The old saying goes that if you want to succeed at something, copy someone who was already successful at it. The immense popularity of TV variety shows in the 1950s spawned a whole new crop in the 1960s, with the formula for variety left relatively intact. One sea change was that rock ‘n roll acts, which had started to appear in ’50s variety shows, became a larger part of the mix of traditional acts such as jugglers, comedians, pop singers and opera singers.
Here are some of the popular TV variety shows of the 1960s:
The Andy Williams Show (1962-67, then 1969-71)
Starting off as a summer replacement show from 1959-62, Williams was finally given his own fall-season slot. For the most part, the program stuck to the variety format, though it did weigh heavily on musical acts. Andy Williams would open each show with his signature song, Moon River, and would often have another number. Williams was a pretty conservative guy and wasn’t interested in booking rock acts. Instead, he favored pop crooners with wholesome images like himself: Johnny Mathis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Dionne Warwick and Petula Clark, for instance. His namesake program is best remembered for introducing the world to The Osmond Brothers.
When his show was brought back in 1969, the world had radically changed. The program was rebranded with a hipper image for Andy Williams (check out his neckerchiefs!) and along with it, popular rock ‘n roll acts were booked.
The Hollywood Palace (1964-70)
This show took its name from the theater where it was filmed in Los Angeles. Like so many other variety programs, Palace had a rotating series of guest hosts. However, chief among them — the host with the most appearances — was Bing Crosby. This was a testament to its attempt to appeal to an older demographic. Mister Boomer remembers the show as tremendously popular with his parents. It was on every Saturday night, in glorious black & white on the Boomer household’s TV. To Mister Boomer, it was on par with watching Lawrence Welk at his grandmother’s house. Watching a guy keep plates spinning on sticks was pretty much squaresville as far as Mister B was concerned. At least Ed Sullivan was a weird character a kid could imitate at school. Despite old-people leanings, the show featured the first U.S. TV appearance of The Rolling Stones in 1964.
The Dean Martin Show (1965-74)
Dean Martin had been a host of TV variety shows with his comedian stage partner, Jerry Lewis, since the 1940s. In the 1960s, Martin hosted various variety shows alone many times until he was given a show of his own. There were different incarnations of names and a couple of different TV networks involved, but his Rat Pack, drink-in-hand, cigarette-smoking, tuxedo-wearing persona was always front and center.
In 1968, he introduced a female group of singers and dancers called The Golddiggers. They quickly became TV audience favorites and Martin made them the official dancers for the show. The group opened each episode, dressed in sparkly Folies-style leotards, introducing Dean Martin. The troupe was made up entirely of young women. They could sing and dance, but were also used as actors in sketches, often interacting with celebrity guests. While Mister Boomer’s mother enjoyed Dean Martin’s singing, his father especially liked The Golddiggers. That meant the show was always going to be viewed on the Boomer family TV.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-69)
While one variety show leaned toward music, others leaned toward comedy. Seeming to be, on the surface, a folk-singing comedy duo, the Smothers Brothers — Tom and Dick — used their show as a platform for topical, biting satire. They fearlessly bashed the Vietnam war, politics, sexuality and religion — all the taboo subjects that TV had for the most part avoided during the tumultuous decade up to that point.
Though the program was big on satirical comedy, and introduced the world to comedian Pat Paulsen, top musical acts of the decade were also featured. Included in the list of luminaries were The Who, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Simon and Garfunkel, the Hollies, the Temptations, Glen Campbell and many more. Where Hollywood Palace and The Andy Williams Show catered to boomers’ parents, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour became a TV variety show voice of a new generation.
It is commonly thought that the brothers’ show was cancelled because of their political leanings, but that is not entirely the case. In fact, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had been renewed for the 1970 season. The brothers fought constant battles with CBS over censoring acts, sketches or parts of sketches, but it wasn’t until Tommy Smothers began lobbying against censorship to the FCC that CBS executives fired them. The brothers filed a breach of contract lawsuit and won compensation for the year of programs that never were.
The changing cultural scene that exploded in the late 1960s made its presence known on TV in several ways, including comedy and music. Perhaps chief among them was the rising influence and importance of rock ‘n roll in the culture. When acts appeared on TV variety shows, slowly but surely, the previous generation was put on notice that the Boomer Generation was shaking their windows and rattling their walls.
What variety shows did your family watch on TV in the 1960s, boomers?