This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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Tallulah Bankhead and the Big Show
by Martin Grams, Jr. © 2015
(From Radio Recall, October, 2015)
Historical hindsight and retrospect exercised, The Big Show was mounted on a scale that was unprecedented in radio. NBC literally threw money into its Sunday night colossus: $300 a minute by one estimate, which, if anything, was low. Some shows cost $100,000 - "real television money," as Newsweek termed it - a vast budget spent on a dying medium in a timeslot that NBC had owned for years and considered prime real estate in terms of time slot.
Two years prior, CBS successfully achieved a talent raid against NBC, luring away that network's top-rated among popularity polls: Amos 'n' Andy, Edgar Bergen, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Red Skelton and Jack Benny . . . the latter of whom was the cream of NBC's old Sunday lineup. In direct competition, and overseen by a board of directors who took the Benny-theft personally, The Big Show was potentially the older network's solution.
With a damn-the-cost attitude, the weekly extravaganza was established in a competing time slot solely to kill Jack Benny's ratings. At the end of the two-year run, after millions of dollars and the employment of talented luminaries, mass publicity and rave reviews from critics, a question lingered - do big names mean good radio?
The Big Show showcased a healthy portion of genuine entertainment. Scenes from New York plays were dramatized, often with the original headliners reprising their stage roles. Musical talent ranged from veterans of the craft to promising newcomers. Comedy derived from nightclub acts, established radio comedians and gifted scriptwriters. Tallulah Bankhead was the "femcee" who not only became the staple for the radio program, but essential in the success of the series.
Weeks after the premiere of The Big Show, a New York kindergarten teacher reported that her children had taken to calling each other "Daahling," the Bankhead trademark. A letter addressed "Tallulah Bankhead, U.S.A." arrived at NBC in New York a day after it was mailed in Cumberland, Maryland, proving the legendary actress became, overnight, a radio personality.
Today, recordings of The Big Show are more?than entertainment for lengthy road trips. They serve as a method of preservation for the best of?dramatic arts, comedy and music. What was once?offered to the masses for free, today people are?willing to pay for them. For those who wished they?could have watched the great stage actress at work?during the thirties and forties, and are restricted to the relatively few Hollywood motion-pictures she contracted out, The Big Show offered Tallulah Bankhead both as a personality and as a dramatic actress.
Over the past three decades, a number of magazine articles, entries in encyclopedias and Internet websites have documented The Big Show - all with brief and general summaries. Most are fairly accurate while websites offer the majority of errors. A number of biographies have been published about Tallulah Bankhead and what little has been written about her radio work, including The Big Show, stems primarily from the authors listening to recordings of the radio broadcasts and reprinting excerpts of dialogue.
A sad testament for one of the most significant radio broadcasts to air over NBC Radio in the fifties… the program deserves better. While Bankhead's career on stage and screen had been explored in detail, her radio career has gone unexplored. (If you are going to read only one book about the great stage actress, I recommend her autobiography, Tallulah: My Autobiography (1951 ). The reason for the recommendation is obvious.)
"It's the good girls who keep diaries, the bad girls don't have the time …"
Tallulah Bankhead - Beautiful, headstrong and erotically charged,
Tallulah Bankhead built a reputation in Hollywood for her spunk and clever wit. Her first love was for the stage; she quickly discovered at Paramount Pictures that an entire stage play was immortalized on celluloid between four and six weeks. Long hours and repeated takes of the same scene on the same day became tedious. The actress made a successful transition from stage to films, with profitable motion-pictures that proved she was more than capable of handling her own. Not until Greta Garbo did an actress have star power at a movie studio; with a whiskey-and-cigarettes voice, the hard-headed woman was just as much the real deal as she portrayed on the silver screen.
After the notorious CBS talent raids caused NBC to lose their top-rated comedians, Amos n' Andy, Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen, the network created The Big Show. 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 music, drama, comedy in stage, motion-picture, concert, radio and television who were ail "top performers" in their respective 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 prime-time programs each week, no more than three sponsors to be included in any 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.
Week after week, The Big Show presented a roster of names promoted in tabloids as "bigger than any in radio or television," which included Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn. Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Martin and Lewis, Frankie Laine, Ezio Pinza, Judy Holliday, Fanny Brice and Judy Garland. Tallulah Bankhead's salary was a reported $2,500 weekly.
What was good for Tallulah, however was not necessarily good for NBC. Plagued with a horrendous budget and the inability to attract enough sponsors to cover the cost of production, network executives weighed options regarding the continuation of The Big Show. Bad timing was also another negative: radio was starting to be overshadowed by television jokes about television program offering better entertainment than radio often crept into The Big Show scripts) and scheduled in a competing timeslot that NBC fought bitterly against a rival network… and Jack Benny.
After the first few weeks, the program garnered praise from critics ranging from "the season's best" to the "most razzle-dazzle comedy- entertainment layout since broadcasting was incepted." Collier's wrote an unabashed plug for the program on its editorial page (devoting all but four inches of an entire editorial page) and called the selection of Tallulah Bankhead for emcee as "the most progressive step that radio has taken since the loud-speaker replaced headphones."
In early December 1951, Tallulah Bankhead temporarily came under fire from the press when a scandal hit the papers. The trial was of Mrs. Evyleen Cronin, Bankhead's secretary, accused of forgery and grand larceny. Caught embezzling funds under the name of the actress, Mrs. Cronin quickly defended her actions by claiming she used the money to obtain liquor, dope, and men for the actress.
On December 15, NBC defended their star, asserting that Tallulah Bankhead was not on trial, and that the woman who accused her of various moral offenses was "charged with just plain stealing." When the trial wound up its first week without Bankhead taking the witness chair to respond officially to the accusation, Charles C. (Bud) Barry, vice president of radio programming for the National Broadcasting Company, told the press that the network was "behind Miss Bankhead 100 percent." He added that NBC was planning to attack the bad publicity by taking big ads in the daily papers urging the public to "listen to The Big Show with Tallulah Bankhead." Walter Winchell backed the same endeavor in his syndicated newspaper column, reminding his readers that the other lady was on trial, not Tallulah Bankhead.
The lawsuit faded away but the radio program whittled away her reputation as a serious stage actress. Like John Barrymore before her (on the Rudy Vallee Show), on The Big Show she was never serious, always laughed, poking fun of herself and was the butt of many a joke. Her career would never be the same. Television was going to impact Broadway and a career on stage would necessitate a television camera for a dramatic actress to succeed - but the rewards were larger.
The Big Show had been a major audience attraction because the show took over the large Center Theatre in Radio City in New York. After two seasons, there were (according to one source) 30,000 unfulfilled requests for seats. No television program of the time could make such a statement. NBC attempted to lure Bankhead for a third season -- she turned them down. NBC proposed a thirty- minute version of The Big Show -- she still turned them down. Television was proposed and she ultimately accepted for a handful of telecasts, reprising many of the same comedic sketches and dramatic readings that were the heart of the radio version.
NBC's answer to the CBS-Jack Benny Sunday night powerhouse, using the biggest star line-up ever set for one radio series is now relegated to recordings presently circulating in collector hands. But looking back, 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."
For more than two decades, fans of old-time radio have enjoyed recordings consisting of the entire first season; barely any episodes from the second season were known to exist. In late 2014, the second season recordings were found and transferred from both disc and reels, hopefully to?be made available to collectors in the near future. A book documenting the history of the radio program, including Tallulah Bankhead's participation, will be published this Christmas.