BOOTLEG FILES 408: “The Colgate Comedy Hour” (1950-1955 variety program broadcast on NBC).
LAST SEEN: A number of episodes can be found online.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Several public domain video labels have offered episodes in anthology collections.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Someone forgot to register a copyright on the shows!
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely – keep reading and you’ll learn why!
During the early years of U.S. television, variety shows were among the most popular broadcast offerings. In many ways, they were an extension of the old-time vaudeville circuit with their line-ups of baggy-pants comics, good-looking singers and oddball novelty acts. One of the most popular programs from this period was “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” which began on NBC in September 1950 and ran through December 1955.
But unlike the other popular variety programs of its time, “The Colgate Comedy Hour” was not pegged to a single star. Instead, its appeal came in offering a rotation of A-list funnymen as the hosts. Presented under the sponsorship of the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Company, “The Colgate Comedy Hour” was first conceived with four sets of hosts that helmed one show per month: veteran comic Eddie Cantor, the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, beloved radio comedy star Fred Allen and a fourth slot shared by old-time Broadway funster Bobby Clark and Hollywood icon Bob Hope. At first, the fourth slot was technically not part of “The Colgate Comedy Hour” – Frigidaire covered the sponsorship costs and the show was simply billed as “The Comedy Hour” whenever Clark or Hope hosted.
However, problems arose almost immediately. Fred Allen was extremely uncomfortable with the new television production requirements and his appearances were poorly received. Using the excuse of a sudden onset of high blood pressure, he dropped out of the series after hosting only four episodes. A number of stars took over his slot, including Phil Silvers, Abbott and Costello and Beatrice Lillie. A truncated version of the Broadway musical “Tickets, Please” was also aired in one episode. Jackie Gleason turned up to host an episode, and NBC executive Sylvester “Pat” Weaver felt that he was ideal to become a permanent host for the show. But when Weaver tried to get the head of Colgate to hire Gleason, the Colgate chieftain offered the harsh response: “I don’t want that fat slob on my show again!”
By the show’s second season, Abbott and Costello and Donald O’Connor joined Hope, Cantor and Martin and Lewis as the show’s regular rotating hosts. Other performers would occasionally turn up as guest hosts, including opera tenor Ezio Pinza and slapstick bandleader Spike Jones. Jimmy Durante was rotated in as a host after Cantor suffered a heart attack in 1954, while singer Gordon MacRae assumed hosting duties in the 1954-55 season. Character actors Jack Carson and Robert Paige became hosts in the final run, which abruptly terminated mid-season in December 1955 after Colgate withdrew its sponsorship.
One key reason why “The Colgate Comedy Hour” ran out of gas was its lack of consistency. The different hosts brought very different style and substance to their respective shows: Bob Hope provided barbed topical humor, Martin and Lewis brought forth a near-feral brand of zaniness, Cantor and Clark were doing 1920s-style shtick, O’Connor had a very light and breezy appeal, and Abbott and Costello offered reruns of their well-worn comedy routines. Later in the show’s run, the program began offering abbreviated versions of popular musicals – most notably a version of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” starring Ethel Merman and Frank Sinatra. But the show’s ratings began to slip so precipitously that NBC increasingly began to pre-empt “The Colgate Comedy Hour” in its final seasons in favor of one-shot specialty programming.
Then, there was also the question of competition. NBC broadcast “The Colgate Comedy Hour” at Sunday at 8:00pm, directly opposite CBS’ variety heavy-hitter “The Toast of the Town” (later known as “The Ed Sullivan Show”). While Sullivan was no one’s idea of a charismatic TV host, he was a master showman who brought an astonishing selection of performers to his show. Sullivan’s show was also consistent with its fresh line-up of talent, as opposed to “The Toast of the Town” with its mostly old-hat comedy routines.
Today, “The Toast of the Town” is chiefly remembered for the episodes featuring Martin and Lewis and Abbott and Costello as hosts. The Martin and Lewis episodes were, hands down, the show’s finest moments. The live TV broadcasts brought out the team at their most raucous, and their guest stars picked up their energy. In one of the most wonderfully bizarre episodes, Burt Lancaster offered a brilliantly warped parody of his hit film “Come Back, Little Sheba” by playing a maniac who invades Martin and Lewis’ hotel room in search of his imaginary dog Sheba. Comedy was never Lancaster’s forte, but seeing him run comic circles around the team was priceless.
“The Colgate Comedy Hour” also offered Dean Martin a chance to show that he was Jerry Lewis’ equal in terms of spontaneous hilarity. This was a far cry from the Martin and Lewis movies, which were contrived and none-too-funny and significantly de-emphasized Martin’s abilities.
Somewhat less successful was the Abbott and Costello input on the show. By the early 1950s, the duo was unwilling to expand their act with new material, so they offered “The Colgate Comedy Hour” their hoary old routines including the inevitable “Who’s on First?” and a weird spin on “Slowly I Turned” that included Errol Flynn (of all people) as the off-kilter soul who turns homicidal upon hearing the words “Niagara Falls.” However, their appearances on the program showed more enthusiasm than any of their feature films of this period, and it was always amusing to see the comics ad-lib their way out of a predicament on live television when props broke or lines were muffed.
As previously stated, “The Colgate Comedy Hour” was broadcast live and the episodes were never intended to be rerun. The surviving episodes were preserved on 16mm kinescopes, where the visual quality runs from adequate to poor. Since neither NBC nor Colgate bothered to secure copyrights on the original episodes, the surviving kinescopes became public domain – and because many of these prints have been duped several times, the visual quality is far removed from the original broadcast picture.
A number of episodes have been posted online, and several public domain video labels have created anthology collections of the Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis appearances. The episode featuring the abbreviated version of “Anything Goes” had circulated for years in the collector-to-collector circuit before being commercially released on DVD earlier this year by the Entertainment One label.
However, getting a DVD anthology featuring the full series seems highly unlikely. Many of the earlier episodes probably do not exist, and clearing the various rights for the show’s occasional forays into musical productions would be costly. Plus, the commercial value of the full series might be iffy. (Really, how many people under the age of 70 have ever heard of Fred Allen?) Still, Still, I would be particularly interested in seeing the Allen, Cantor and Clark episodes, plus an Eddie Fisher-hosted 1955 episode offering highlights of the Broadway season, including numbers from classics “Damn Yankees” and “Fanny” plus the elusive all-black “House of Flowers.”
For the episodes that are easily accessible, “The Colgate Comedy Hour” offers a diverting slice of vintage entertainment. It may not be great art, but it was often great fun – and when it hit its mark, it was priceless comedy.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!