‘Broadway Open House’…The Start Of Late Night Television
Above, a link to some of the only surviving video of the show, and below is Jerry Lester on stage in the brand new NBC Studio 6A, hosting network television’s first late-night comedy-variety series. It was telecast live on NBC from May 29, 1950 to August 24, 1951, airing weeknights from 11 to midnight.
A dozen years before Johnny Carson took over the reins of ‘The Tonight Show’, and long before Jack Paar and Steve Allen redefined the genre, NBC began an experiment in programming that has, in one incarnation or another, lasted over six decades…the late night variety show. The show came about due to the visionary work of Sylvester `Pat’ Weaver (father of actress Sigourney Weaver and brother to comedian `Doodles’ Weaver) who began his career as a radio producer in the 1930s (Fred Allen’s Town Hall Tonight), and who eventually became head of programming for the NBC radio network. In 1949 he was brought over to the struggling NBC TV network in hopes that he could break the CBS’s stranglehold on the ratings. One of the first innovations that Weaver introduced came in the form of ‘Broadway Open House’. The show was supposed to be hosted by comic Don “Creesh” Hornsby, but Hornsby died suddenly two weeks before the show premiered. In a last minute bit of substitution, Morey Amsterdam, who already had hosted a variety show on the Dumont network, covered Monday and Friday nights and a brash young comedian named Jerry Lester did Tues-Weds-Thurs.
Lester had previously been the host of DuMont’s Cavalcade of Stars, but walked off the show earlier in the year. Filling in for AWOL Lester was a young comedian named Jackie Gleason, who moved the show to CBS and became a mainstay of TV for 20 years. Amsterdam would leave ‘Broadway Open House’ quickly, leaving Lester to cover five nights a week. Lester was the master of “low comedy”, and his antics were what you might expect from a baggy pants vaudeville comedian of another era. Pratt falls, rapid fire deliveries (so if one joke fails, the next is already on the way), and juvenile antics. He was, however, exactly what the late night show needed. Someone was lively, who was able to ad lib, and someone who could do an hour a night.
Lester padded his show with regulars,including dancer Ray Malone, accordionist Milton DeLugg, announcer Wayne Howell and vocalists Jane Harvey, Andy Roberts and David Street. The show began in May of 1950, but in mid-June Lester hired buxom Jennie Lewis for a bit part, where she was to read some poetry, act dumb, and give the show some eye-candy. Lester named her`Dagmar’, and smirked about her `hidden talents’. Dagmar was an immediate success, and became a regular member of the cast and thus was born “the dumb blonde” stereotype.
By the end of the year, Dagmar was a sensation. American TV’s first sex symbol. Her popularity grew to the point where she was getting more fan mail than the host, Jerry Lester. In 1951, out of frustration, Lester quit the show. Dagmar went on to host it briefly, before the show was canceled later in the year.
`Pat’ Weaver, who created this genre of late night programming, would end up creating the venerable Today Show for NBC, and pioneered the practice of networks (instead of sponsors) owning a show, and selling advertisements. He would soon also meet an entertainer named Steve Allen, but more on that tomorrow!