U.S. Variety Show

For approximately five-and-a-half seasons, NBC's Colgate Comedy Hour presented big budget musical variety television as head-to-head competition for Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town on CBS. Featuring the top names in vaudeville, theater, radio and film, this live Sunday evening series was the first starring vehicle for many notable performers turning to television. Reflecting format variations by host, the Colgate Comedy Hour initially offered musical comedy, burlesque sketches, opera and/or night club comedy revues.

In his autobiography, Take My Life, comedian Eddie Cantor recalled proposing to NBC that he was prepared to host a television show but only once every four weeks in rotation with other comics. Colgate-Palmolive-Peet picked up the tab for three of the four weeks and the Colgate Comedy Hour was born with Cantor, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and Fred Allen as hosts. The fourth show of the month was sponsored originally by Frigidaire and appeared for a short time under the title Michael Todd's Revue with Todd producing and comic Bobby Clark scheduled to alternate with Bob Hope as host.

Cantor premiered the Colgate Comedy Hour on 10 September 1950, to rave reviews. Working the thread of a story line into the show for continuity, the veteran performer took his material out of the realm of vaudeville and turned it into more of a legitimate Broadway attraction. Martin and Lewis met with similar success. Dominating their hour, the energetic duo created a night club setting whose intimacy and ambience the trade press found continuously funny. Allen, on the other hand, found the large scale theatrical nature of the format too demanding and out of character for his more relaxed style of humor. Attempting to transfer elements of his successful radio show to video, he only met with disappointment. This was especially true when the characters of his famous Allen's Alley were foolishly turned into puppets. Allen showed improvement on subsequent telecasts but was retired from the series after his fourth broadcast. Bitter about his experience, he promised he would not return to television unless provided a low key format comparable to Dave Garroway's Chicago based Garroway at Large. Clark produced better ratings and reviews than Allen but ultimately he and the Michael Todd Revue suffered a similar fate.

Premiering with Jackie Gleason in its second season, the Colgate Comedy Hour was the highest budgeted, single-sponsor extravaganza on television with Colgate-Palmolive-Peet picking up a three million dollar a year talent-production-time tab. Back for their second year were Cantor and Martin and Lewis with Gleason, Abbott and Costello, Spike Jones, Tony Martin and Ezio Pinza slotted as starters. Ratings remained high for the original hosts but the Sullivan show began producing high budget specials that chipped away at the Colgate numbers when the new hosts appeared.

During the second season, the Colgate Comedy Hour also became the first commercial network series to originate on the west coast when Cantor hosted his program from Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre on 30 September 1951. Two years later, on 22 November 1953, a Donald O'Connor Comedy Hour became the first sponsored network program to be telecast in color. In an FCC-approved test of RCA's new compatible color system, several hundred persons monitored the broadcast in specially equipped viewing booths at a site distant from the Colgate production theater.

Despite an annual budget estimated at more than six million dollars, during the 1953-54 season the Colgate Comedy Hour began to experience problems. Many performers, hard pressed to continually generate new material, were considered stale and repetitious. Cantor and Martin and Lewis were still highly rated regulars but Cantor was feeling stressed. The diminutive showman had suffered a heart attack after a Comedy Hour appearance in September 1952, and, now nearly sixty years of age, he felt the work too demanding. This would be his last season. To attract and maintain an audience, new hosts, including the popular Jimmy Durante, were absorbed from NBC's faltering All Star Revue. Occasional "book" musicals, top flight shows such as Anything Goes with Ethel Merman and Frank Sinatra, were produced. The Comedy Hour also began to tour providing viewers with special broadcasts from glamorous locations-- New York seen from the deck of the S.S. United States.

During the 1954-55 season, the Sullivan show made significant inroads on the Colgate Comedy Hour's ratings. Martin and Lewis made fewer appearances and an emphasis was placed on performers working in big settings such as the Hollywood Bowl and Broadway's Latin Quarter. During the summer, Colgate collaborated with Paramount Pictures, the latter supplying guest stars and film clips from newly released motion pictures. The show moved away from comedy headliners; actor Charlton Heston hosted as did orchestra leader Guy Lombardo and musical star Gordon MacRae. To reflect these differences the show's name was changed to the Colgate Variety Hour, but, despite the changes, for the first time in its history, the series dropped out of the top twenty-five in Nielsen ratings while Sullivan moved into the top five.

A feuding Martin and Lewis kicked off the last season of the Colgate Variety Hour to good reviews but subsequent shows proved it had become increasingly difficult to sustain acceptable ratings for a series of this budget magnitude. On 11 December 1955, Sullivan drew an overnight Trendex of 42.6. The Variety Hour's salute to theatrical legend George Abbott came in a distant third with a dismal 7.2. Two weeks later, on 25 December 1955 the Colgate series quietly left the air following a Christmas music broadcast by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. Replaced with the poorly conceived NBC Comedy Hour, featuring unlikely host Leo Durocher, one of the most lavish, entertaining and at times extraordinary musical variety series in television history was just a memory. In May 1967 NBC presented a Colgate Comedy Hour revival but it was a revival in name only--not in format or in star value.

-Joel Sternberg

The Colgate Comedy Hour
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

Eddie Cantor (1950-1954]
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (1950-1955]
Fred Allen (1950)
Donald O'Connor (1951-1954)
Abbott and Costello (1951-1954)
Bob Hope (1952-1953)
Jimmy Durante (1953-1954)
Gordon MacRae (1954-1955)
Robert Paige (1955)

Charles Friedman, Sam Fuller


September 1950-December 1955... Sunday 8:00-9:00


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