“And Away We Go”

by John Delach

Part Two: Early Network Variety Shows

When Drew called me to ask about early television, he asked one question that brought forth a tidal wave of memories: “Grandpa, who was the one person that stands out from all others on early television?”

My instinctive reply was, “Milton Berle! Drew, he was television’s first superstar and the first to have his own TV variety show. Uncle Milty was a veteran stage comedian who gained fame entertaining mostly Jewish people on vacation in summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains that became known as the Borsch Belt.”

“Berle depended mainly on sight-gags that mostly took advantage of him. Slapstick, overdressed in drag costumes, one mimicking Britain’s Queen Victoria, insulting the audience and being the victim of pranks by the crew and fellow actors were all part of his routine. Being hit in the face with pies was common. Uncle Milty took it to a new level. If someone used the expression ‘make-up’ in a skit, within seconds, a man would appear from back-stage holding an enormous bowl of powder. He’d come right up to ‘Uncle Milty,’ take out an enormous powder puff and smash it into Milty’s face while repeating: ‘Makeup.”

“We didn’t even have a TV when I first saw the show. The hour-long show was carried on NBC each Tuesday night from 8 to 9 pm and, one night, my mother and I were invited by our next-door neighbor, Mrs. (Florence) Meyer (who also didn’t have a television set) to join her in visiting a relative who lived two blocks from our house to watch the show.”

“I remember a crowded living room, a sea of adults, a very small screen in the distance where I could make out vague black and white images. I understood that this was unique even if only because my normal bedtime was 7 pm and my mom must have thought this was important enough that I was allowed to watch it.”

  “The actual name was The Texaco Star Theatre starring Milton Berle. Texaco was the only sponsor and the show began and ended with four male chorus line actors dressed like Texaco mechanics. They began the show by walking onstage in front of a curtain. One carried a gas pump, the second, a wrench, the third, something that looked like a metal soup plate to collect oil, and the fourth, a portable jack. They broke into song. The opening lines were:

Oh, we’re the men of Texaco,

We work from Maine to Mexico,

There’s nothing like the Texaco of ours…

Uncle Milty ran from 1948 until 1956 and his show was but the first nugget from a gold mine of variety shows that owned TV in the 1950s.

Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town soon followed on CBS. His 60-minute variety show aired from 8pm to 9 pm on Sunday nights. Sullivan was a former gossip columnist for the Daily News who had been writing a popular column entitled: Little Ole New York, since 1932. He seemed to know everybody who was anybody in New York.

One of the features of his show was Sullivan calling out members of his studio audience who had recently accomplished something extraordinary.  Pre-planned, he would seem to be searching for that individual. Once he spotted them, he’d announce, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are honored to have (for example) John Glenn in the house tonight. Commander Glenn has just broken the speed record flying his US Navy fighter jet from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours, 23 minutes and 8.4 seconds at a speed of 725.55 mph. Stand up Commander Glenn and give him a hand”

Comedian Alan King, a frequent guest summed up Sullivan’s talents: “Ed Sullivan can’t sing, can’t dance and can’t tell a joke, but he does it better than anyone else.”

Other shows joined Berle and Sullivan. Croner, Perry Como starred in the Perry Como Chesterfield Show, a 15-minute presentation that ran three nights a week beginning in 1950.

Arthur Godfrey switched from radio to TV in 1949. His most memorable incident was when he fired his singing sensation, Julius LaRosa, an act of anger that hurt both of their careers.

Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows had a relatively short life (1950 to 1954) and is best remembered for its brilliant writers that included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Selma Diamond and Carl Reiner.

Jackie Gleason’s Cavalcade of Stars debuted in 1949 on the DuMont network before jumping to NBC the following year. Gleason would begin each show with an opening monologue and then transition to one of his set pieces with the line:

  • And away we go!

These pieces included, Joe the Bartender, The Poor Soul, Crazy Guggenheim, Reggie Van Gleason and the Honeymooners. By 1955, Gleason wanted to move on so he ended his variety show and spun off The Honeymooners as a half-hour situation comedy.

Gleason played Ralph Kramden, a city bus driver who lived with his wife, Alice in a walk-up Brooklyn pre-WW II apartment. Audrey Meadows played Alice on the big show and the comedy series. Art Carney, played their neighbor, Ed Norton, and, Joyce Randolph, played his wife, Thelma, “Trixie” Norton. Ed worked for the NYC Department of Sewers. The show’s staging was set in the Kramden’s kitchen.

Ralph Kramden had a line that was nothing less than a threat of wife-beating that was acceptable in those days: “One of these days, Alice, pow to the moon.”

Considered a classic situation comedy, the actual show that premiered in 1956 didn’t receive good ratings and only lasted 39 episodes.

The era of variety shows continued for several decades and included ones like The Steve Allen Show, The Carol Burnett Show, Laurence Welk, The Smother Brothers Show, In Living Color, Hee-Haw and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

Today, reality shows like Survivor, various versions of Real Housewives, America’s Got Talent, Dancing with the Stars, The Bachelor and American Idol fill the airwaves. Thanks anyway, I’ll take a pie in the face or “Make-up” instead any day of the week.