Doing a live radio broadcast from a Houston hotel ballroom to a rowdy crowd on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1949 seemed like a good idea to someone. That infamous 1949 broadcast of the Sealtest Variety Theater became one of the biggest live radio fails in history and what the series is remembered for.
The Sealtest Variety Theater had a total of 42 broadcasts between its premier in September 1948 and it going off the air in July 1949. It was hosted by Dorothy Lamour who had co-starred in most of the Road movies with the legends Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The show featured a dazzling array of stars including Jimmy Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, Gregory Peck, William Powell, Boris Karloff, and Sidney Greenstreet along with legends such as Hope, Abbott and Costello, Jim and Marianne Jordan as Fibber McGee and Molly, Norris Goff and Chester Lauck and Lum ‘n Abner, Harold Peary as the Great Gildersleeve, and Ed Gardner as Archie from Duffy’s Tavern.
Lamour’s charisma and star power was on full display. She remained likable throughout the series run and provided nice musical performances as well. She appeared to have been enjoying the series, laughing regularly and making the audience want to laugh along with her.
Additional musical entertainment was provided by Henry Russell and his orchestra and the Crew Chiefs. The music is all pleasant to listen to and on par with what you’d hear on most other radio programs.
Through the show’s first seven months on the air, the format included plenty of music, a dramatic sketch between Lamour and the guest of the week, and a comedy bit. Sometimes Lamour performed in the comedic sketches. Other times, a comedy team like Abbott and Costello would perform a typical routine or there’d be an occasional stand-up sketch.
The comedy was pretty solid for the Golden Age. The dramatic sketches were a mixed bag. Some were fairly good, but others seemed trite, silly, or simplistic. I mostly enjoyed them, but there were a few times I felt bad that a talented actor had to work with that material.
The infamous Saint Patrick’s day performance fell during this run. The wild crowd and technical difficulties led to sound quality issues and a profanity being spoken over the air by a male voice. To her credit, Lamour remained calm through it all. It was radio veteran Gardener who lost it and ignored her attempts to keep the show on script by trying to come up with something random that would make the crowd happy.
The event made headlines and Lamour didn’t run for it. In one sketch later on where she had to boast of what deeds made her character tough enough for something, she said, “Oh yeah, well I did a show at a hotel in Houston.”
In April, the show tweaked its format. The music stayed, but the dramatic sketches and individual comedy guest spots were done away with. Eddie Bracken joined the series and it became something of a sitcom like Lamour and Bracken playing fictionalized versions of themselves, with Bracken finding ways to get himself and Lamour into trouble every week.
Bracken was a fair comic talent. In many ways, his style called to mind Alan Young’s style as an exuberant born loser who often believed Hollywood actors were exactly like the people they played in the movies.
Young filled in for Bracken in an incident that illustrates the culture of the golden age of radio. Young happened to be at the studio to record his own program and did the guess spot on Sealtest on 15 minutes notice. You couldn’t even tell the script had been written for another actor.
Overall, this is a decent comedy/music program.It didn’t have mind-blowing comedy or music, but it’s a pleasant and fun listen with some great talent. It deserves remembered for more than technical difficulties and some rowdy drunks ruining its Saint Patrick’s Day program.
Rating: 3.25 out of 5
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