The Big Show
"You're about to be entertained by some of the biggest names in show business..."
November 5, 1950 saw the debut of what many observers at that time considered radio's "last gasp": "The Big Show" - "ninety minutes with the most scintillating personalities in the entertainment world." The National Broadcasting Company mounted the expensive, star-studded extravaganza in an effort to reclaim its former dominance on Sunday nights, decimated by both television's rising popularity and the success of rival CBS in peeling off much of NBC's former talent in the Tiffany network's legendary "talent raids."
With a price tag of nearly $100,000 ($837,000 in 2006 dollars) per broadcast, "The Big Show" presented a weekly mixture of comedy, drama, and music from such guest stars as Jimmy Durante, Ethel Merman, Danny Thomas, Groucho Marx, Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, Judy Holliday, and Fred Allen - the latter graduating to semi-regular/contributing writer status. In fact, each program found the guests introducing themselves by name; the introductions completed with a husky voice intoning "...and my name, dahlings, is Tallulah Bankhead." Bankhead, a celebrated stage veteran renowned for her work in plays like "The Little Foxes" and "The Skin of Our Teeth," served as the show's mistress of ceremonies - proving to be both an apt foil for the program's guests and a self-deprecating good sport for an endless series of "rivalry-with-Bette-Davis" jokes. In explaining her motivation for agreeing to host a weekly radio series, she told Newsweek Magazine "I have to live in the style, dahling, to which I'm really accustomed." The "glamorous, unpredictable" Talloo also added two memorable trademarks to the "Big Show" proceedings: announcing the network's half-hour I.D. as an opportunity to "ring my chimes" and leading the show's guest roster in a rendition of "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You" at each program's close.
The music for "The Big Show" was supervised by maestro Meredith Willson, who not only oversaw the program's 44-piece orchestra and 16-voice chorus but cheerfully played the part of Bankhead's stooge ("Thank you, Miss Bankhead, sir."). The announcing chores were handled by old pros Jimmy Wallington and Ed Herlihy, and the production-direction was by Devere Joseph (Dee) Englebach, a radio veteran whose credits included "The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street" and "The Hallmark Hall of Fame." The jewel in the crown of "The Big Show" was indisputably the fine, polished writing - supervised by "ace" comedy scribe Goodman Ace (of "Easy Aces" fame) and staffed with the likes of George Foster, Morton Green, Frank Wilson and Selma Diamond.
During its original radio run, "The Big Show" received glowing reviews in the press; author Jim Cox quotes one critic as calling it "a perfectly wonderful show - witty, tuneful, surprisingly sophisticated and brilliantly put together...one of the fastest and funniest ninety minutes in memory." But back then - as it is now - the public had the final say, and even though NBC scheduled the program in a time slot so as not to interfere with the television audience (estimated at about 8,000,000 viewers) it was difficult for "The Big Show" to make a dent in the ratings, being regularly trounced by "The Jack Benny Program" on CBS. In the fall of 1951, the program valiantly attempted to goose its numbers with a lavish publicity stunt that found the cast jetting off to Europe to do broadcasts from London and Paris. Struggling with a monstrously expensive budget and a lack of sponsors to compensate for same, "The Big Show" limped through its second and final season, finally throwing in the towel on April 20, 1952. It was estimated that NBC ultimately lost nearly one million dollars on its ill-fated venture.
"The Big Show" has long been considered one of radio's biggest financial failures but, listening to the program through 21st Century ears, the show will surprise many a radio fan; the program's writing remains top-notch, the performers are at the peak of their craft, and the music remains sprightly and entertaining as ever. What makes "The Big Show" mind-boggling is that it seems inconceivable that a program of its scope could be put across today. Of course, many thought it impossible back then, but host Tallulah Bankhead reassured listeners that "all it takes is courage, vision...and a king-sized bundle of dough." And with that, Radio Archives invites you to listen to a courageous, visionary - and yes, expensive - program from Radio's Golden Age; five celebrity-packed shows that, thanks to expert transfers and complete audio restoration, make a battered-and-bruised contender sound like a genuine champ.
Twenty-First Show of the Series
The show is rehearsed at Tallulah’s, who demands to know why Jimmy Durante stood her up at the Easter parade. Judy Holliday reminisces about a pleasure cruise (and sings a wonderfully wacky “I Went to Havana”) and later teams up with Jimmy to parody “Anne of the Thousand Days,” which is first played straight by Rex Harrison and wife Lilli Palmer. Don Cornell, Meredith Willson and Tallulah also introduce Willson’s composition, “It’s Easter Time.” Bing Crosby and Bob Hope are heard on the Chesterfield commercial. The performers are Don Cornell (“My Inspiration”), Jimmy Durante (who, with partner Eddie Jackson, sings a rousing if entirely un-P.C. “Rufus Rastas Johnson Brown”), Rex Harrison, Judy Holliday, Jackie Miles, Carmen Miranda (“Mama Yo Quiero”), Lilli Palmer, announcer Ed Herlihy, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus (“Hullabaloo”) and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, March 25, 1951 - 90:00 - NBC, sponsored by Anacin, Chesterfield and RCA Victor
Twenty-Second Show of the Series
From Hollywood, comedian Bob Hope not only delivers the Chesterfield commercial but discusses making a movie with Tallulah (“My Favorite Baritone”) and duets with her on “Put It There, Pal.” Groucho Marx matches wits with Tallulah again, but his barbs are softballs compared to the repartee between Tallulah and Ethel Barrymore, who recites “The West Wind” to the accompaniment of music written by her brother Lionel! Also heard on the program: Van Johnson recreates his role from “Go for Broke” (along with supporting players Henry Nakamura and Lane Nakana) and the cast congratulates Judy Holliday for her Oscar-winning turn in “Born Yesterday.” The performers are Ethel Barrymore, Joan Davis (who sings “Calypso” with the trio of Hope, Johnson and Pinza), Bob Hope, Van Johnson (who sings “Pennies From Heaven” with interruptions from Hope), Groucho Marx, Ezio Pinza (who performs an aria from “The Marriage of Figaro”), announcer Jimmy Wallington, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, April 1, 1951 - 90:00 - NBC, sponsored by Anacin, Chesterfield and RCA Victor
Twenty-Fourth Show of the Series
A baseball-themed show featured Tallulah being given advice on the sport by Tommy Hendrick and Talloo reading an interpretation of “Casey at the Bat”…with Jack Carson and Martha Raye appearing in a sketch that attempts to explain what happened to Casey later that night. Also, Eddie Cantor as “Maxie the Taxi” converses with Tallulah en route to the ballgame, Phil Foster does a monologue about the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Olivia de Havilland and Evelyn Varden perform a scene from “Romeo & Juliet”. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope are heard on the Chesterfield commercial. The performers are Eddy Arnold (“Kentucky Waltz”), Eddie Cantor, Jack Carson, Olivia de Havilland, Phil Foster, Tommy Hendrick, Martha Raye (“That Old Black Magic”), Evelyn Varden, announcer Ed Herlihy, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot") and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, April 15, 1951 - 90:00 - NBC, sponsored by Anacin, Chesterfield and RCA Victor
Twenty-Fifth Show of the Series
Tallulah gets romantic advice from Joan Davis and Judy Holliday while Fred Allen tells his hostess of a dream he had in which Talloo marries Dennis King (with the show’s cast at the wedding). Herb Shriner does a monologue about his hometown and Tallulah closes the program by reading a tribute to America as written by Walt Whitman. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope are heard on the Chesterfield commercial. The performers are Fred Allen, Joan Davis, Portland Hoffa, Judy Holliday, Dennis King (who performs an excerpt from George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple” with Martin Blaine and Horace Braham), Lisa Kirk ("I Feel a Song Coming On"), Herb Shriner, Fran Warren (“Here Comes the Springtime”), announcer Ed Herlihy, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus ("Any Town is Paris When You’re Young,” “Reflections in the Water") and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, April 22, 1951 - 90:00 - NBC, sponsored by Anacin, Chesterfield and RCA Victor
Twenty-Sixth Show of the Series
Tallulah has made a pledge to herself to be nicer when dealing with the show’s guests, but this doesn’t last long once her feud with Ethel Merman re-ignites and Milton Berle puts in his two cents worth. Frank Lovejoy performs a scene from his picture “I Was a Communist for the FBI” (the real Matt Cvetic stops by to make an anti-Commie speech), Gordon MacRae recalls his days as an NBC page, and the cast salutes the show’s bandleader, Meredith Willson, with a medley of his songs. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope are heard on the Chesterfield commercial. The performers are Milton Berle, Rosemary Clooney (“Taking a Chance on Love”), Jimmy Durante ("I’m Durante, the Patron of the Arts"), Frank Lovejoy, Gordon MacRae ("Begin the Beguine"), Ethel Merman (“There’s No Business Like Show Business”), announcer Ed Herlihy, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus ("Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho") and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, April 29, 1951 - 90:00 - NBC, sponsored by Anacin, Chesterfield, RCA Victor and Canon Towels