Jerry Lester: Pioneer of Late Night

Strange to have written about Buddy Lester, before his older and more consequential brother Jerry Lester (1910-1995) but sometimes that’s just how the gookie grumbles.

Like his kid brother (obviously) Lester was from Chicago. He went to Northwestern, but before, during, and afterward, he performed in nightclubs and vaudeville. He was a jack of all trades: he did corny comedy, was a song and dance man, performed magic, juggled and even did wire-walking.

In the mid-30s he started to get movie work. He did voiceover work in the 1933 Disney short Mickey’s Gala Premiere, doing impressions of Maurice Chevalier, Jimmy Durante, Ed Wynn and others. The same year he was in the film Arizona to Broadway with James Dunn, Joan Bennett, Sammy Cohen, Merna Kennedy, J. Carrol Naish, and Walter Catlett. In the ’30s he also acted regularly on radio programs starring Don Ameche, Bing Crosby, and the like. The forties were his Broadway period; he was in Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1940), Beat the Band (1942), and Jackpot (1944).

In 1950 he briefly achieved surprising success in the then-still-new medium of TV. First, he replaced Jack Carter as host of Cavalcade of Stars. He left a few months later to take over as host of a late night show called Broadway Open House. Jackie Gleason took over Cavalcade of Stars, renaming the show after himself. Lester scored a hit on his new show, with an appeal not unlike Milton Berle’s, he threw every vaudeville trick he knew at the wall to see what would stick. In the process he became the first popular late night comedy host, preceding even Steve Allen, the first host of The Tonight Show. The gig lasted through 1951 when he left the show, reportedly tired of fighting for audience attention with the equally popular Dagmar, a regular on the show. Throughout the 50s, Lester was a regular panelist on TV game shows and variety shows.

In the early ’60s he hosted a local talk show in Los Angeles, and substituted for Zero Mostel in the original Broadway production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He was also in a 1967 tv production of the Li’l Abner, and a 1969 production of South Pacific at Jones Beach, Long Island. He occasionally guested on tv shows like The Monkees and Barnaby Jones. His last two roles (not surprisingly) were in Jerry Lewis’s Hardly Working, and in Smokey and the Bandit II, both in 1980.

To learn more about the history of vaudeville and vaudeville veterans like Jerry Lester, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous