THE BIG SHOW: Tallulah Bankhead and her Radio Career
The Big Show was an NBC house-built package and an innovation in show business deriving its name from the fact that the talent roster each week included “the biggest names in show business” — name guest stars chosen from ranks of music, drama, comedy in stage, motion-picture, concert, radio and television were all “top performers” in their own fields. The Big Show was the first program ever to be presented under NBC’s new sponsorship plan known as “Operation Tandem,” in which sponsors were offered participation in sponsorship of five top evening programs each week, no more than three sponsors to be included in each 30-minute program time. Prior to this, radio programs primarily featured only one sponsor throughout the time slot (although the same sponsor was able to promote more than one of their own products.) The “Operation Tandem” shows were described over-all as the “Five Show Festival” including programs whose formats were varied to offer drama, variety, music, comedy and mystery.
The format of The Big Show was a variety program with repartee, music, dramatic sketches, comedy routines, excerpts dramatized from recent motion pictures and current Broadway hits, novelty monologues and instrumental and vocal novelties, special “spots” paying tribute to outstanding members of show business and other salutes to the more serious side of living such as the meaning of living and playing in a country like America, etc. The Big Show ran a total of two seasons and by the time the second season premiered, excerpts of recent motion pictures had been dropped in favor of current Broadway hits.
The history of the NBC package is equally — if not more — fascinating than listening to the programs; every episode exists in recorded form. The program was NBC’s final attempt to compete against television, which was trending in popularity among American consumers who sought visuals in their living room. CBS had performed a major talent raid in late 1947 and NBC was short-sighted to realize the reason three of their top-rated celebs made the jump to a different network… hint, it wasn’t the money. By 1950, NBC began to counter the opposition by purchasing ownership of long-running and high-rated radio programs, including exclusive ownership of celebrities such as Fibber McGee and Molly, Bob Hope and Milton Berle. The practice of network ownership is still being used in the industry today… most people don’t realize that practice began with The Big Show. While most encyclopedias have covered this subject briefly, this new book will serve as an extensive documentary with reprints of network memos and exclusive research from archives across the country.
The Big Show was a financial loss for NBC beginning from day one. To offset the lack of sponsor interest, the network purposely made the entire ninety-minutes a commercial promoting their products, including RCA television. In one of many examples, Ethel Merman appeared on the show many times, often reprising a dramatic scene from her current Broadway musical, Call Me Madame, which NBC was fifty percent vested. A rotating cast of comedians from NBC television programs (Four Star Revue and All-Star Revue) appeared on The Big Show weekly: Fred Allen, Jack Carson, Ed Wynn and Jimmy Durante. Game show host Groucho Marx made more than one appearance and NBC contract players Phil Harris, Bob Hope and Milton Berle also made appearances.
Tallulah Bankhead, known for her obsessive use of drugs and liquor, found herself the subject of controversy when her secretary was caught embezzling funds that was submitted by radio listeners, meant for charity. Her secretary claimed she used the money to buy drugs, booze and men for Bankhead; a claim the actress strongly denied. NBC backed the star and quickly squashed the controversy.
In another incident, Bankhead’s bank account was brightened by a $1 million suit filed against P&G, claiming she had been damaged by a singing commercial covering an anonymous Tallulah and a tube of Prell — “as galling an insult as you can throw at Miss Bankhead,” according to a radio critic’s observation at the time. The suit hung on until the actress’ staff had milked the last bit of publicity out of it. The actress settled from the insurance firm which covered the defendants. She later told reporters that she considered the payment well worth the publicity received.
By the summer of 1952, radio still had the largest audience compared to that of television, and weeks before the premiere of The Big Show, Bud Barry, vice president of programming at NBC, claimed the audience was “a challenge to be met only by showmanship, and by tailoring programs to the changing times.” Admitting that television had temporarily taken the showbiz spotlight, Barry declared this phase would pass and television would assume a normal position with respect to other forms of entertainment. It might be the top form, but that was a long way off, he asserted, and radio could maintain its present position during that period provided broadcasters did not throw in the sponge. It was this reason that Barry put on The Big Show. NBC’s answer to the CBS-Jack Benny Sunday night powerhouse, using the biggest star line-up ever set for one radio series. Was it worth it? John Dunning, author of On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, summed it up best: “The Big Show has its moments, but The Jack Benny Program rolled along on CBS, as consistently brilliant and funny as ever. The moral, perhaps, is that brilliance and genius cannot be bought, that a buckshot approach never works and that most good things come finally from a single inspired source.”