Splitsider

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

America’s First Sitcom and Other Forgotten Comedies on DuMont, the Lost Network

NBC, ABC, and CBS. We remember these as the first television networks, the ones that gave us I Love Lucy, The Abbott and Costello Show, and Your Show of Shows. But there was another network that came before ABC and CBS, one that nearly originated before NBC: the long-forgotten, long-extinct DuMont Television Network.

In 1931, Dr. Albert B. DuMont founded DuMont Laboratories in the basement of his Cedar Grove, New Jersey apartment, and by 1933, he had essentially created radar, to be used by the United States military, and by the end of the decade, he and his team produced the first all-electronic television set, thanks to the development of the cathode ray tube. They soon after opened a TV station in New York City, W2XWV, which was changed to WABD in 1944, and another in Washington D.C., W3XWT, in 1945 (and would expand to dozens of networks, including Pittsburgh and St. Louis, by 1950).

Due to a lack of funds, DuMont sold part of his company to Paramount, which helped in the short run but hurt in the long, because Paramount feared TV becoming more popular than the film industry, their bread and butter (and, according to DuMont History, “Paramount even owned and operated its own TV stations, which competed with DuMont's own affiliates. Because the FCC considered Paramount to be the co-owner of DuMont's stations, their presence prevented DuMont from acquiring more television outlets to carry its network programming”).

On August 15, 1946, DuMont aired its first program: Serving Through Science. Because DuMont had no pre-existing radio history, like NBC and its soon-to-be rivals CBS and ABC, the network had to rely on, well, luck and hoping for word-of-mouth popularity. The way they sold ads was different, too: at the time, an advertiser would sponsor a single program, so an entire episode of Camel News Caravan would be endorsed just by the cigarette brand, but DuMont sold commercials to many advertisers, which is now, of course, the normal practice. (Another DuMont achievement: making it possible for people in the Mideast to watch a show at the same time as someone on the East Coast.)

Below are 13 shows, all comedies, that aired on DuMont, until the network ran out of money and went off the air on August 6, 1956 (the only other time something like this has happened since was when WB and UPN shut down in 2006, but they merged together and came back to life as the CW). Very little information, let alone footage, remains from many of the following shows, so you’ll have to forgive the emphasis being on the show as a whole, rather than individual episodes or plot twists (or if I left any shows off — it’s not like there were Splitsider recaps to keep track of these things in the 1940s).

As for the reason why so many of DuMont’s shows don’t exist anymore, take it away Professor Edie Adams, testifying before the Library of Congress in 1996:

“In the earlier '70's, [DuMont] was being bought by another company, and the lawyers were in heavy negotiation as to who would be responsible for the library of the DuMont shows currently being stored at the facility, who would bear the expense of storing them in a temperature controlled facility, take care of the copyright renewal, etc. One of the lawyers doing the bargaining said that he could ‘take care of it’ in a ‘fair manner,’ and he did take care of it. At 2 a.m. the next morning, he had three huge semis back up to the loading dock at ABC, filled them all with stored kinescopes and 2" videotapes, drove them to a waiting barge in New Jersey, took them out on the water, made a right at the Statue of Liberty and dumped them in the Upper New York Bay. Very neat. No problem.”

Colonel Humphrey Flack
Alan Mowbray, one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild, starred as the titular Flack, a con man who partnered with Uthas P. Garvey (played by Frank Jenks) to con other con men, and gave part of the money they “borrowed” to those in need. The show, based on the short stories of Everett Rhodes Castle in the Saturday Evening Post, first aired on Wednesdays on 9 p.m. (then Saturday, then Friday) and ran from October 1953-July 1954, when it was cancelled (not before two guest appearances by Jack Klugman, however). But four years later, in a move that makes re-making The Incredible Hulk less than 40 months after Hulk seem sensible, the cast and crew of Humphrey Flack got back together, and re-shot every episode, scene-by-scene, for CBS Films, presumably for the added quality. It was re-named Colonel Flack, and later, The Fabulous Fraud, a much better and accurate title.

The Family Genius
Almost no information on this show, about a child prodigy, exists, which is understandable considering it aired for less than a month (September 9-30, 1949). But I assume it’s like Smart Guy, albeit without Tahj Mowry.

The Goldbergs

Years ahead of its time for its honest depiction of an, at the time, “unique” ethnic background, The Goldbergs began as a radio serial in 1929 that dealt with a Jewish family living in the Bronx, lead by the matriarchal Molly Goldberg, played by Gertrude Berg. Goldberg was tough yet lovable, and her catchphrase — “Yoo-hoo, is anybody…?” — was a national sensation, on the level of “Ay caramba!” decades later. In 1949, CBS picked up the show, and a year later, Berg won the first Best Actress in a Comedy award at the Emmy’s. But due to one of the show’s stars, Phillip Loeb, getting blacklisted, General Foods dropped their sponsorship, and The Goldbergs was cancelled in 1951. A year later, however, NBC picked it up, although without Loeb, and a year after that, DuMont grabbed the show, where it lasted from April-October 1954 (there was another year in syndication from 1955-1956, as well).

A two-disc collection of the show can be purchased here, and it’s well worth the $8 (or $4, if you buy it used!), particularly because of Berg. She was Tina Fey before Tina Fey; she created the show, wrote it, starred in it, and, from all accounts, was a wonderful person in real life, too (she continued to pay Loeb after he was forced to leave, even though he was no longer working for the show). She also showed a side of Jews that hadn’t appeared before — their transition from living in the slums to moving out to the greener suburbs — and wasn’t afraid to deal with big issues, too, like the Holocaust or anti-Semitism.

The Growing Paynes
It has nothing to do with Growing Pains (or Major Payne, sadly), but The Growing Paynes did set an early template for sitcoms that’s still being followed to this day. There’s a reoccurring location (an apartment), a “normal” family set-up and plot (working father deals with his kooky wife while trying to set a good example for his young son), and a seemingly less-intelligent character that ends up knowing more than everyone (the maid). After one season, the original father and mother, played by John Harvey and Judy Parrish, left and were replaced by Edward Holmes and Elaine Stritch, Jack Donaghy’s mother on 30 Rock.

The Honeymooners

You may have heard of this program. TV Guide called it the third greatest show of all-time; it was a direct influence on The Flintstones, and later, The Simpsons; Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy released a song called “Honeymooners’ Rap”; and it all began on DuMont.

Jack Carter was the first host of DuMont’s Cavalcade of Stars, a variety show, but decades before getting replaced by Jerry Stiller as Arthur Spooner on Everybody Loves Raymond, he was swapped for Jerry Lester, who held the gig for about a year, before, he too, was exchanged for another host: Jackie Gleason. With the soon-to-be Ralph Kramden at the helm, Cavalcade became a mega-hit, and on October 5, 1951, it premiered what would become the show’s most famous sketch: “The Honeymooners.”

The early skits were much darker than the episodes that would soon air (making Fry’s “he just using space travel as a metaphor for beating his wife” quote from Futurama all the more funny), and Gleason was tinkering with the show along the way, including replacing the original Trixie, Elaine Stritch, with Joyce Randolph, and the original Alice, Pert Kelton, with Audrey Meadows.

In 1952, Gleason’s contract with DuMont was up, but because the network was struggling financially, they couldn’t afford to re-sign their biggest star, and he, along with The Honeymooners, fled to CBS, where 39 episodes of TV history would be made.

It’s a Business
We know the show’s about two music publishers, played by Bob Haymes (who’s most famous contribution to culture is writing “That’s All,” a.k.a. the song that Adam Sandler sings when Drew Barrymore’s dancing with the fat kid in The Wedding Singer (there’s also a version by some Nat King Cole guy), and who’s most infamous contribution to culture is working as the national TV director for Richard Nixon in 1968) and Leo De Lyon (in the early 1960s, he started a band, Leo De Lyon & the Musclemen, with Al Kooper, who would later play organ for Bob Dylan on “Like a Rolling Stone”), and that Dorothy Loudon, a.k.a. Miss Hannigan from Annie, appeared as a secretary. But, like so many other programs, that’s about it. History hasn’t been kind to It’s a Business, which ran from March 19-May 21, 1952.

The Laytons
It only lasted two months (August 11-October 13-1948), so very little is known about The Laytons, other than it was one of the first shows to feature an African-American in a starring role: Amanda Randolph, who would later appear on Amos ‘n’ Andy. Sure, she played a maid, but progress is progress, and even six decades later, there aren’t many shows starring a black female out there.

Marge and Jeff
One of the first shows to benefit from its timeslot, Marge and Jeff, broadcast from September 21, 1953-September 25, 1954, about a married couple living with their cocker spaniel in Manhattan, aired on Tuesdays at 7:15 p.m. (many shows were only 15 minutes long those days), right after the mega-popular Captain Video and His Video Rangers, possibly the earliest sci-fi TV program (and one with a better name than Tom Corbett, Space Cadet). The actor who played Jeff, Jess Cain, legally changed his name to his characters’ to avoid confusion. Method acting at its finest.

Mary Kay and Johnny
1947 was the year the Cold War began; the year Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball; the year Howard Hughes flew the Spruce Goose in its one and only mission; the year “Near You” by Francis Craig was a #1 hit on the “Most Played by Jockeys” list for 17 weeks; and the year of the first American sitcom, Mary Kay and Johnny, on November 18 specifically. Very little footage of the show, which starred real-life married couple Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns, still exists, but we do know: the show, about Johnny the Banker and Mary Kay the Wife, was filmed in front of a live studio audience in New York and set in Greenwich Village; they were the first married couple on TV to share a bed (Lucy and Rickey wouldn’t be until a few years later); and Mary Kay and Johnny was the first program to show a woman’s pregnancy (Mary Kay was expecting off-screen, so their son, Christopher, was written into the plot, and actually appeared on the show when he was only a month old). After a year on DuMont, it went to NBC, then CBS, then NBC again, where the show aired its finale episode in March 1950. It was still very popular — one of the Mary Kay’s sponsors, Anacin, held a contest where the first 200 people who saw their ad during the show and mailed in a comment would win a free mirror; they received nearly 9,000 letters, and this is how “ratings” were determined in a pre-Nielsen world — but the couple were creatively exhausted and expecting a second child, so they decided it was best to part ways. Not before making history, though.

(Note: the world’s first “regular” sitcom was the BBC’s Pinwright’s Progress, which first aired on November 29, 1946. Damn those, Brits!)

The Morey Amsterdam Show
It doesn’t get much more early- to mid-1900s than the name “Morey Amsterdam,” which is probably the reason why CBS adapted his popular radio show, about a group of characters, including Lola the Cigarette Girl, working in New York’s fictional Golden Goose Café nightclub, for the small screen. The same cast, including Art Carney, who would later become a household name as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners, starred on both, but the program was cancelled after only 13 episodes. DuMont picked it up in 1949, however, with the nightclub name changed to the Silver Swan Café, and it ran for nearly 60 episodes, before getting axed and replaced by the extremely boring Adventures of Ellery Queen. Amsterdam would go on to star in The Dick Van Dyke Show as Buddy Sorrell and Beach Party, working alongside the original Justin and Kelly, Frankie and Annette.

Once Upon a Tune
A sort of early-Glee, Once Upon a Tune consisted of original music productions that spoofed other musicals and fairy tales. For instance, according to the Paley Center, the “three Little Pigs are actually three young ladies with the last name Pigge. They have come to New York from Iowa to seek their fortune, but find themselves being questioned in a robbery case…by a reporter named Phil Wolf, who is investigating the story.” I’d totally watch that, especially considering Bea Arthur starred in another episode.

The School House
Kenny Delmar, who played a crucial role in Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast as the FDR-sounding secretary of the interior (he also voiced Senator Beauregard Claghorn on The Fred Allen Show, the inspiration for Looney Tunes’ Foghorn Leghorn), starred as a schoolmaster in this live hybrid of music and comedy that aired on Tuesday evenings. It only lasted four months, but not before getting Buddy Hackett and Wally Cox to stop by. A single episode of the show still exists, and it can be watched here.

Josh Kurp bets DuMont could still beat NBC sometimes if it were around today.

Tags:

dumont, history, tv

  • etmthree@twitter

    I hope there's an alternate universe in which Tucker and Hudson cars are advertised on the DuMont network.

  • HerooftheBeach

    Wow, I'd never even heard of DuMont. Totally fascinating article! (The last link is broken, though!)

  • PaulieB

    You didn't mention the fact that a good deal of the kinescopes were dumped in the Hudson River inn the late 60s. There's a story in there somewhere..

  • Mark Astoforoff

    when did Jerry Stiller play Arthur Spooner on Everybody Love's Raymond? Was it around the same time that Peter Boyle played Frank Barone on King of Queens?