Excavating The Hollywood Palace

January 4, 1964 was the premiere date of the ABC tv variety show The Hollywood Palace. As it debuted before I was born, and went off the air in early 1970 when I was four years old, then was never re-rerun, and no one ever seems to talk about it, I had never even heard of this show (which was a pretty popular and important one) until I saw a TV special memorializing it in 1992.

One of the reasons folks don’t talk about The Hollywood Palace in the same way as almost other variety shows, is that it was not identified with a single host. Instead, more like The Colgate Comedy Hour, the show made use of a different celebrity host every week, although they were always top stars, some of whom had their own variety shows in addition to appearing on this one, complicating the landscape. Some of the more notable and frequent hosts included Bing Crosby (who hosted 32 times, including the first and last shows), Milton Berle (17), Jimmy Durante (15), Victor Borge (11), Sammy Davis Jr (11), Phil Harris (11), Tony Martin (8), Cyd Charisse (8), Donald O’Connor (7), Phyllis Diller (7), George Burns (7), and Kate Smith (7). The show had begun as a summer replacement series for the short-lived Jerry Lewis Show. Jerry’s old comedy partner Dean Martin hosted The Hollywood Palace 3 times (and made a joke about Jerry). The experience led to him launching The Dean Martin Show in 1965. Rowan and Martin also scored big as hosts on The Hollywood Palace — that was how Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In came about in 1968. Dick Tufeld (best known as the voice of the Robot on Lost in Space) was the show’s announcer. Raquel Welch got her start on the show as the Billboard Girl, who came out and changed title cards in the tradition of vaudeville.

The venue the show was taped in was taped in was built in 1927 as The Hollywood Palace. Later it became The El Capitan. Radio show like Baby Snooks and My Favorite Husband were broadcast from there. Ken Murray’s Blackouts played there in the ’40s. In the TV era it was home to The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Lawrence Welk Show, and the Ralph Edwards shows This Is Your Life and Truth or Consequences. Nowadays it is a nightclub.

Naturally the concept of the show was meant to evoke the original Palace Theatre, the Valhalla of Vaudeville, located in New York’s Time Square, the origin of the phrase “I played the Palace!” Though the original Palace had become a home for Broadway musicals by this time, it still hosted short run pseudo-vaudeville shows from time to time starring the likes of Judy Garland, Jerry Lewis, and Danny Kaye, and so the association lived on. The show was produced by William O. Harbach, son of songwriter and ASCAP co-founder Otto Harbach. William had managed Kay Thompson and The Williams Brothers, and had produced the original Tonight Show with Steve Allen, as well as The Steve Allen Show. Executive producer Nick Vanoff had worked with Harback on those Allen shows, and had come immediately from Kraft Music Hall with Perry Como, of which the show’s director Grey Lockwood was also a veteran. These were people who knew how to put on a variety show.

The Hollywood Palace was also one of the few variety shows besides The Ed Sullivan Show to offer a full, vaudeville style range of acts: not just comedians, dancers and singers, but also vaudeville specialties like magicians and ventriloquists, and circus style acts (acrobats, animal acts, jugglers etc), some of which were presented in temporary tents erected in the theatre’s parking lot.

Interestingly, the heyday of The Hollywood Palace coincided almost exactly with America’s experience of the Beatles (early 1964 to early 1970). Naturally the Fab Four had made their debut on Sullivan’s show, but they did air their promotional films of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” (directed by Michael Lindsey-Hogg of the Let it Be film) in early 1967. The Rolling Stones made their American TV debut on The Hollywood Palace in 1965. Dean Martin was the host that night; I referred to that incident in my book No Applause. This all goes to the point that rock and pop acts were part of the old-school mix of The Hollywood Palace, as well. But so were old timers. In fact, the last occasion Groucho Marx performed with Margaret Dumont was on this show.

An attempt to list all the important acts who appeared on The Hollywood Palace, or even to attempt to make a short list, would be an exercise in absurdity. Its would read like the show-biz phone book. So the program was popular enough to remain on the air for six years — a good run in the dog-eat-dog world of television. The Ed Sullivan Show went off the air one year later. The audience was changing, at least, at that moment. The seeds of the shift in tastes were contained within the show. In looking down the list of hundreds of acts who performed on the program, one notices the act Hendra and Ulett, who are tied with Sid Caesar and Tim Conway as entertainers who appeared on The Hollywood Palace those most times (12) without hosting. “Hendra” is Tony Hendra, who went on to work at The National Lampoon: the magazine, the Radio Hour, and the off-Broadway show Lemmings — which featured several future Saturday Night Live cast members. It’s almost like he passed the baton.

By the way! There’s an entire Hollywood Palace Youtube channel full of clips and episodes from the show! The page is here.

To learn more about the variety arts, including tv variety shows like The Hollywood Palace, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

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