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The Big Show
"Ninety minutes with the most scintillating personalities in the entertainment world..."
It was critic Jack Gould who paid “The Big Show” its highest compliment, backhanded as it may have been, when he described it as “good enough to make one wish he could have seen it.”
With the premiere of “The Big Show” on November 5, 1950, the National Broadcasting Company began shelling out $100,000 weekly to present a “shower of stars” on each broadcast in a last ditch effort not only to peel away listeners from the rival Columbia Broadcasting System (whose Sunday night line-up spotlighted former NBC employees Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, and Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll as “Amos ‘n’ Andy”) but to distract an audience newly-hypnotized by a “fad” called television.
The responsibility for accomplishing all this was placed squarely on the shoulders of Tallulah Bankhead, the celebrated actress of such stage hits as “Private Lives” and “The Skin of Our Teeth”. The “glamorous, unpredictable” Talloo was more than up to the challenge, having previously appeared on radio alongside Bergen & McCarthy, Eddie Cantor, and Fred Allen, in addition to dramatic performances on “The Radio Reader’s Digest” and “The Screen Director’s Playhouse.” The larger-than-life diva’s well-known persona lent itself to a veritable gold mine of jokes for the program’s writing staff, emphasizing her colossal ego, husky rasp of a voice, limited singing talent and long-running feud with Bette Davis. (Bankhead often derisively referred to Davis’ screen triumph in “All About Eve” as “All About Me”). The very notion of a star of Bankhead’s magnitude being reduced to playing a radio “mistress of ceremonies” gave way to delicious exchanges like this one with Clifton Webb:
TALLULAH: Well obviously, dahling, you don’t know very much about radio—you should become more familiar with it…
CLIFTON: I already have the contempt for it which familiarity usually breeds…
TALLULAH: Well, how can you talk about radio that way, Clifton? Do you realize that every Sunday I can reach twenty million people?
CLIFTON: How fortunate for you it’s not the reverse…
For 21st century listeners, “The Big Show’s” sharp comedy writing - described by Bankhead in her memoirs as “ersatz venom” between her and her guests - remains the program’s crowning achievement; veteran comedy writer Goodman Ace (who had enjoyed a lengthy radio career alongside his wife Jane in “Easy Aces”) supervised a talented staff of scribes that included George Foster, Morton Green, Frank Wilson, Selma Diamond, and, uncredited, Ace’s long-time pal Fred Allen. Producer-director Dee Engelbach put his personal stamp on “The Big Show” as well, and bandleader Meredith Willson brought his patented “chiffon” musical arrangements to bear with a 44-piece orchestra and 16-voice chorus. (Willson was also able to use his experience as sidekick to George Burns and Gracie Allen to play the part of Bankhead’s stooge, frequently salaaming her with “Thank you, Miss Bankhead, sir.”)
By ingeniously scheduling “The Big Show” at 6:30 p.m. on Sundays, NBC was determined to get the program off to a running start -- even to the point of paying the bills on those weeks when sponsorship was non-existent. Ultimately, it was all for naught; listeners continued to habitually tune in at 7:00 for “The Jack Benny Program” on CBS and, to add insult to injury, discovered similar goings-on via television and Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town.” The network wrote bigger and bigger checks - particularly during the second season, when it footed the bill for a lavish publicity stunt that took “The Big Show” to London and Paris - but after losing close to $1 million in the whole venture decided to ring down the curtain on the program on April 20, 1952.
In “Raised on Radio”, author Gerald Nachman observes: “If radio was to go out with a bang, there was nobody who gave audiences a better bang than Tallulah Bankhead…but it was the wrong sort of explosion.” Indeed, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and the decision to drop a bundle on a show that ultimately ended up being no match for the antics of Jack Benny and Company seems foolhardy in retrospect. But, thanks to Radio Archives, the modern-day old time radio fan can make that call for themselves by enjoying a second collection of “The Big Show,” featuring a line-up of “the biggest names in show business”: Bob Hope, Edward G. Robinson, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich and Martin & Lewis, to name but a few. (Oh…and lest we forget: “…my name, dahlings, is Tallulah Bankhead…”)
Sixth Show of the Series
Host Tallulah Bankhead teams up with Charles Boyer to present a dramatization of “The Adjuster” from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s All the Sad Young Men - which is later parodied by the unusual comedic teaming of Imogene Coca and Jimmy Durante. Talloo also attempts to rekindle old memories with guest Clifton Webb at a French restaurant. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope are heard on the Chesterfield commercials. The performers are Eddy Arnold (“The Lovebug Itch”), Charles Boyer, Joe Bushkin (performing his composition, “Portrait of Tallulah”), Mindy Carson (“A Bushel and a Peck”), Imogene Coca, Jimmy Durante (“I’m Jimmy, That Well-Dressed Man”), Clifton Webb, announcer Ed Herlihy, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus (“You Go to My Head”), and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, December 10, 1950 - 90:00 - NBC, sponsored by Ford, Anacin, Chesterfield Cigarettes, and RCA Victor
Seventh Show of the Series
Broadcasting from Los Angeles, Tallulah attempts to hold her own as she matches wits with comedians Bob Hope, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis. She also lends her dramatic talents to an excerpt from Claire Boothe Luce’s “The Women” (parodied by Hope, Martin & Lewis as “The Fellers”) alongside Deborah Kerr (a last-minute replacement for Rosalind Russell) and Dorothy McGuire. Phil Harris, whose sitcom with wife Alice Faye followed “The Big Show, on NBC, appears in a cameo, and Bing Crosby is heard on one of the Chesterfield commercials. The performers are Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (“Ain’t Misbehavin’”), Bob Hope, Deborah Kerr, Frankie Laine (“I’m Gonna Live Till I Die”), Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin (“La Vie en Rose”), Dorothy McGuire, announcer Jimmy Wallington, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus (“Orange Colored Sky”), and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, December 17, 1950 – 90:00 – NBC, sponsored by Ford, Anacin, Chesterfield Cigarettes, and RCA Victor
Eighth Show of the Series
This Christmas Eve broadcast is dedicated to the men and women of the Armed Forces, with a special message from General Jonathan Wainwright, speaking from Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. Tallulah Bankhead also enlists famed clowns Jimmy Durante, Bert Lahr and Ed Wynn to help with a Christmas party for guest Margaret O’Brien - who recites the famed “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.” The program concludes with a medley of Christmas carols. The performers are Jimmy Durante (“Christmas Comes But Once a Year”), Bert Lahr (“If I Were King of the Forest”), Robert Merrill (“Cantique de Noel”), Margaret O’Brien, Edith Piaf (“Autumn Leaves”), Fran Warren (“Look to the Rainbow”), announcer Ed Herlihy, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus (“Jing-a-Ling”) and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, December 24, 1950 – 90:00 – NBC, sponsored by Anacin and RCA Victor
Ninth Show of the Series
In addition to “ringing her chimes,” Tallulah rings in the new year by making Margaret O’Brien her protégé, declining an invite to appear on Ken Murray’s TV show, and trying to obtain tickets to the Broadway smash hit “Guys and Dolls” from stars Vivian Blaine and Sam Levene. Jose Ferrer also appears on the show, performing with co-star Gloria Swanson in an excerpt from the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur stage hit “Twentieth Century” and interpreting the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” with O’Brien. The performers are Vivian Blaine (“What is This Thing Called Love?”), Jose Ferrer, Sam Levene, Ken Murray, Margaret O’Brien, Gloria Swanson, Fran Warren (“I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues”), announcer Ed Herlihy, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus (“Iowa Fight Song”), and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, December 31, 1950 – 90:00 – NBC, sponsored by Anacin and RCA Victor
Tenth Show of the Series
Tallulah welcomes to the show Fred Allen (he’s coming back to radio…as a sponsor!) and Edward G. Robinson, who appears in a dramatization of Cornell Woolrich’s “After Dinner Story.” Tallulah also trades “dahlings” with Marlene Dietrich and Danny Thomas salutes the Old West with jokes and songs. The performers are Fred Allen, Phil Baker (who plays “Strange Interlude” on the accordion), Marlene Dietrich (“Falling in Love Again”), Portland Hoffa, Edward G. Robinson, Danny Thomas, Fran Warren (“Don’t Take Your Love From Me”), announcer Ed Herlihy, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus (“Zing Zing Zoom Zoom”), and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, January 7, 1951 – 90:00 – NBC, sponsored by Anacin and RCA Victor