By Mark Wainwright
Talk Show Host
CNN’s “The Story of Late Night” overlooked both “Broadway Open House” and the brilliant young comedian/host who was stricken by tragedy on the eve of his network television debut.
SYRACUSE — Although I’ve enjoyed the first three episodes of “The Story of Late Night,” I was surprised that CNN barely acknowledged Jerry Lester and NBC’s “Broadway Open House,” which was TV’s first late night comedy/variety show. NBC aired it live, five nights a week between 11pm and midnight, and while a couple different personalities took brief turns hosting the program, most of the show’s run was emceed by the veteran vaudeville comic Jerry Lester.
Lester led a small troupe of performers through sketches, musical numbers, audience-participation gags, and whatever other silliness he could improvise. The program debuted in May of 1950, and after some early success, the show began to fade a bit over time. And when Lester walked away from the show a year later – evidently frustrated that cast member Jennie “Dagmar” Lewis was accidentally becoming the true star of the show, at his expense – that doomed the whole effort. NBC pulled the plug on August 24, 1951.
Most of “Broadway Open House” has been lost forever, although a handful of clips (and a couple of complete hours) have been rescued and preserved. Honestly, only the most dedicated fans and scholars of TV history would get much out of seeing this stuff. While there are a few genuinely funny moments, the production values are (understandably) primitive, and much of the “comedy” material is, frankly, cringe-inducing. Still, it’s an important part of the medium’s early days, and NBC’s learning experience with Jerry Lester and company eventually led to great success with “Tonight” and Steve Allen in 1954.
While at least some of “Broadway Open House” has been saved for posterity, there is almost zero record of the gifted young comic who was hired as the original host; in fact, Jerry Lester was brought in as a last-minute desperation replacement for this performer. His backstory forms one of the saddest episodes in the history of broadcasting and show business…
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When legendary NBC executive Pat Weaver (also known as actress Sigourney Weaver’s dad) first considered a late night variety show, he knew that finding the right host was critical. NBC was moving into uncharted territory, and the NBC brass was reluctant to commit big money and major resources to a time slot that had barely been touched by any of the networks. The new star would have to engage a large studio audience with a minimal cast and crew, using raw and untested comedy material – sometimes improvising with no material – and pull it all together, live, on camera, five nights a week. No established comedian would even dare to try something like this. Still, the word went out to performers such as Bob Hope (who already had a long-standing relationship with NBC) to keep an eye out for the right person. As legend has it, Hope eventually called NBC in New York and said: “I found your guy.”
He was Don “Creesh” Hornsby, a Texas native who dropped out of college to join the Marines, and came back from military service with an idea for a comedy nightclub act that employed, among other things: rubber alligators, magic tricks, fire extinguishers, acrobatic piano playing – he would play snippets of classical music while suspended from the ceiling by his ankles – a live donkey (don’t ask, I have no clue), foam projectiles fired at audience members, and a trunk full of toys and props that would have made Carrot Top jealous. And he winged his show from scratch every night. He developed a following in Southern California, and he became popular with famous figures in the Hollywood community. Some customers would return for the craziness on multiple evenings; they never saw the same act twice. Hornsby’s nickname came from “creesh,” a word he concocted and shouted onstage at strategic moments; he once told an interviewer that it was an expression of “constructive escapism.” Okay, whatever…
When NBC execs caught Hornsby’s act, they realized they had found a slightly insane, natural comic genius who was a perfect fit for the new late night show. The network signed him to a five-year contract – astonishing for a new, largely unknown talent – and gave him a week or two to wrap up loose ends and report to New York to begin rehearsals.
This is where the story gets a bit murky. I’ve heard some bits and pieces over the years and found other items online, and as far as I can tell, this is a reasonable reconstruction of what happened (if you have better, more accurate information, please feel free to share):
Hornsby gets to New York in May and soon begins to feel sick. He calls NBC one morning, explains that he’s exhausted, feverish, and shaky, and asks for a day off to rest before he gets back to work. No problem, the cast and crew use the day to continue preparations without him.
The second day, Creesh doesn’t show up as expected. Calls to his hotel room go unanswered. The network folks find out that he had somehow managed to see a doctor… who immediately had him rushed to a hospital in the Bronx and placed in an iron lung.
It was polio.
Sometime between leaving California and arriving in New York – maybe on the train trip? – Don Hornsby had contracted polio. And while polio was awful enough when it infected children, it was often brutal when it infected an adult. He was gravely ill, fading rapidly, and was soon transferred to a sanitarium in suburban Westchester County. He died only a few days later.
NBC was blindsided by this, and the network delayed the show’s debut for a week while they frantically tried to assemble a lineup of substitute hosts who could, at least, get the program up and running. That’s when Jerry Lester was hired, and he eventually became the permanent host of the phenomenon (or fiasco?) I described earlier.
The most disheartening aspect of this story is that almost all evidence of Don Hornsby’s talent is just… gone. There is no known film footage of his onstage antics, no known audio recording of his nightclub act. There are only a few black-and-white photos, and a handful of brief newspaper and magazine articles; one of the better ones was a feature that appeared in Life magazine on May 15, 1950. It appears he cut one or two novelty piano records in the late 1940s. A few of these 78s are still known to exist, and they are eagerly sought by collectors. Apart from that? Nothing. Don Hornsby and his creative work simply disappeared.
Creesh caught the show business break of a lifetime, and if things had gone a little differently, he might have been fondly remembered as one of the great pioneering stars of early television, along with legends like Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, and Johnny Carson. Instead, his legacy receives a couple paragraphs in Wikipedia.
Creesh Hornsby died on May 22, 1950, 71 years ago this weekend. He succumbed to polio on the very day he was originally scheduled to make his late night NBC debut. He was survived by his wife Dorothy and three young children.
Don Hornsby was 26.
Mark Wainwright is a long time radio personality and talk show host, and was most recently the morning host at WSYR in Syracuse. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org