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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
Friedman, Sam Fuller
September 1950-December 1955... Sunday 8:00-9:00
Costello Into Colgate Hour," Variety, (Los Angeles), 13 December
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