Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Black History Month: The Nat King Cole Show, First Variety Show to Feature Black Star

To celebrate Black History month, throughout February check out a series of features acknowledging parts of black history as it relates to music.

The Nat King Cole Show premiered on NBC on November 5, 1956.  It was the first TV variety show to star a major black entertainer, Nat King Cole.  Hazel Scott (in 1950) and Billy Daniels (in 1952) were black hosts who tried it before but they were as famous as Cole and didn't have much success.  Cole, at the time, was the highest paid black star in America and one of the most successful entertainers in the world.  Before the Nat King Cole Show, blacks were portrayed as dumb stereotypes like in the shows Amos n' Andy and Beulah.

The 15 minute weekly show debuted during a time when there was still legal segregation in the South.  The show didn't have commercial sponsorship because many viewers and advertisers didn't want to support a show with a black host.  Despite the low ratings and lack of national sponsors, NBC kept the show on air (oh how things have changed today).  The network fit the bill hoping this would eventually change. 

In December, the network increased the show to 30 minutes thinking this would boast ratings.  Along with Cole, the show featured other black and white musical artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Mahailia Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tony Bennett.  To support Cole and the show, many of these acts agreed to get paid minimum wage.

After many attempts to save the show, Cole decided to walk away from it on December 17, 1957.  Cole stated "For 13 months, I was the Jackie Robinson of television.  After a trail-blazing year that shattered all the old bug-a-boos about Negroes on TV, I found myself standing there with the bat on my shoulder. The men who dictate what Americans see and hear didn't want to play ball."

The next African-American to try hosting a program was Sammy Davis Jr. in 1966, but low ratings forced him off the air after less than four months.  It wasn't until The Flip Wilson Show in 1970 that a variety show hosted by a black entertainer became a success.

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