Comedy and Variety Shows

Television and vaudeville combined to create the form of entertainment known as the variety show. Variety shows were made up of short acts — musical numbers, comedy sketches, animal tricks, etc. — usually centered around an engaging host (master of ceremonies). The variety format allowed for a wide range of styles. Common elements to most such shows included an emcee, a live audience, a curtain, and a steady stream of guests ranging from recording stars to comedians to classical musicians. By the 1949–50 season, the three highest-rated television programs were variety shows: The Texaco Star Theatre (NBC, 1948–53), Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town (CBS, 1948–71; renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955), and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (CBS, 1948–58).

Texaco Star Theatre was an American comedy-variety show, broadcast on radio from 1938 to 1949 and telecast on NBC from 1948 to 1956. It was one of the first successful examples of American television broadcasting, remembered as the show that gave Milton Berle the nickname “Mr. Television.” When Texaco (now Chevron Corporation) first took it to television on NBC on June 8, 1948, the show had a huge cultural impact. Once Texaco ended its sponsorship in the mid-1950s, the show became known as The Milton Berle Show for its final few seasons.

Uncle Miltie (he first called himself by that name ad-libbing at the end of a 1949 broadcast) joked, preened, pratfell, danced, costumed, and clowned his way to stardom, with Americans discovering television as a technological marvel and entertainment medium seeming to bring the country to a dead stop every Tuesday night, just to see what the madcap Berle might pull next. Uncle Miltie was far from alone in keeping the show alive and kicking. His support players included Fatso Marco (1948–1952), Ruth Gilbert as “Max,” Milton’s love-starved secretary (1952–1955), Bobby Sherwood (1952–1953), Arnold Stang (1953–1955), Jack Collins (1953–1955), and Milton Frome (1953–1955). The show’s music was provided by Alan Roth (1948–1955) and Victor Young (1955–1956).

The Texaco Star Theatre dominated all TV competition in the late 40s and early 50s with an estimated 90% of America’s sets tuned to Uncle Miltie and guests such as Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Danny Thomas, Walter Huston, Tallulah Bankhead and Basil Rathbone, to name just a very few. The show opened with four guys dressed like service station attendants singing “Oh, we’re the men from Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico.” Then, out would come Berle dressed in some wacky costume, often in drag. Although there were all manner of guests and skits, Berle was the star attraction. By the end of 1948, Berle’s show was seen each week by an estimated 80 percent of all TV owners. He was the primary reason many people purchased their first TV sets: Tuesday nights were his, and both Time and Newsweek put him on the cover in 1949, in the same week.

Texaco dropped its sponsorship of the show and Buick became the new sponsor in 1953, prompting the show’s name change to The Buick-Berle Show. Two years later, it became, simply, The Milton Berle Show, its title until its run ended at last in June 1956. By then, Berle and his audience had probably burned out on each other, and Buick had even dropped sponsorship of the show at the beginning of the 1955–1956. Though Berle would remain one of the nation’s beloved entertainers, overall, the show that made him a superstar was clearly spent for steam and fresh ideas, and two subsequent attempts at television comebacks hosting his own show lasted barely a year each. Berle did, however, contribute his part to the making of a rock and roll legend: in his final season, he opened his stage to Elvis Presley amid the beginning of his international popularity.

Texaco Star Theatre theme song– “We are the Men from Texaco” (1948):

“Oh, we’re the men of Texaco

We work from Maine to Mexico

There’s nothing like this Texaco of ours!


Our show is very powerful

We’ll wow you with an hour full

Of howls from a shower full of stars.


We’re the merry Texaco men

Tonight we may be showmen

Tomorrow we’ll be servicing your cars!


We wipe your pipe

We pump your gas

We jack your back

We scrub your glass


So join the ranks of those who know

And fill your tanks with Texaco


Fire Chief, fill up with Fire Chief, You will smile at the pile of new miles you will add

Sky Chief, fill up with Sky Chief

You’ll find that Texaco’s the finest friend your car has ever had

…And now, ladies and gentlemen… America’s number one television star… MILTON BERLE!…


Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town began in 1948 as The Toast of the Town and was renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. This was probably the most famous television variety show in history. It ran continuously until 1971 and was responsible for introducing many entertainment stars including Elvis Presley and The Beatles to a national American audience. Ed Sullivan himself was a newspaper columnist who wrote about show business. He was far from gifted as a TV host. Sullivan had a nickname; he was called “The Great Stone Face” by many! His lack of an apparent personality was strangely appealing and probably contributed to his success on Toast of the Town. Newspaper columnist Harriet Van Horne once wrote, “He got where he is not by having a personality, but by having no personality; he is the commonest common denominator.” Nonetheless, during the 23 years this show ran, it was America’s foremost star-making machine. In 2002, The Ed Sullivan Show was ranked #15 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. In 2013, the series finished No. 31 in TV Guide Magazine’s 60 Best Series of All Time. From 1948 through 1962, the program’s primary sponsor was the Lincoln-Mercury Division of the Ford Motor Company; Sullivan read many commercials for Mercury vehicles live on the air during this period.

In its first eight years of existence, there was no such thing as rock and roll to be featured on the program, yet even its first broadcast made music history when Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II gave the world its first taste of the score from their upcoming musical, South Pacific. Over the years, live performances of new and current Broadway shows were featured regularly on Ed Sullivan, including Julie Andrews singing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady and Richard Burton singing “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” from Camelot. Classical and opera performers also made frequent appearances. But, of course, The Ed Sullivan Show is now remembered most for providing so many iconic moments in the history of televised rock and roll. Among those who made their American television debut on Sullivan’s show were Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, Eddie Fisher, Charles Laughton, the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and, of course, the Beatles.

Sullivan had a keen understanding of what various demographic segments of his audience desired to see. As an impresario for the highbrow, he debuted ballerina Margot Fonteyn in 1958 and later teamed her with Rudolf Nureyev in 1965; saluted Van Cliburn after his upset victory in the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow; and welcomed many neighbors from the nearby Metropolitan Opera, including Roberta Peters, who appeared 41 times, and the rarely seen Maria Callas, who performed a fully staged scene from Tosca. As the cultural eyes and ears for middle America, he introduced movie and Broadway legends into the collective living room, including Pearl Bailey, who appeared 23 times; Richard Burton and Julie Andrews in a scene from the 1961 Camelot; Sammy Davis Jr. with the Golden Boy cast; former CBS stage manager Yul Brynner in The King and I; Henry Fonda reading Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; and the rising star Barbra Streisand singing “Color Him Gone” in her 1962 debut. Occasionally, he devoted an entire telecast to one theme or biography: “The Cole Porter Story,” “The Walt Disney Story,” “The MGM Story,” and “A Night at Sophie Tucker’s House.”

What distinguished Sullivan from other variety hosts was the ability to capitalize on teenage obsession. His introduction of rock ‘n’ roll not only brought the adolescent subculture into the variety fold but also legitimized the music for the adult sensibility. Elvis Presley had appeared with Milton Berle and Tommy Dorsey, but Sullivan’s deal with Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, created national headlines. The sexual energy of Presley’s first appearance on September 9, 1956 jolted the staid, Eisenhower conformism of Sullivan’s audience. By his third and final appearance, Elvis was shot only from the waist up, but Sullivan learned how to capture a new audience for his show, the baby boom generation.

Here is the instrumental theme song for the Sullivan show.

Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (CBS, 1948–58) was a popular TV comedy-oriented variety show from the late ’40s up to the end of its run in 1958. It premiered December 6, 1948. The show aired Monday at 8:30-9:00 PM on CBS its entire run. During the 1951-52 TV season it reached number one in the ratings. The next season I Love Lucy vaulted into first place, but thereafter through most of the 1950s Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts regularly finished in TV’s primetime top ten. By mid-July in 1950 the success of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts on CBS inspired a glut of 15 talent shows on the networks – eight on radio and seven on television. Godfrey just kept rolling along – finishing among the Top Five programs in 1950-51.

The Talent Scouts format was simple: listeners were asked to nominate acts – professional or amateur – who they thought deserving of exposure to a national audience. Five acts were picked for each show and paid $100 while their “talent scouts” who were interviewed by Godfrey, received $25. Winners were determined by applause and rewarded with appearances on Arthur Godfrey Time for the next three days. Most of these “discoveries” were in fact struggling professionals looking for a break, and so the quality of the talent was quite high. At the program’s conclusion, the studio audience selected the winner by way of an applause meter.

In his day Godfrey significantly assisted the careers of Pat Boone, Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher, Connie Francis, Leslie Uggams, Lenny Bruce, Steve Lawrence, Connie Francis, Roy Clark, and Patsy Cline. His “discovery” of Patsy Cline on January 21, 1957 was typical. Her scout, actually her mother Hilda Hensley, presented Patsy who sang her recent recording Walkin’ After Midnight. The audience’s ovations stopped the meter at its apex, and for a couple of months thereafter Cline appeared regularly on Godfrey’s radio program. Although Godfrey is credited with making Patsy Cline a star; however, he proved fallible when he turned down Sonny Till and The Orioles, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly! Although Godfrey turned down the chance to sign Elvis Presley at the same audition, he did sign singer Pat Boone.

CBS financial records filed with the Securities & Exchange Commission showed Arthur Godfrey was the network’s highest paid employee in 1948 at $258,450, (2.5 Mil in today’s money). By 1959, total advertising billings from Godfrey’s TV shows were estimated at an industry-high $150 million, almost double those of second-place Ed Sullivan.

Godfrey’s familiar theme song was the instrumental “Seems Like Old Times,”

The Lawrence Welk Show (1955–1982) was one of television’s longest-running variety shows. The show was based on the concept of the big band of the old-time radio era. The Lawrence Welk Show was first seen on network TV as a summer replacement program in 1955. Although the critics were not impressed, Welk’s show went on to last an astonishing 27 years. His format was simple: easy-listening music, what he referred to as “champagne music,” and a “family” of wholesome musicians, singers, and dancers. You could see/hear everything from polka music, ragtime, lounge, big band, waltzes, some religious hymns, dressed-up country and Irish ballads. Lots of dancing and costumes. Particular favorites of the audiences involved Lawrence dancing (often the polka) with the Champagne Lady, i.e. the orchestra’s lead female singer and quasi-hostess. Champagne Ladies over the years included Alice Lon, Jayne Walton, Norma Zimmer, Roberta Linn and Frances Young. There was to be absolutely NO rock n’ roll or current music in any form. It provided the older audience with an alternative to variety shows that were becoming increasingly dominated by pop, rock n’ roll music.

The Lawrence Welk Show aimed to re-create a particular kind of fun, an evening spent out on the town listening to inoffensive yet danceable music, then taking a swing out on the floor with a significant other. Welk’s big band had been carefully pulled together over his years touring and on the radio, and it was filled with the sorts of nice, Midwestern boys like Welk himself (a North Dakota native). The primary goal of the program was to make sure the music never stopped playing, and that it never got to be too much for the show’s predominantly older audience. The Lawrence Welk Show gave a national audience to the touring Midwestern dance bands that enlivened county fairs and local festivals.

There were many show favorites throughout the years including the Lennon Sisters, the Champagne Ladies (Alice Lon and Norma Zimmer); accordionist Myron Floren, who was also the assistant conductor; singer-pianist Larry Hooper; singers Joe Feeney and Guy Hovis; violinist Aladdin; dancers Bobby Burgess and Barbara Boylan; and Welk’s daughter-in-law, Tanya Falan Welk. Most of the regulars stayed with the show for years, but a few moved on or were told to move on by Mr. Welk. In 1959, for example, Welk fired Champagne Lady Alice Lon for “showing too much knee” on camera. After receiving thousands of protest letters for his actions, he attempted to have Alice return, but she refused.

Welk himself was the target of endless jokes. Born on a North Dakota farm in 1903 of Alsatian immigrant parents, he dropped out of school in the fourth grade. He was 21 years-old before he spoke English. His thick accent and stiff stage presence were often parodied. But viewers were delighted when he played the accordion or danced with one of the women in the audience. Fans also bought millions of his albums which contributed to the personal fortune he amassed, a fortune including a music recording and publishing empire and the Lawrence Welk Country Club Village.

Your Show of Shows (NBC, 1950–54),was one of the best variety shows ever made – a reason to stay home on Saturday nights. It was a live 90-minute weekly comedy-variety program starring an ensemble of versatile character actor-comics that included Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris. The show is most remembered for its superbly written and acted sketch comedy and cultural satire. The characters they developed returned time and again to the delight of the studio audience and the growing number of Americans with TV sets. Many of the cast members went on to star in another variety show, Caesar’s Hour (NBC, 1954–57), which included among its writing staff future film directors Woody Allen and Mel Brooks as well as playwright Neil Simon. Within a few years, Your Show of Shows entertainers such as Jackie Gleason, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Red Skelton, and George Gobel would headline their own popular variety series.

Sid Caesar, notorious for his deviations from the script, was skilled at mime, dialects, monologues, foreign language double-talk, and general comic acting. Whether alone, paired with Coca, or part of the four-man repertory group, he excelled. Not a rapid-fire jokester like Berle or Fred Allen, Caesar was often compared in the press to the likes of Chaplin, Fields, or Raimu. The 90-minute show usually featured a guest host (who played a minor role), at least two production numbers, sketches between Caesar and Coca, the showcase parody of a popular film (e.g., “Aggravation Boulevard,” “From Here to Obscurity”), further sketches (as many as ten per show), Caesar in monologue or pantomime (e.g., an expectant father in the waiting room, the autobiography of a gum-ball machine), and the entire company in a production number. The most famous characters included Charlie and Doris Hickenlooper, a mis-matched married couple played by Caesar and Coca; The Professor, a Germanic expert scientist in everything and nothing; storyteller Somerset Winterset; jazz musicians Cool C’s and Progress Hornsby; and the mechanical figures of the great clock of Baverhoff, Bavaria, striking one another in addition to the hour.

In 2002, Your Show of Shows was ranked #30 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. In 2013, it was ranked #37 on TV Guide’s 60 Best Series of All Time. In 2013, Your Show of Shows was ranked #10 on Entertainment Weekly’s Top 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. The opening theme‎ for Your Show of Shows was Stars Over Broadway.”

Other TV variety shows that were popular in the Fifties included, The Milton Berle Show, The Perry Como Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, Your Hit Parade, The Jack Benny Show, The George Gobel Show, The Dinah Shore Show, and The Red Skelton Show.