The Colgate Comedy Hour

By Jim Davidson
Posted 6/25/2005
Updated
9/19/2009

Season 1
1950-51


The Hosts
Eddie Cantor
Season 1 - 12 Episodes
Season 2 - 12 Episodes
Season 3 - 7 Episodes
Season 4 - 7 Episodes

Known as "Banjo Eyes," Eddie Cantor was one of the biggest stars of vaudeville, Broadway, movies, and radio. Cantor hosted more episodes of The Colgate Comedy Hour than anyone else, including the very first one.
Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis
Season 1 - 8 Episodes
Season 2 - 5 Episodes
Season 3 - 5 Episodes
Season 4 - 4 Episodes
Season 5 - 4 Episodes
Season 6 - 2 Episodes

Martin and Lewis were an up-and-coming comedy team, with a popular radio show and two My Friend Irma movies to their credit when they began their Comedy Hour stint. This early TV work was closer to their nightclub and stage show act, and many fans consider it funnier and more "authentic" than their movies.
Fred Allen
Season 1 - 4 Episodes

Fred Allen had been one of radio's biggest stars but didn't fare nearly as well on television. His verbal wit wasn't well suited to the new video medium, where the seltzer bottle and pie in the face were the order of the day. A charter member of The Colgate Comedy Hour, Allen only hosted four episodes but showed up as a guest in a few subsequent ones.
Bobby Clark
Season 1 - 4 Episodes

Like Eddie Cantor, Bobby Clark was a former vaudevillian who had gone on to star on Broadway and in films. Clark had been half of the team of Clark and McCullough before his partner Paul McCullough committed suicide with a barber's razor in 1936. Clark's eyeglasses were painted on.

Bob Hope
Season 1 - 3 Episodes
Season 2 - 3 Episodes
Season 3 - 10 Episodes
Season 5 - 1 Episode


Though Bob Hope was one of the earliest movie stars to embrace television, his appearances on that medium generally consisted of occasional specials. His Comedy Hour performances fit that pattern, although in the third season, they were more regular.

Tony Martin
Season 1 - 2 Episodes
Season 2 - 1 Episode


A gifted singer, Tony Martin was also a talented saxophonist and comedian. Though he only hosted three Comedy Hour episodes, Martin guest starred in several others.
Abbott & Costello
Season 1 - 2 Episodes
Season 2 - 6 Episodes
Season 3 - 6 Episodes
Season 4 - 4 Episodes
Season 5 - 1 Episode

Abbott & Costello were the most successful comedy team of the 1940s, with some of the highest grossing films of the decade. Following a popular radio show, they moved into television with a filmed series that ran concurrently with their Colgate Comedy Hour appearances.
Donald O'Connor
Season 2 - 7 Episodes
Season 3 - 5 Episodes
Season 4 - 4 Episodes

Donald O'Connor was a qaudruple threat who could act, sing, dance, and do comedy. As a particularly acrobatic dancer, he was a natural co-star to Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain. He lasted three years on The Comedy Hour and was one of the hosts most closely identified with the show.
Jimmy Durante
Season 4 - 8 Episodes

One of America's most beloved entertainers, Jimmy Durante spent a brief but memorable season on The Colgate Comedy Hour. His act was similar to that seen on his other radio and TV shows, including the trademark, "Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are."
Gordon MacRae
Season 5 - 12 Episodes

Unlike most of the other Colgate hosts, Gordon MacRae was a singer rather than a comedian and was billed as "your singing host." He went on to greater fame in the movies Oklahoma! and Carousel.
Jack Carson
Season 2 - 1 Episode
Season 6 - 3 Episodes

A verstatile character actor, equally comfortable in both comedy and drama, Jack Carson was a familiar face to moviegoers. He made a series of films co-starring Dennis Morgan and was popular on radio before moving into television.
Robert Paige
Season 6 - 4 Episodes

Robert Paige had the dubious distinction of being the very last host of The Colgate Comedy Hour. Though not as well-known as some of the show's other emcees, he enjoyed a prolific film career (during which he was the only man allowed to sing alongside Deanna Durbin). In the 1950s, Paige found a niche in television, as both a dramatic actor and frequent host. He later became a newscaster in Los Angeles.

Broadcast History
Sundays, 8:00 - 9:00 pm, NBC-TV
The Colgate Comedy Hour (9/10/1950 - 6/5/1955)
The Comedy Hour (Frigidaire-sponsored episodes, 10/1/1950 - 5/13/1951)
The Colgate Summer Comedy Hour (6/6/1954 - 9/5/1954)
The Colgate Variety Hour (6/12/1955 - 12/25/1955)
The NBC Comedy Hour (1/8/1956 - 6/10/1956)

If you're under the age of 50, chances are you've never heard of The Colgate Comedy Hour. But way back at the dawn of the TV age, this show was one of the most popular on the air, eclipsing even the venerated Ed Sullivan and Your Show of Shows. In fact, The Colgate Comedy Hour occupied the same Sunday night at 8:00 time slot as the Sullivan program (then known as Toast of the Town) and on a weekly basis dealt it a sound thrashing in the ratings race.

In 1950, NBC teamed with the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Company to create a TV show that's only dimly remembered today but deserving of more recognition. The secret of the show's success wasn't the format - that was pretty conventional. As the name implied, it was heavy on the comedy, with a bit of singing and dancing thrown in for good measure. But the combination of a sizable budget (for its time), funny and entertaining material, and a roster of big name stars ensured its popularity.

The stars, mostly veterans of vaudeville, Broadway, radio, or movies, took turns hosting, usually in four or five week cycles. In the first few seasons, those most frequently seen were Eddie Cantor, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, Abbott & Costello, Donald O'Connor, and Jimmy Durante. Martin and Lewis were particular standouts, with many fans considering their Colgate work the best of their careers.

Aside from its entertainment value, The Colgate Comedy Hour is notable for its participation in a couple of historic events. In 1951, it became the first TV show to broadcast live from coast-to-coast. It was also chosen to be the subject of an experimental telecast of NBC's new color TV system in 1953.

Because the show was live, anything could happen, and usually did. Performers would forget their lines (or misread the cue cards), or props wouldn't work as expected. The show might run over, forcing the director to cut some skits. Or it could run short, and the emcees would have to ad lib.

Occasionally, health problems sidelined one of the stars. Both Eddie Cantor and Lou Costello missed several months due to illness. Recuperating from a knee injury, Jerry Lewis did an entire show sitting down. Even some of the guest stars got into the act, with Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, Jack Benny, and Joan Blondell all missing scheduled appearances.

Following the 1953-54 season, Cantor, O'Connor, and Durante left to star in their own shows. For a program whose identity was so closely tied to its hosts, it was a severe blow that ultimately proved fatal. With a shortage of stars, The Comedy Hour began emphasizing special events like adaptations of Broadway musicals, ice skating, air shows - even a jai alai game from Mexico. The program also went on the road, originating from cities like Chicago, Miami Beach, New Orleans, and Las Vegas.

Though Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, and Bob Hope stuck with the show, their appearances were much less frequent. The host most often seen during the 1954-55 season was Gordon MacRae, who though a pleasant singer and able emcee, wasn't much of a comedian and lacked the star power of the show's earlier hosts. The audience began to fall off, and The Comedy Hour dropped from #10 to #27 in the ratings, while Ed Sullivan jumped from #17 to #5. It didn't help that NBC had begun pre-empting the show once a month to air glitzy color musicals.

In the Summer of 1955, the show's name was changed to the Colgate Variety Hour. Finding a suitable host was still a problem, and after George Murphy and William Holden turned down the job, Charlton Heston was chosen on a temporary basis. As an added attraction, clips from current movies began to be shown on the air, but ratings remained flat. The show limped along into the fall with Edgar Bergen, Jack Carson, Robert Paige, and a few others taking their turns. Martin and Lewis even hosted a couple of times (their York Productions was now producing the show) but it didn't help. Colgate withdrew its sponsorship after the December 25th broadcast and The Comedy Hour was no more.

NBC filled out the remainder of the season with a show called The NBC Comedy Hour until coming up with a more permanent replacement in The Steve Allen Show in June 1956.

The Colgate Comedy Hour was one of the bright spots of early television. But as the medium matured and competition increased, it became harder to retain big name hosts. And with a decline in ratings, NBC could no longer justify the program's cost.

Behind the Scenes

Besides its hosts and guest stars, The Colgate Comedy Hour boasted an array of behind-the-scenes talent, some of whom went on to even bigger things.

Arguably the most famous is Norman Lear, who wrote for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Lear is, of course, the producer who expanded the boundaries of television by bringing shows like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Maude, and Good Times to the air.

Lear's producing partner, Bud Yorkin, was a Colgate director, while Arthur Penn (The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde) filled the assistant director's job.

Danny Arnold, producer-creator of Barney Miller, was another Martin and Lewis writer, and Larry Gelbart of M*A*S*H fame wrote for Bob Hope.

Abbott and Costello tended to use colleagues from their movies and filmed TV show, including writers Eddie Forman, Pat Costello (Lou's brother), and John Grant.

Ernest D. Glucksman was Martin and Lewis's producer and later worked on many of Lewis's movies. A couple of the show's other producers went on to marry well: Mike Todd, who supervised the Bobby Clark segments, became Elizabeth Taylor's spouse, while William Asher was the future husband of Elizabeth Montgomery.

Others who had long stints on The Comedy Hour were executive producers Sam Fuller and Pete Barnum, producers Charles Friedman and Edward Sobol, and directors Kingman T. Moore and Jim Jordan.

Musical directors included Dick Stabile (Martin and Lewis), Les Brown (Bob Hope), Roy Bargy (Jimmy Durante), Carmen Dragon (Gordon MacRae), Tom Jones (Bobby Clark), and Al Goodman (just about everyone else).

Announcers didn't start identifying themselves until the third season of The Colgate Comedy Hour, but it appears that Don Pardo (of Saturday Night Live fame) filled the role in the first season (1950-51), when the show originated from New York. Hal Sawyer was announcer in the second through fourth seasons, and Wendell Niles stepped in for the final two years.

Along the way, the announcing chores were sometimes handled by a substitute. 60 Minutes's Mike Wallace did a couple of shows that originated from Chicago in Season 1. George Putnam announced at least one episode in Season 5. And Jack Benny sidekick Don Wilson was heard (and seen) in at least one show in the summer of 1954.


Rank and Ratings Comparison of
The Colgate Comedy Hour with The Ed Sullivan Show
Season
Colgate Comedy/
Variety Hour
NBC
Toast of the Town/
The Ed Sullivan Show
CBS
1950-51
5/42.0
15/36.5
1951-52
5/45.3
Did not rank in the top 30
1952-53
7/44.3
Did not rank in the top 30
1953-54
10/36.2
17/33.0
1954-55
27/28.0
5/39.6
1955-56
Did not rank in the top 30
3/39.5


Sources

In the episode guide, I've tried to stick to primary sources (those contemporary with the original airing of the shows) as much as possible and not make any assumptions I can't verify. My main sources have been The New York Times TV listings, ads, articles, and reviews, TV Guide (San Francisco/Northern California edition), Variety reviews, the online catalog of the UCLA television archives, and the episodes themselves. I've also made use of articles from the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune, and San Diego Union.