Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Steve Allen Show (WNBT-TV, December 30, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened a very interesting old TV show, an episode of the Steve Allen Show from December 30, 1953 when it was still a local production on a New York station, WNBT, airing Mondays through Fridays from 11:20 p.m. to midnight. (The odd 40-minute time slot was obviously designed to accommodate an 11 p.m. newscast, at a time when even the network newscasts only ran 15 minutes.) Allen begins the program with a low-keyed monologue and a rendition of the song “Sleepy Time Gal” in which he sings as well as playing piano — and though Nat “King” Cole wasn’t going to be kept awake nights worried about the competition in the singing-pianist gig, Allen was a quite capable jazz piano player (he phrases most of the song in Erroll Garner-esque block chords) and a perfectly decent singer. One thing I hadn’t realized before is just how sexist this song is: the singer is telling his nightclubbing girlfriend that once they’re married, not only will she be in bed by 8 every night, “You’ll learn to cook and to sew/What’s more, you’ll love it, I know.” I sincerely doubt the real Steve Allen treated his wife, actress and singer Jayne Meadows, that way! The show was sponsored by Ruppert’s Knickerbocker Beer, complete with an actor playing Father Knickerbocker, mythical founder of New York City, and though it is Allen who rattles off the unique qualities of Knickerbocker Beer (in a high-speed spot-announcer’s voice quite different from the low-keyed self-deprecating way he hosts the actual program), including that it contains no starch (which means, according to the pitch, that you can drink more of it and not feel bloated — smashed out of your gills, yes, but not bloated!)

Father Knickerbocker (neither nor, from which I downloaded this curio, lists the actor playing him) stops the show dead in its tracks to deliver a public-service pitch for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. (Doubtless the Children’s Museum was a notable and laudable enterprise, but I still couldn’t help but ask myself just how many children they had on exhibit and how they had been trapped.) The show features long-time Allen regulars Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé — though only separately, not together; Lawrence does an estimable version of Frank Sinatra’s breakthrough hit “All or Nothing at All” in a bar set that would seem to have been more appropriate for “One for My Baby” — and while his vocal isn’t as wrenchingly powerful as Sinatra’s (did you really expect it would be?), he gets the message across quite nicely. Gormé’s spot comes towards the end of the program, a novelty song called “Gone Gone John” that sounds like a precursor to rock ’n’ roll (as I’ve noted in previous posts, the transition of music in the 1950’s from pop to rock was a good deal more gradual than the history books have it, and records that today we’d consider non-rock novelties charted well until the end of the decade, and sometimes even after that: the number one chart record in 1964 in the U.S. was Louis Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly!,” while slots two through six on that same chart went to the Beatles), a silly song which she swings quite nicely.

In between those highlights there are segments with Steve Allen contemplating the detritus on his set — both the leftover Christmas decorations and the shelf of books that nobody reads (one of which is a medical text on diseases of the gallbladder and pancreas) — as well as an interview with Roger Price, humorist and writer, inventor of “Droodles” (a compound word of “drawings” and “doodles”) including the famous “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch” that later became a Frank Zappa album cover. Allen also goes into the audience and interviews some people, mostly women, and introduces Myra Dawn Hazel of the University of Arkansas, winner of the nationwide “American College Queen” contest (and I thought the Gay Leather community had a plethora of silly titles!). This peculiar program was actually a precursor of The Tonight Show, of which Allen was the original host once NBC made it a national network show in 1954, and in its joyous tackiness and sense that they were trying out the molds for what would be late-night programming from then to now it’s fascinating watching. It’s also noteworthy that Allen had a superb band, led by Bobby Byrne and featuring trumpeters Doc Severinsen and Clark Terry, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and drummer Bobby Rosengarden (of course Severinsen and Rosengarden would both go on to lead big bands of their own on late-night shows, Severinsen for Johnny Carson and Rosengarden for Dick Cavett), and that the very first time he hosted this seemingly ambition-less New York local show, he opened his monologue, “In case you're just joining us … this is Tonight … and I can’t think of too much to tell you about it, except I want to give you the bad news first: this program is going to go on forever. I wouldn't call it a Spectacular … you might say it’s more a Monotonous.” Little did Steve Allen know it would go on forever and far outlast his tenure as host of it!