The "King" of Steel Pier: Ed Hurst
The Howard Johnson's Variety Hour Starring Ed Hurst
(1960; B&W; variety; 60 min.; a Desilu Production)
Ed Hurst, still in the early days of his long-running local show Summertime on the Pier (broadcast live on Saturday afternoons from the eponymous Steel Pier in Atlantic City), went national with this Phil Leotardo-produced extravaganza. Ed was looking for a non-summertime show, and Phil Leotardo as usual was looking for a hit; Phil had originally planned the show with Jerry Lewis in mind as the host, then Jerry Vale, and then Jerry Colonna, but all of them balked at the pay, so Phil finally settled for the able and talented (and non-Jerry) Hurst.
Phil’s idea for this show was to showcase only the top talent of the day, and to create a lively Sunday night alternative to the terminally square but immensely popular Ed Sullivan. For the first show Phil intended to land Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Doris Day, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson (the latter three to do a scene from King Lear), and the up-and-coming comic London Lee. Unfortunately, Howard Jonson's draconian budget constraints ruled out all of the above except for the talented Mr. Lee. Not to be fazed, Phil managed to book the big-voiced lounge singers Joe and Larry Schmidt, Irish chanteuse Missy McDonough, teen heart-throb “Rockin’” Harry Hirsch, and actor Edward Everett Horton, reciting a few verses from Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.
The première live broadcast -- from Ed Hurst’s old stomping grounds Steel Pier in Atlantic City -- was scheduled for the second Sunday night in September, a day which unfortunately coincided with the onslaught of one of the worst hurricanes Atlantic City had ever seen -- Hurricane Donna. Because of this brutal storm the only booked performer who was able to make it to Steel Pier by show time was London Lee, despite the fact that he was suffering from a severe and painful attack of shingles. Desperately Phil Leotardo scoured the local bars for some replacements but all he could come up with were: a novelty act called Joe McBean and Squeaky the Talking Cat; an ancient club crooner with a head cold by the name of Freddy Fontanello; an obviously drunk juggler called Dr. Potsanpanz; a hula-hoop duo dubbed Mr. and Mrs. Hoola; and an Italian comedian named Giuseppe Giuseppini who knew only a handful of English words, most of them obscene. London Lee did the best he could considering his medical condition, but the show was an unmitigated disaster from beginning to end, with the handful of people who had shown up for the live audience walking out into the gale well before the end. This show had the distinction of being the lowest-rated prime-time broadcast in television history, a dubious honor it holds to this day.
Considering Phil Leotardo's proven drive and zeal, this show could have been a powerhouse. If Hurricane Donna hadn’t hit and the scheduled performers had shown up who knows how many people would have tuned in (and even stayed tuned in). As it was, the network mercilessly pulled the plug after that one and only show.
The unflappable Ed Hurst continued with his popular summer Saturday show from Steel Pier, and marched amiably along in his long and storied career; Phil Leotardo, never one to be set back by a piece of bad luck (or a run of bad luck for that matter, or even a long run of disastrously bad luck), merely shrugged hia massive shoulders and set to work on his next and slightly more successful project: The McGurks of 65th Avenue.
(An interesting side-note: tapes of the the one-and-only airing of The Howard Johnson’s Variety Hour Starring Ed Hurst, which many scholars consider the single most unbearable hour in TV history, have sold on eBay for up to $100! Go figure.)
(Turn to the right hand side of this page for a complete listing of other Great Lost TV Shows.)