On This Day in 1950: Chain-smoking Belle Gives Radio Mouth-to-Mouth

Well, let’s get out the matches. It’s time for some festive display of pyrotechnics. No, I am not responding to the news that Saddam Hussein has been sentenced to death for crimes against humanity. It is Guy Fawkes Day here in Britain, celebrated with rockets and bonfires lit in commemoration of a rather more decisive victory against terrorism than could be claimed in the Middle East: the foiling of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London back in 1605. “Remember, remember, the Fifth of November”:

Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.

As such inflammatory (and subsequently watered-down) rhymes suggest, this all occurred long before Islam came to define what many now so closely associate with terrorism. Then again, organized religion is never far from terror—and often the foundation or instrument, the cinder heap and match of it.

While no radical symbolism was intended, Guy Fawkes Day also marks the second anniversary of my move from the United States to Wales, which, in a symbolic act fully premeditated, was scheduled to coincide with the 2004 presidential election in the US: a leave-taking on a note of triumph or, as it turned out, a sorrowful singeing of bridges. But these political and personal anniversaries are rather beyond the scope of the broadcastellan journal, which breaks its never-on-a-Sunday tradition to salute a firecracker of a Southern Belle who knew how to make a display of herself, simply by lighting another Craven A, her cigarette of choice.

I have already cheered the tar-pitched voice of Tallulah Bankhead in my first podcast, a salute that was promptly answered by what struck me as a nod from the lady herself (as shared in the concluding paragraph of this entry); but another toast is quite in order, since it was on this day in 1950 that Ms. Bankhead made radio history with her debut as mistress of ceremonies for The Big Show, an unseen spectacular of unheard of proportions.

NBC’s Big Show was US broadcasting’s last major investment in aural entertainment. It was also an admission and a compromise: an admission that Americans did no longer take radio seriously enough to sit down for a longer piece of audio theater, and a compromise in the form of a ninety-minute variety program delivering songs, gags, and snippets of drama. The inaugural broadcast featured old pros like Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman, as well as newcomers including Danny Thomas and Jose Ferrer (in a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac). Also on mike for this premiere were semi-retired radio comedian Fred Allen, character actor Paul Lukas, and recording artist Frankie Laine. It was musical-variety gone hit-parading: a quick succession of acts introduced by an engaging and radiogenic personality.

This Sunday Night Live spectacular was well received by critic and audiences alike, even though it proved ultimately too extravagant to be at once effective in cost and consistent in quality in an age when money and talent were being siphoned into television, the new everyman’s home theater. Short-sidedness aside, I don’t see why a variety program like The Big Show could not work on radio nowadays as something you tune in on a long journey or a dull evening to be turned on by contemporary singers, stand-up comedians, and a gaggle of celebrities promoting their latest movies, albums, or books.

Of course, there is no one to take the place of the hot-tempered Ms. Bankhead, a seasoned siren who, aware of the futility, the profligate waste of starting over—Tallulah rasa, as it were—managed to make use of an outmoded medium that allowed her to draw on a life in the limelight while keeping her out of it in prominent invisibility; to send her image up in smoke while firing barbs at the luminaries around her; and to become a breath of fresh air while all along indulging in the excesses of a malignant and much maligned habit. So, if you got a match to spare, why not dim the lights, listen to the fabulous Tallulah, and spark up a candle (or a cigarette) in her honor!

One Reply to “On This Day in 1950: Chain-smoking Belle Gives Radio Mouth-to-Mouth”

  1. What about Monitor, NBC Radio\’s weekend-long \”kalediscopic phantasmagoria\” as aired weekends from 19 June 1955 until 20 January 1975?Perhaps some recognition should be given of what some have called \”the last great programme on [American] radio,\” whose slogan was \”weekends are different–so is Monitor.\”

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