Special Collections in Mass Media and Culture

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The ORIGINAL Saturday Night Live, Part 1

When Saturday Night Live brought live comedy and variety back to NBC almost 40 years ago, it recalled a similar moment from the early days of network television. Back then, NBC vice-president Pat Weaver wanted more than just a late-night success; he was determined to get people to spend their entire Saturday evening “at home with NBC.”

"If I could give them television entertainment of equal of perhaps even superior quality," he wrote in his memoirs, "they wouldn’t have to go out and pay a lot of money for it."[1] To do this, he turned to Max Liebman, who’d been producing variety shows at summer resort in Pennsylvania.

"I was doing a revue every single week that was new, original, and it had to be done week after week, for a highly critical audience," Liebman said in a 1980s interview. "I had been doing television without cameras."[2]

He brought with him writers Mel Tolken and Lucille Kallen and supremely talented comedians Sid Ceasar and Imogene Coca. The program was called Your Show of Shows, and it ran on NBC from February 25, 1950 until June 5, 1954. Each season - and back then a television season was 39 weeks - they would offer a weekly 90-minute revue: singing and dance numbers alternating with comedy sketches.

Photo 1 (top left): Imogene Coca in costume as one of her most unforgettable characters, a wistful tramp. Photo 2 (top right): Sid Caesar in costume as the “Professor,” a shabbily-dressed “expert” on everything (who knew absolutely nothing). Photo 3 (center left): They were joined each week by indispensable second bananas Howard Morris (left) and Carl Reiner.

Photo 4 (center right): “Often, toward the end of Your Show of Shows, the stage would be set for a solo by Imogene Coca. A comedienne of boundless artistry, she would turn up in various guises: as a would-be stripper teasingly wrapped in a long, shabby coat; a piquant twenties’ flapper; a croaking torch singer…”[3] Periodically, Coca would team with choreographer James Starbuck in comic ballets; as a sleepy “Sleeping Beauty,” as a molting swan in “Swan Lake,” and as a sultry siren of the seas in “Lorelei.”

Photo 5 (bottom left): The dance team of Bambi Linn and Rod Alexander joined the company during the 1952-53 season, adding to the musical portion of Your Show of Shows.  Other regular dance teams included “Mata and Hari” and The Hamilton Trio. For singing, there was Metropolitan Opera soprano Marguerite Piazza and pop singers Bill Hayes and Judy Johnson.

Photo 6 (bottom right): But, like Saturday Night Live, what most people remember about Your Show of Shows are the sketches: here, Caesar and Coco in a take-off on silent movies.

(The ORIGINAL Saturday Night Live, Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.) Photos from the Library of American Broadcasting collection.


Be sure to check out all of the Classic TV Variety Show Blogathon blogs:

Sunday, Feb 3
The Judy Garland Show - How Sweet It Was
The Dean Martin Show - It’s About TV
The Flip Wilson Show  - Outspoken & Freckled
The Muppet Show TV Gems

Monday, Feb 4
The Jerry Lewis Show - Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
The Brady Bunch Hour - Michael’s TV Tray
The Frank Sinatra Show (Christmas episode) - Christmas TV History
Saturday Night Live with Howard CosellClassic TV Sports and Media

Tuesday, Feb 5
The Paul Lynde Halloween Special - Made for TV Mayhem
The Carol Burnett Show - ClassicBecky’s Brain Food
Shindig! Classic Film & TV Cafe

[1] Weaver, Pat. The Best Seat in the House: The Golden Years of Radio and Television (1994).

[2] Broughton, Irv. Producers on Producing: The Making of Film and Television (1986).

[3] Sennett, Ted. Your Show of Shows: the Story of Television’s Most Celebrated Variety Program (1977).

Filed under Your Show of Shows NBC 1950s Imogene Coca Sid Caesar Howard Morris Carl Reiner Pat Weaver Max Liebman Lucille Kallen Mel Tolken James Starbuck Bambi Linn Rod Alexander Mata and Hari The Hamilton Trio Marguerite Piazza Bill Hayes Judy Johnson Library of American Broadcasting

  1. marcomedy reblogged this from broadcastarchive-umd
  2. free2010 reblogged this from broadcastarchive-umd
  3. treadmill-to-oblivion said: It is interesting to note that at the same time (late 1950 through 1951) NBC tried the same thing on radio with a 90 minute series called “The Big Show,” which many consider NBC radio’s valiant last effort to keep people from watching television.
  4. broadcastarchive-umd posted this