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The Big Show
"...we're going to fill your parlor full of stars..."
In retrospect, a decision to pony up $100,000.00 a week into a ninety-minute radio extravaganza would seem the height of lunacy - even more so when presented with the evidence that the medium known as radio was only a few years away from folding up its tent and relinquishing its position as the nation's number-one form of home entertainment to its hated rival, television. But we should give credit where credit is due: this event was far off into the future, and it's a testament to those individuals who were convinced that radio was still a viable "player"...even though they would lose an estimated $1 million dollars on this ill-fated venture.
The extravaganza in question was "The Big Show," a splashy, star-studded variety offering that premiered on November 5. 1950 and was concocted by the National Broadcasting Company as a last-gasp, final-roll-of-the-dice effort to compete with rival CBS' formidable Sunday night lineup of "The Jack Benny Show," "Amos 'n' Andy" and "The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show." All three of these popular programs had once been mainstays on NBC, but were now ensconced at CBS, which had lately begun calling itself 'The Stars' Address'. Undaunted, NBC was determined to call on its still-impressive stable of stars to stop the Tiffany Network's Sunday night juggernaut...and thus, "The Big Show" was born.
In the twenty-first century, we're now blessed with devices like Tivo to assist us when confronted with the dilemma of having both of our favorite shows on at the same time. Not so in 1950; listeners had to choose between a celebrity cocktail party and Jack Benny...and longtime fans habitually went with radio's beloved skinflint. Fortunately, surviving "Big Show" broadcasts demonstrate that Benny's audience was missing out on a truly unique listening experience.
Jimmy Durante...Ethel Merman...Danny Thomas...Groucho Marx...Fanny Brice...Bob Hope...Eddie Cantor...Rudy Vallee...Judy Garland...these are but a few of the stars that visited "The Big Show" weekly (and, in the case of some, made repeat appearances), where they were "meeted and greeted" by "the glamorous, unpredictable Tallulah Bankhead." The celebrated stage veteran of "Private Lives" and "The Little Foxes" also had ample radio experience under her belt, and after the evening's cast would introduce themselves she would respond in her foghorn of a voice: "And my name, dahlings, is Tallulah Bankhead." Bankhead dispelled any notions about the wisdom of having a "mistress of ceremonies" by proving to be an apt foil for visiting funny men and women (Talloo was the Rodney Dangerfield of her time), and for providing endless fodder for the show's outstanding writing staff (supervised by veteran comedy scribe Goodman Ace) with her colossal ego, husky rasp of a voice, limited singing talent and long-running feud with Bette Davis. (In many "Big Show" broadcasts, any reference to the Oscar-winning actress provokes a hilarious Bankhead response: "Don't mention that woman's name on this program!") Bankhead was aided and abetted by old pros like announcers Ed Herlihy and Jimmy Wallington and by her bandleader/sidekick Meredith Willson ("Thank you, Miss Bankhead, sir"), who supervised the show's 44-piece orchestra and 16-voice chorus.
Listening to "The Big Show" today, one of the comedic highlights is an oft-used routine that finds Bankhead and a serious actor or actress performing a scene from a celebrated play or movie...which is then followed by a parody of that same scene from some of the program's guest comedians. The broadcasts included in this collection feature a performance of George S. Kaufman's "The Royal Family" as acted by Tallulah and guest Louis Calhern, which is then sent up by Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye as "The Royal Flush." Also included is a Bankhead recitation of Dorothy Parker's "The Telephone Call," which is soon subjected to Groucho Marx's interpretation of the same piece, assisted by funsters Joan Davis, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis. To be certain, a majority of listeners in 1951 found themselves convulsed by the antics of Jack, Mary, Phil, Don, Dennis and Rochester -- but thanks to Radio Archives, they now have a chance to catch up on what they missed the first time: "ninety minutes with the most scintillating personalities in the entertainment world."
Eleventh Show of the Series
Tallulah welcomes Jimmy Durante, who appoints himself "Assistant Master of Ceremonies" (and sings "I'm James the Fifth") and Louis Calhern, who recreates his performance as Oliver Wendell Holmes from the film "The Magnificent Yankee." Comedian Jack Carter and mimic Florence Desmond are also on hand to perform a parody of Bankhead's program themselves. The performers are Louis Calhern, Jack Carter (who sings "Traffic, Too Much Traffic"), Florence Desmond, Jimmy Durante, Martha Raye ("That Old Black Magic"), Fran Warren ("'Til I Met You" - an early version of Meredith Willson's later "Music Man" success "'Til There Was You"), announcer Ed Herlihy, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, January 14, 1951 - 90:00 - NBC, sponsored by Anacin, Buick and RCA Victor
Twelfth Show of the Series
Semi-regular Fred Allen appears on this broadcast, taking an "Allen's Alley"-like poll on Tallulah Bankhead by interviewing Gypsy Rose Lee, Judy Holliday and Portland Hoffa. Judy performs a scene from "Born Yesterday" and Eddie Cantor reminisces about "the good ol' days" with renditions of "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" and "How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm" -- there's even a cameo appearance from Mrs. Ida Cantor herself! Finally, Portland comes to Tallulah's rescue from opera singer Patrice Munsel's barbs by writing an opera for Miss Bankhead...a horse opera, that is, performed by the cast. The performers are Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, Portland Hoffa, Judy Holliday, Gypsy Rose Lee, Vaughn Monroe ("The Night is Young and You're So Beautiful"), Patrice Munsel ("The Laughing Song" from "Die Fledermaus"), Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus ("If You Feel Like Singing, Sing") and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, January 21, 1951 - 90:00 - NBC, sponsored by Anacin and RCA Victor
Thirteenth Show of the Series
Rudy Vallee and 'Slapsie' Maxie Rosenbloom almost come to fisticuffs over Tallulah, but it's Gary Cooper who ends up being her leading man in a dramatized scene from "A Farewell to Arms." (Listen for the colicky infant in the audience during Rudy and Talloo's comedy dialogue scene!) Danny Kaye also entertains the audience (and encourages them to participate) with one of the musical numbers from his feature film "The Inspector General." The performers are Ray Bolger (performing his signature tune, "Once in Love with Amy"), Gary Cooper, the Delta Rhythm Boys ("Dry Bones"), Danny Kaye, 'Slapsie' Maxie Rosenbloom, Rudy Vallee ("You Took Me Out of This World"), Julie Wilson ("For Every Man There's a Woman"), Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, January 28, 1951 - 90:00 - NBC, sponsored by Anacin and RCA Victor
Fourteenth Show of the Series
New York Giants fan Tallulah trades barbs with Leo Durocher (Mrs. Durocher, a.k.a. actress Laraine Day, is also on hand) and takes romantic advice from Judy Holliday (who is featured in another excerpt from "Born Yesterday"). Also, Fred Allen gets work in the theatre (a movie theatre, that is), and Bob Cummings and Tallulah perform a scene from Noel Coward's "Private Lives" (which gets a most un-Coward like send-up from Holliday and Jimmy Durante). Bing Crosby and Bob Hope are heard on the program's Chesterfield commercial. The performers are Fred Allen, Bob Cummings, Laraine Day, Jimmy Durante ("Leave Poor Little Me Be"), Leo Durocher, Portland Hoffa, Judy Holliday, Frankie Laine ("On the Sunny Side of the Street"), Jane Pickens (two versions of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" - one as if composed by Wagner!), Meredith Willson and His Orchestra and Chorus and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, February 4, 1951 - 90:00 - NBC, sponsored by Anacin, Chesterfield and RCA Victor
Fifteenth Show of the Series
It's Groucho vs. Tallulah (Round 2) in a program originating from Hollywood, which finds the "You Bet Your Life" star once again beating the drum for "Plebo." Joan Davis, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis also clown around with Talloo, and Tallulah performs Dorothy Parker's "The Telephone Call"...which becomes a complete shambles once Joan, Groucho and Martin & Lewis get hold of it. The Andrews Sisters are also on hand to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary in show business with a medley of their hits. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope are heard on the program's Chesterfield commercial. The performers are The Andrews Sisters (Patty, Maxene and Laverne), Joan Davis, Judy Garland (who sings "Get Happy"...and is introduced by Bankhead as "Judy Holliday"!), Gordon MacRae ("Porgy's Lament" from "Porgy & Bess"), Dean Martin ("Tonda Wanda Hoy") and Jerry Lewis, Groucho Marx, Meredith Willson and his Orchestra and Chorus ("Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho") and Tallulah Bankhead.
Sunday, February 11, 1951 - 90:00 - NBC, sponsored by Anacin, Chesterfield and RCA Victor