On Sunday night, November 5, 1950, NBC Radio debuted a new radio production…
The truth is, in 1950, radio was on its way out across America, being replaced by the newest innovation in family entertainment – television.
In one last gasp to capture a national audience, NBC Radio pulled out all the stops, airing a 90-minute star-studded program, The Big Show, beginning on Sunday evening, November 5, 1950 from 6 to 7:30 pm (EST). Each show, originating from The Center Theatre in New York’s Radio City (with occasional broadcasts from Hollywood), included some of the biggest names in the world of entertainment.
Iowa’s very own Meredith Willson, born in Mason City in 1902, was the musical director for The Big Show, which ran for two years (1950-1952). Willson distinguished himself as a writer of symphonic works and popular songs, with his most famous work, The Music Man, premiering on Broadway in 1957, and was adapted twice for film (1962 and 2003). The idea for Music Man began in 1949, when Meredith was reminiscing with friends about his childhood years in Mason City. Willson referred to the show as “an Iowan’s attempt to pay tribute to his home state.”
While serving as the musical director of The Big Show, Meredith introduced a number of his own compositions: two of which have great importance to us here at Our Iowa Heritage. Allow me to share them with you:
Written in 1950, this signature song of blessing was brought onto The Big Show as the closing song for the Thanksgiving show – November 19, 1950, and became so popular, it remained as the show’s closer throughout the next two years. Take a listen as the host, Tallulah Bankhead invites the evening’s cast to join her: 1) Mindy Carlson, 2) Bob Hope, 3) Jimmy Durante, 4) Perry Como, and 5) Eddie Cantor.
This song went on to become one of Meredith Willson’s biggest hits, being recorded by some of America’s best known performers. Click here to read more about this beautiful tune I’ve adopted as my very own theme song.
Alright Hawkeye fans. Pay attention here. Our most famous University of Iowa school song was created in 1950 by Iowa’s own Music Man, Meredith Willson. Here’s the story behind this memorable song…
Over the years, a number of Iowa school songs have been written and recorded, with a handful being so well-received by Hawkeye fans, they continue to live on today. The very first song that made a big splash was a beautiful piece entitled Old Gold, written by John C. Parish in 1905. A decade or so later, W.R. Law wrote On Iowa (1919), which also caught on big with SUI students, and as you know, continues to be one of our favorites on campus today. Click here to read about other Iowa school-spirit songs.
But in the mid-late1920’s, the SUI marching band, which was under the direction of the university’s ROTC military department, began playing a very familiar popular tune, The Iowa Corn Song, at many athletic events. Co-written by George Hamilton, secretary of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, in 1912, the song, while popular with many, is “corny” indeed, so, by the late 1940’s, a brave music reviewer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Les Zachels, called ’em as he sees ’em, and challenged his friend, Meredith Willson, to come up with a new, and much more appropriate, fight song for the Hawkeyes.
Meredith took the challenge and on Sunday, December 31, 1950, on the ninth edition of The Big Show, Willson introduced, to a New Years Eve national radio audience, his new creation, The Iowa Fight Song. Listen to this rare recording of the very first performance of our favorite Hawkeye classic, performed with a 47-piece orchestra and sixteen singers…
The good folks back in Iowa City caught wind of Meredith’s new fight song, introducing it to basketball fans at the Indiana-Iowa game in the Iowa Field House. The fans loved it, and The Iowa Fight Song has not slowed down in popularity since.
As for The Big Show, as we said, it was radio’s last big success. NBC went full-throttle in an attempt to keep radio, which had been a mainstay in American life since the 1920’s, from its predicted death, and The Big Show was thought to be a key to that effort. Newsweek Magazine stated that the show was “the biggest bang to hit radio since TV started,” and, as if to prove big bang and big bucks were mutual partners, some $100,000 was budgeted for a single installment.
The show’s success was credited to the host, Talllulah Bankhead, and her notorious wit and ad-libbing ability in addition to the show’s superior scripting. She had one of the funniest writers in the business on her staff: Goodman Ace, the mastermind of radio’s legendary Easy Aces. She included renowned ad-libbers in the show—particularly Fred Allen (he and his longtime sidekick and wife, Portland Hoffa, appeared so often they could have been the show’s regular co-hosts) and Groucho Marx, both of whom appeared on the first season’s finale and appeared jointly on three other installments. Meredith Willson’s contribution of bringing top-notch musical arrangements to each week’s show also was a big reason for the show’s success.
As Bankhead recorded in her memoirs, she took the show because she needed the money but nearly changed her mind when she feared she’d be little more than a glorified mistress of ceremonies with nothing to do but introduce the feature performers. “Guess what happened?” she continued, “your heroine emerged from the fracas as the Queen of the Kilocycles. Authorities cried out that Tallulah had redeemed radio. In shepherding my charges through The Big Show, said the critics, I had snatched radio out of the grave. The autopsy was delayed.”
Yet, in truth, while The Big Show was a big smash, it simply wasn’t quite big enough to put television in its place and keep it there. NBC cancelled the show after two seasons and a reported loss of $1 million, a major figure in those years. In fact, it was primarily because the program was unable to attract more advertisers, who were putting more and more of their money into television advertising. But, that said, The Big Show is remembered as one of the great final stands, at its best, of classic American old-time radio and — for its wit, colorful music and dramatics — as good as broadcast variety programming got on either medium.
And all Iowans can be proud of our own Music Man, Meredith Willson, for playing a big part in the show’s success. Click here to read more about Meredith, my Iowa-born musical hero.
A tip of the old hat to Meredith Willson and The Big Show. As, Hawkeyes, we say thanks for The Iowa Fight Song, and May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.