been simple. Given no script whatsoever, she was told to simply to wear low cut gowns, sit on a stool and act the part of the stereotypical dumb blonde. As it turned out, however, Dagmar was no dumb blonde. She had a razor sharp wit with a gift for ad libs, non sequiturs, and malapropisms, delivered with a pleasant Southern drawl. Among her earliest bits was to read nonsensical poetry in a deadpan voice (much as Henry Gibson would later do on Laugh In). Soon she was bantering with Lester and appearing in the skits on the show. It was not long before Dagmar was easily the most popular cast member on Broadway Open House. At the height of her popularity she received around 8000 fan letters a month, over half of them from women. She made guest appearances on What's My Line, The Colgate Comedy Hour, and The Jack Carter Show. She even appeared on the cover of the July 16, 1950 issue of Life magazine.

The addition of Dagmar would not be the only change in the cast in Broadway Open House's run. It was after several weeks that NBC gave Morey Amsterdam his walking papers and made Jerry Lester the sole host of the show. While Amsterdam was quite good as the show's host, it was ultimately Jerry Lester who proved the more popular of the two. A veteran of the burlesque, Lester had an offbeat brand of frantic humour that blended one liners, catch phrases, in-jokes, and innuendos. Although he had proven the more popular of the show's early hosts, Lester did have his share of detractors. One of his critics labelled him a "bean bag." Lester took the insult and ran with it. He often opened the show with the line, "Just call me 'Bean Bag,'" and even formed the non-existent Bean Bag Club of America. He soon had 70,000 people wanting to join.Viewers sent him bean bags in all shapes and sizes.

For its time Broadway Open House proved to be a very popular show. As many as two thirds of television viewers in New York City reported watching the programme. The show received coverage in venues ranging from Time to The New York Times. Both Jerry Lester and Dagmar became household names at the time.

Unfortunately, Broadway Open House would see the first power struggle over who should be the star of a late night show, fifty years before David Letterman and Jay Leno competed for the place as Johnny Carson's replacement on The Tonight Show and sixty years before NBC's current late night controversy. Jerry Lester began to resent the enormous amount of coverage Dagmar received and, as a result, her growing role on the show. He even went so far as to hire another tall blonde, Barbara Nichols (whom he dubbed "Agathon"), in an effort to undercut Dagmar's popularity. At last, Jerry Lester asked NBC to fire Dagmar. Given her extreme popularity, NBC refused. Jerry Lester then walked out on the show.

In the wake of Lester's departure, NBC cut Broadway Open House back to Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Comic Jack E. Leonard was hired as its new host. Not only was Leonard a veteran of nightclubs and radio, but television as well. He had already appeared on The Colgate Comedy Hour. Years before Don Rickles, Jack E. Leonard was the original insult comic. He often began performances with the words, "Good evening, opponents!"

In the end, however, Broadway Open House would not last. The show ended its run on August 24, 1951, after which NBC handed the late night hours back to their affiliates. It does not appear that the changes in its hosts had anything to do with the show's failure, but instead the state of television in the United States at the time. In 1950 there was still a very small percentage of Americans who owned television sets. Only the largest cities in the country (New York, Chicago, Los Angles, Cleveland, St. Louis, and so on) had television stations, and some of those were not yet served by a full time NBC affiliate. To some NBC executives it may have seemed that the country simply did not have enough viewers at 11:30 PM Eastern to make a late night show worthwhile.

Regardless, Broadway Open House would leave its mark. Morey Amsterdam, who left the show before it really became a hit, would continue to have a very successful career. He continued to appear regularly in television shows and movies up until his death, and achieved immortality as Buddy Sorrell on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Dagmar received her own show, Dagmar's Canteen, in 1952. She continued to appear on shows from Texaco Star Theatre to The Mike Douglas Show well into the Sixties. She also continued to appear in nightclubs, before eventually retiring from show business. Although Dagmar is largely forgotten today, she would have a lasting impact on American English. The artillery shell shaped bulges on the bumpers of  Fifties era Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Buicks became known as "Dagmar bumpers" or more simply "Dagmars," named for Dagmar's assets. It is a name by which they are known to this day. During the Korean War a 40 mm self-propelled anti-aircraft tank was even informally called "Dagmar's Twin 40's." Jack E. Leonard continued to have after hosting Broadway Open House for two months. From the Fifties into the Sixties he appeared regularly on television, on shows from The Steve Allen Show to The Ed Sullivan Show. He often appeared on Tonight Starring Jack Paar and a few times when Johnny Carson hosted the show. His career was still going strong when he died of complications form diabetes in 1973. As to Jerry Lester, he may have erred in leaving Broadway Open House. He never again reached that height of stardom. He continued to appear on stage and appeared infrequently on television in guest shots on such shows as The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. and The Monkees,  and had his own short lived show (The Jerry Lester Show) in Canada in 1963. He appeared in small roles in movies ranging from Li'l Abner to Smokey and the Bandit II. In the end, he would be remembered chiefly for the job on which he walked out, as host of Broadway Open House.

Although it lasted only a little over a year, Broadway Open House would have a lasting impact. It had proven that there could be an audience for late night, network programming. Indeed, Pat Weaver had not given up on that idea. It was in 1953 that Steve Allen launched a late night talk and variety show on WNBT (now WNBC). Both the show and its host proved immensely popular. This did not escape the notice of Weaver, who developed the format of Steve Allen's late night show for network broadcast. On September 27, 1954, Tonight debuted. It has aired on NBC ever since.

While it lasted only a little over a year and is largely forgotten today, Broadway Open House would have a lasting impact on television. It proved that late night, network programming was viable, thus paving the way not only for The Tonight Show, but every other late night show that has aired ever since.While late night network programming may well have been developed had Broadway Open House been an utter failure, it seems quite likely that it would have been much later than it had been. Indeed, The Tonight Show may never have existed, perhaps robbing us of the talents of such comics as Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Conan O'Brien. If Broadway Open House had failed, the history of television might have unfolded very differently.

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