of the most famous ratings wars in television history began on 24
June 1956. That night NBC debuted The Steve Allen Show opposite
the eighth anniversary program of what had become a television institution,
The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The two hosts were markedly
different. Sullivan was a rigorous master of ceremonies, known for
enforcing strict conformity for both his guests and the members
of his audience. Allen, too, served as host, but he was also innovative,
funny and whimsical. Whereas Steve Allen liked to improvise and
ad lib on his program, creating material and responding to guests
and audience on the spot, The Ed Sullivan Show followed a
appearances of Elvis Presley on the two programs serve to illustrate
the differences between them. When Presley appeared on The Ed
Sullivan Show, Sullivan instructed the camera operators to shoot
the picture from the waist up only. On The Steve Allen Show,
Presley appeared in a tuxedo and serenaded a bassett hound with
his hit "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog." Both strategies appeased
nervous network censors, but each is emblematic of the show it served.
Relations between the two prominent hosts were not cordial and reached
a low point in October 1956. Allen scheduled a tribute to the late
actor, James Dean, for his 21 October program. When he learned that
Sullivan planned his own tribute to Dean for his 14 October program,
Allen charged that Sullivan had stolen his idea. Sullivan denied
the charges and accused Allen of lying. Allen moved his segment
to October 14 when both programs paid tribute to the late actor
and showed clips from his last movie, Giant.
of Allen's work on The Steve Allen Show resembled previous
performances on The Tonight Show, which he had hosted since
1954. He often opened the program casually, seated at the piano.
He would chat with the audience, participate in skits, and introduce
guests. Television critic Jack Gould considered the new program
merely an expanded version of The Tonight Show and characterized
it as "mostly routine stuff." Gould did concede that "more imagination
could take the program far." The Steve Allen Show offered
Allen a natural setting for what Gould termed his "conditioned social
gift" of "creating spontaneous comedy in front of an audience in
a given situation."
also continued something else he had begun on The Tonight Show,
discovering new talent. Andy Williams, Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence
got their starts on The Tonight Show. And on the new show,
Allen's man in the street interview segments launched the careers
of comedians Bill Dana, Pat Harrington, Louis Nye, Tom Poston and
Don Knotts. Dana played the timid Hispanic Jose' Jiminez, and Harrington
the suave Italian golfer Guido Panzino.
created by Nye, Poston and Knotts were the best known of the group.
Nye portrayed the effete and cosmopolitan Gordon Hathaway whose
cry "Hi Ho Steverino" became a trademark of the program. Tom Poston
was the sympathetic and innocent guy who would candidly answer any
question but who could never remember his name. Probably the best
remembered character was the nervous Mr. Morrison portrayed by Don
Knotts. Often Morrison's initials were related to his occupation.
On one segment he was introduced as K.B. Morrison whose job in a
munitions factory was to place the pins in hand grenades. When asked
what the initials stood for, Knotts replied, "Kaa Boom!" Invariably
Allen would ask Knotts if he was nervous and always got the quick
one word reply, "No!!!" Allen characterized the cast as the "happiest,
most relaxed professional family in television."
became known for the outrageous. He conducted a geography lesson
using a map of the world in the shape of a cube. He opened a program
by having the camera shoot from underneath a transparent stage.
Looking down at the camera Allen remarked, "what if a drunk suddenly
staggered into your living room and saw this shot?"
Allen won some of the ratings battles with Sullivan, he ultimately
lost the war. In 1959 NBC moved The Steve Allen Show to Monday
nights. The following year, it went to ABC for a fourteen week run.
In 1961 Allen renamed the program The Steve Allen Playhouse
and took it into syndication where it ran for three years.
STEVE ALLEN SHOW
December 1950-March 1951 Monday-Friday
July 1952-September 1952
The Steve Allen Show
Photo courtesy of Steve Allen
ALLEN SHOW, THE
June 1956-June 1958
September 1958-March 1959 Sunday
March 1959 Sunday
April 1959-June 1959
September 1959-June 1960
September 1961-December 1961 Wednesday 7:30-8:30
Gene Rayburn (1956-1959)
Skitch Henderson (1956-1959)
Marilyn Jacobs (1956-1957)
Tom Poston (1956-1959, 1961)
Gabe Dell (1956-1957, 1958-1961)
Don Knotts (1956-1960)
Dayton Allen (1958-1961)
Pat Harrington, Jr. (1958-1961 )
Cal Howard (1959-1960)
Bill Dana (1959-1960)
Joey Forman (1961)
Buck Henry (1961)
Jayne Meadows (1961)
John Cameron Swayze (1957-1958)
The Smothers Brothers (1961)
Tim Conway (1961)
Don Penny (1961)
Les Brown and His Band (1959-1961)
THE STEVE ALLEN COMEDY HOUR
The David Winters Dancers
The Terry Gibbs Band
June 1967-August 1967 Wednesday
STEVE ALLEN COMEDY HOUR
October 1980 Saturday
January 1981 Saturday
Terry Gibbs and His Band
Allen, Steve. Hi Ho Steverino! My Adventures in the Wonderful
Wacky World of Television. Fort Lee, New Jersey: Barricade,
Mark It and Strike It: An Autobiography. New York: Holt, 1960.
Jack. "To Meet Steve Allen." New York Times, 24 June 1956.
"Tribute to Actor Starts TV War." New York Times, 4 October
J. P. "Trio of Thriving TV Bananas." New York Times, 10 November
"Steve Allen." Current Biography Yearbook. New York: H.W.
also Allen, Steve;