Director Ralph Levy…A CBS Superstar
You may not know the name, but you know his work. Among other things, Ralph Levy directed the ‘I Love Lucy’ pilot, ‘The Jack Benny Show’, ‘Burns And Allen’ and as we just learned in today’s first article, ‘The Ed Wynn Show’.
A few months back, I posted a story on the vaudeville and radio stars Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. They were most famous for their hit broadway show and movie called ‘Hellzapoppin’. As it turns out, CBS had tried to bring Olsen and Johnson to television in early 1949 and Ralph Levy was the assistant director. The show turned out to literally be too big for television because Olson and Johnson’s style was to have action not only play out on stage, but going on in the theater at the same time and often overlapping. The show ended after 13 weeks, but immediately after that, Levy was given a show of his own. It was a summer replacement called ‘The 54th Street Revue’ and came from CBS Studio 52 on 54th and Broadway.
Ralph managed to get the first of the shows on the air in only 4 days… an accomplishment that earned him both management’s attention and a reputation for working swiftly and efficiently. That fall, the network asked Levy to move to Los Angeles to direct a new variety series starring radio comedian Ed Wynn. If network TV in New York was just beginning, in Los Angeles it was virtually non-existent…
The Ed Wynn Show, Levy soon discovered, would be the first major network show to originate from Hollywood. It would be shown live on the West Coast every Thursday night at 9PM. A kinescope recording of the show would be made, sent to New York, and played for East Coast and Midwestern stations two weeks later. Such delays were necessary because the transcontinental cable was not yet in place that would allow for national live telecasts to originate on the West Coast.
In late December, Ed’s guests were Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and this was the first time Ralph met them. The script that night went out of its way to spotlight 32-year-old Desi, who appeared with Wynn and Ball in a comedy sketch, and even afforded him the opportunity to sing “Babalu.”
A few weeks later, CBS asked Lucy to consider transferring her radio series, ‘My Favorite Husband’, to TV. Levy, meanwhile, had come to be the network’s fair-haired boy in Hollywood…in April, he expanded his duties to include directing the new ‘Alan Young Show’, a weekly half-hour comedy-variety skein starring the young Canadian who today is more remembered for his role ten years later in the sitcom ‘Mr. Ed’.
One of the most successful programs on CBS Radio that season was ‘You Bet Your Life’, starring Groucho Marx. The show’s sponsor was interested in adding a TV version…both CBS and NBC wanted to carry it. When both major networks became interested, a bidding war started. Since Marx was already at CBS, it seemed likely he would stay, but Levy helped with a pilot show. When the dust settled, NBC was the high bidder, but Levy stayed at CBS.
The Ed Wynn Show ended its nine-month run on July 4, 1950, and Ralph headed to Mexico for a much-needed vacation. He had hardly unpacked when an emergency call came from CBS’ Hollywood operations. Levy was asked to come back the next day as George Burns and Gracie Allen had agreed to go on television, and CBS wanted him at the first production meeting.
A pilot was prepared and quickly sold to Carnation Milk Company and ‘The Burns & Allen Show’ was scheduled for a fall premiere. George was afraid to take on a weekly show all at once, particularly one that was to be done live, so CBS agreed to air it on an alternate-week basis.
Making his life even more interesting was the fact that George Burns’ best friend, Jack Benny, was toying with the idea of getting into television himself. Naturally, he wanted Ralph to direct. But Benny was even more shy about TV than George and Gracie, and agreed to do only four half-hour specials that first 1950-51 season.
Lucy and Desi Arnaz, meanwhile, spent the summer of 1950 performing a comedy act in vaudeville theatres across the country, and by late fall had convinced CBS to let them try a new TV series together. Lucy’s radio writers, Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh went to work to create the format. Ralph Levy was asked to direct.
The pilot was filmed on Friday evening, March 2, 1951 (Desi’s 34th birthday) in Studio A of CBS’ Columbia Square headquarters in Hollywood. It was the same stage used for the Wynn Show a year earlier. The show was shot live with a studio audience in attendance, as most TV shows were being done then. There was no tape yet. The images were recorded on film from a TV screen, providing us with the required kinescope.Levy, CBS’s first choice to direct, begged off: he knew he already had his hands full.
In 1953, Ralph retired from ‘Burns & Allen’, and with ‘The Alan Young Show’ ceasing production, he concentrated his energies on the now bi-weekly Jack Benny program. He remained at Benny’s side another four seasons, then returned in 1959 to helm two hour long Benny specials. For these shows, he won his first Emmy Award. Ralph won a second Emmy two years later for first ‘Bob Newhart Show’, a weekly half-hour of stand-up comedy and variety.
When filmed sitcoms became the order of the day, Levy adapted: he directed the pilots of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and ‘Green Acres’, and two seasons of ‘Petticoat Junction’, all for his friend Paul Henning, one of George Burns’ writers who had since become a successful producer.
Ralph later attempted to do dramas…programs like ‘Hawaii Five-O’ and feature films, but somehow, his heart was not in these projects: he missed the live audiences that early television and the theatre had provided. The thrill of “opening night” was missing.
Levy spent several years in England in the 1970s, working for BBC Television, and taught TV production classes at Cal State Northridge and Loyola Marymount University. Levy relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1981 and passed away October 15, 2001 at his home…he was 81. Enjoy and share! -Bobby Ellerbee