Old time radio blog.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Rillly Big Shoooz

If you like all-star extravaganzas of the Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett Show and even Saturday Night Live variety, you'll probably like The Big Show, Command Performance, and Mail Call. The Big Show was a weekly NBC challenge at the time, 1950-51, to listeners of The Jack Benny Program over on CBS. Despite being hosted by Tallulah Bankhead and featuring 90 minutes of two or more A-listers of the day (like Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Fred Allen, George Sanders, Vivien Leigh, Eddie Cantor, Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante, Judy Holliday, Fanny Brice, Ethel Merman, and Bea Lillie), the show failed to beat the Benny juggernaut. A typical Big show would begin with witty repartee between Bankhead and, say, Groucho then someone would sing a number or music director Meredith Wilson (who later created the Broadway hit The Music Man) would conduct his choir and/or band in something inspirational (the show was on Sunday nights), Bankhead or similar stage star (Leigh [with husband Laurence Olivier], Ethel Barrymore) would do a scene from a play, more comedy, more music, maybe a scene from an upcoming movie, and then that show's cast would do a singalong of Wilson's "May The Good Lord Bless & Keep You", followed by Bankhead sending good wishes to our military overseas. If they were to attempt this today, the hostess might be Whoopi Goldberg with guests Will Ferrell, Will Smith, George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Carrie Underwood, and featuring the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and -- I dunno -- the Harlem Boy's Choir.
Command Performance and Mail Call were on only during the years of World War II; it was like a Stage Door Canteen on the air with live performances, again by all the biggest stars of the day. Hope, Crosby, Marx, Garland, Betty Hutton, The Andrews Sisters, Victor Borge, Red Skelton, Lena Horne, etc. The format was really cool: real soldiers and platoons would send in weekly requests to hear their favorite artists; one gang even wanted to hear a starlet sigh on mic! They asked for it and they got it -- all swathed in a lot of patriotism and good feelings.

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