Thursday, January 22, 2009


1948 to 1952 was the Jurassic era in network television, for audiences, video professionals, and even for established headliners, like boisterous comedian Jerry Lester (above), who pioneered late night programming on NBC-TV.

In the spring of 1950, video visionary and head of NBC's young, television network, Sylvester” Pat" Weaver, decided that he could light up the night for millions of American television viewers, by mounting a live comedy/variety program when the other networks were dark, at 11PM Eastern time.

Weaver believed that original, LIVE programming would easily surpass the ancient films that local stations were airing at that hour, to win the daypart while bringing new audience and new advertisers to NBC-TV.

The inspired showman wanted to bring home the vibrant, spontaneous quality of New York, nightclub entertainment to NBC viewers, in a one-hour comedy/variety show called Broadway Open House. Weaver scheduled it to air from 11pm to Midnight, each weeknight.

Weaver knew that the star of the show had to ad-lib at a fasy and furious pace, in order to capitalize on unscripted events on the LIVE broadcast. The NBC executive engaged joke-master Morey Amsterdam, who was hosting a variety show on the DuMont Network to host the series on Monday and Friday night. Amsterdam would go on to television immortality as a cast member of the beloved Dick Van Dyke Show.

To host the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday episodes, Weaver hired a versatile singer, dancer, comic named Jerry Lester , whom he had seen in a guest appearance on an NBC talk program. When that show ended, Weaver called the switchboard at 30 Rock, was connected to Lester and immediately hired the energetic entertainer.

Broadway Open House, sponsored by Blatz Brewery and Anchor-Hocking Glassware, debuted in May of 1950.

The studio setting was a flimsy, ersatz representation of a Manhattan penthouse apartment. The program, while primitive in production values,was robust in its comedy and music. A large company of singers,dancers and comedians, plus announcer/sidekick Wayne Howell and an orchestra ,led by conductor Milton DeLugg , comprised the cast.

Later in the series' run, a voluptuous performer, known to viewers only as Dagmar, was added to the cast and she became a cultural sensation. Many observers of early television say it was her considerable charm and formidable bust size, that thrust her into the forefront of public awareness.

Amsterdam left after a few months, and Lester started hosting five nights per week, becoming America's first king of late night television. He was, by his own admission, relentless in pursuit of a laugh and the affection of his audience.

In a New York Times article, Lester was quoted as saying that,"If they like you, you don't have to worry whether every gag goes over big or if every sketch is the best thing they've ever seen," he said. "And if it isn't, I don't beat the audience over the head. I never tell them they're wrong. I just apologize."

A rare comic,for his times, Lester had a college degree from Northwestern University. He had performed in nightclubs and in films, on Broadway and on radio, prior to hosting the NBC-TV late night,series. He stayed with the program for two years and left the show to return to musical theater and movies. Lester enjoyed great professional success in the years that followed.

Sadly. he passed away in 1995 , at age 85, after a 20 year battle with Alzheimer's disease.

When Lester left Broadway Open House in 1952, NBC's Weaver reluctantly returned the timeslot to local stations. It would be two years before he reclaimed it for the network with Steve Allen's original version of The Tonight Show.

Broadway Open House with Jerry Lester and Dagmar paved the way for almost sixty years of late night, programming dominance for NBC-TV.

The clip below is an aircheck from Ira Gallen's TV Days,You Tube site. It goes to black from 01:23 until 02:02, as it did LIVE on the network, so local stations could insert a :30 commercial. Enjoy!!!!!

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