The television landscape of the 1950’s looked nothing like what we know as the medium today. Putting aside the technological advances of the past half-century, the biggest difference between that time and the present is audience fragmentation.
Greater choices within and without television have continually lowered the bar for what constitutes a “successful” audience share. For example, American Idol has been the top-rated show on television for several years, but only commands about a ten rating. A show couldn’t have cracked the top twenty-five as recently as the 90’s with a 10.0.
Although the total television audience was smaller because the population of the country was lower and fewer people owned televisions, the most popular shows scored ratings that dwarfed the numbers of modern programs.
The pie was smaller, but the slices were massive. The mainstays of the formative years of television were few but powerful. One of these was a former radio star named Arthur Godfrey.
No one made a smoother transition from radio success to television than did Arthur Godfrey. Godfrey began by simulcasting his already-successful radio shows on television before shifting the focus to television alone. His “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” was the top-ranked show on television in 1951-52, with a massive 53.8 rating. Talent Scouts was even more popular the next year, with a 54.7 rating (although it fell to #2 behind the record-setting 67.3 of “I Love Lucy”).
More impressively, Godfrey’s “other” show (“Arthur Godfrey and His Friends”) was #6 in 51-52 and #3 in 52-53. Godfrey accomplished a feat that would be almost impossible today: Two different shows built around the same entertainer finishing in the top three.
Godfrey was so well-respected and loved by the American public in the early 1950’s that he was asked by President Eisenhower to record a number of public service announcements to be used in the event of nuclear war. The idea was that Godfrey’s trusted image and voice would be the best hope of mitigating panic among the terrified survivors.
However, Godfrey’s public persona hid what was his controlling and sometimes volatile nature. When this aspect of his personality finally bubbled to the surface in a memorable incident, it marked the beginning of a steady decline in clout and popularity for “The Old Redhead.”
Julius La Rosa was one of the “Little Godfreys,” the young talents discovered by the host and featured on his program. A singer, La Rosa quickly became increasingly (some might say independently) popular. An oft-repeated story holds that La Rosa’s fan mail eventually surpassed that of Godfrey himself.
Godfrey had requirements and expectations of his cast. One of these was mandatory ballet lessons. La Rosa thought dance lessons were effeminate and declined to participate, angering Godfrey. The La Rosa version of events was that he had a “family emergency.” Either way, Godfrey informed La Rosa the next day (via posted material on the office bulletin board) that, since La Rosa felt he didn’t need to provide his services for the dance lessons, those services would not be needed for that day’s shows.
Another one of Godfrey’s rules was that his cast were not to hire their own management. This helped Godfrey keep talent “in house.” Following the dance lesson incident, La Rosa broke this rule and hired his own team. This, as it turned out, was too much for Godfrey to take.
On October 19th, 1953, Godfrey decided to fire La Rosa. Two aspects of this firing were unusual:
1. No one else on the show was aware that this was going to happen (Although CBS executives were notified).
2. The firing was conducted on the air.
Godfrey waited until the television portion of the show had concluded. With millions still listening via radio, he began by introducing La Rosa with a story that seemed in retrospect to have a double meaning: He recounted a conversation he had with La Rosa during the singer’s early days on the show, and how he responded to La Rosa’s concerns about being lost among all the stars on the program by reassuring him that “I don’t have any stars on my show.” He then asked La Rosa to sing the song “Manhattan”, which was a number La Rosa performed on his initial appearance on the program.
At the conclusion of the performance, Godfrey announced that this was La Rosa’s “swan song” on the show (a term La Rosa reportedly didn’t fully grasp at the time), adding that La Rosa would now be his “own star.”
The backlash against Godfrey was immediate. It was so intense that he was forced to hold a press conference. Digging the hole even deeper, Godfrey famously remarked that La Rosa was fired because he “lost his humility,” an ironic explanation that quickly became a punchline.
The unexpected turn of events alienated many among Godfrey’s fanbase. His show remained on the air for many years after the La Rosa episode, but he rapidly faded from legendary to second- or third-tier star status after the awkward firing. La Rosa went on to have modest success as a recording artist. Godfrey died in 1983, nearly forgotten compared to prominent contemporaries like Milton Berle or Ed Sullivan, despite once being more popular than either.