In 1954, NBC exec Sylvester “Pat” Weaver was looking for a show that could open up the late night time slot for network programming. He’d previously tried a raucous variety show there — Broadway Open House, hosted some nights by Morey Amsterdam and others by Jerry Lester. This time, his search led him to The Steve Allen Show, which the New York NBC station had recently begun airing. That show was acquired, retitled and expanded…and it debuted on September 27, 1954 as Tonight! Histories note that the exclamation point was soon deleted…and we can see there is none on the earliest ticket above, which is from October 20.
Tonight did everything it could to fill the time: There were games, interviews, sketches, songs…even, for a brief time, a nightly (real) news round-up. Steve played piano, chatted with eccentric guests and audience members and put up with stunts which he sometimes described as “plots by the staff against my life.” Gene Rayburn was the announcer and sidekick, Skitch Henderson led the band and the regulars included singers Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, Pat Marshall and Andy Williams. Allen also developed a “stock company” of talented comedians like Don Knotts, Louis Nye, Tom Poston and Dayton Allen, though some of these didn’t join him until his post-Tonight ventures.
Most of the time, as the above tickets show, Tonight came from the Hudson Theater in New York. The one ticket above for a broadcast from the West Coast is for August 4, 1955. For eight weeks that year, Tonight emanated from Hollywood where Steve Allen was filming the title role in the movie, The Benny Goodman Story. Most performers would consider it a tiring full-time job to either host a late night show five evenings a week or to star in a major motion picture. Somehow, without missing a day on either, Allen managed to do both…though right after, he did take his first two-week vacation from Tonight, turning the festivities over to guest host Ernie Kovacs.
The August 28, 1956 ticket lacks the name of Steve Allen because it was for a Tuesday night. In June of that year, Allen and his crew had added a prime-time Sunday night series to their workload, competing on NBC against Ed Sullivan’s popular CBS program. The burden became too great and soon after, the Monday and Tuesday night broadcasts of Tonight were turned over to a roster of ever-changing guest hosts, including Ernie Kovacs, Jack Paar, Henry Morgan, Bill Cullen, Gene Rayburn, Rudy Vallee, Tony Randall, cartoonist Al Capp and even, from the old Broadway Open House, Morey Amsterdam and Jerry Lester. It is not known who was hosting on the eve of the above ticket, but Kovacs became the regular Monday-Tuesday host in October.
He continued, with Allen hosting the rest of the week, until the end of January, 1957 when Allen decided to give up the late night show. The entire thing was replaced by a famous disaster — a multi-hosted “magazine” show called Tonight: America After Dark. When that didn’t work, they went scurrying to find another single host who could do something more like what Steve Allen had done. The result was the Jack Paar era of Tonight.
The Steve Allen years remain legendary but largely lost: As with many shows of the day (including the Tonight run of Paar and the early years of his successor, Johnny Carson) few tapes or kinescopes exist. Allen went on to do more shows, some of which were in a similar enough format that many people remember them when they think they’re remembering his years on Tonight. This can get you to wondering if the lost shows are legendary in part because they are lost, and are appraised only through rose-colored memories. Judging from what does exist — and from those later shows — that’s not the case here. Steve Allen’s Tonight does seem to have been as unpredictable, spontaneous and innovative as everyone remembers…the kind of show you dared not miss because the next day, everyone would be saying, “Did you see what happened on that show last night?” Talk shows aren’t like that anymore. They don’t have anyone as brave and as willing to soar before millions without controls and preparation as was Steve Allen.
We do have a mystery with these tickets. Every single history of Tonight says that for its entire run, the Steve Allen version was an hour and 45 minutes in length, commencing at 11:15 PM in the East. Yet here, we see that the 6/28/56 and 8/28/56 tickets give an airtime of 11:20 PM to 1:00 AM, and the 11/30/56 ticket says 11:30 PM to 1:00 AM. If there’s an explanation for this, I’d love to hear it.