CBS Fires, Then Rehires, George S. Kaufman

During the Sunday, December 21st, 1952 broadcast of This Is Show Business on CBS, playwright George S. Kaufman made a terrible mistake. Noting that just about every television program the air was, in one way or another, utilizing various Christmas songs and carols, he jokingly announced “let’s make this one program on which no one sings ‘Silent Night'” [1].

Before the month was over, CBS had fired Kaufman.

Viewers Protest

According to Jack Gould in The New York Times, the network action “came as a direct result of several hundred letters and telephone calls objecting to the remark on the ground that it was ‘anti-religious’ and in questionable taste” [2]. The protests were aimed at both the network and the American Tobacco Company, the show’s sponsor.

Kaufman, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, tried to defend and explain the joke. He insisted it “was not wittingly an anti-religious remark. I was merely speaking out against the use and over-use of this Christmas carol in connection with the sale of commercial products” [3]. The decision to fire Kaufman was an unusual one, because CBS planned to end This Is Show Business in January 1953. The network needed to make room for Ann Sothern’s Private Secretary.

The threat of a boycott against the American Tobacco Company likely had quite a bit to do with the decision to drop Kaufman. But CBS found it difficult to replace him. Fred Allen, John Daly, and Garry Moore turned the network down. Moore said he didn’t want to sign on for just three weeks of work [4]. On December 31st, CBS announced it had signed Steve Allen to take over for Kaufman [5].

That same day the Rev. Dr. Truman B. Douglass (chairman of the broadcasting and film commission of the National Council of Churches) criticized CBS in a letter to William S. Paley:

It would seem to me that before C.B.S. accepted these self-appointed defenders of sanctity as ultimate arbiters of good state in the realm of religion some attempt might have been maid to obtain the opinion of responsible representatives of religious bodies. [6]

Douglass also said he happened to agree with Kaufman. Religious songs like “Silent Night” were heard far too often on commercial television. Garry Moore also supported Kaufman. During his December 31st, 1952 broadcast, Moore said “it’s a shame that responsible people in the television industry have given in to such foolish pressure” [7].

Back on the Air

CBS reversed its decision to fire Kaufman on January 3rd, 1953 and announced that he would return to This Is Show Business, but only after its contract with the American Tobacco Company expired (following the Sunday, January 18th, 1953 broadcast) [8]. The following week, on Saturday, January 24th, the show would shift to Saturdays at 9PM on a sustaining basis.

CBS vice president in charge of network television programs Hubbell Robinson made the announcement. The controversy, he declared, arose after viewers “widely misinterpreted” Kaufman’s remarks [9]. Jack Gould applauded CBS for its move. He believed it was the first time a “controversial” figure returned to television after being removed.

Gould didn’t lay too much blame on the American Tobacco Company and the Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn advertising agency, because every other sponsor and advertising agency would have reacted the exact same way. And although CBS should never had fired Kaufman in the first place, said Gould, “nevertheless the step did require its own form of courage in the delicately competitive business of broadcasting” [10].

Nor did Gould attack those who complained about Kaufman’s remark, even if they did misunderstand it or belief it could be misunderstood by others:

The error of C.B.S. and the sponsor was to attach excessive importance to these protests and take the rash action of firing the dramatist. What sponsors still must learn is that they cannot expect to capitalize on the appeal and glamour of show business without also accepting the problems of the entertainment world. There are bound to be Kaufman incidents if TV is to be worth watching. [11]

Gould hoped the Kaufman controversy convinced viewers “the attainment of an independent and sensible television medium is partly their responsibility” [12]. If so, perhaps it served a useful purpose.

This Is Show Business remained on CBS until March 9th, 1954. During the summer of 1956 NBC revived the series for several months.

But Why Fire Kaufman?

Kaufman certainly wasn’t the first person to find himself on the wrong side of television viewers ready and willing to write angry letters or make impassioned phone calls to stations, networks and sponsors. But as Jack Gould pointed out, he was perhaps the first to actually return to television on the same program that got him kicked off in the first place. Jack Eigen certainly wasn’t allowed to return to WBKB after being fired for a long kiss.

I do wonder why CBS fired him in the first place rather than simply pulling him from the panel until the controversy died down. The show was going to end shortly anyway. Could the American Tobacco Company, worried about a boycott, threatened to have withhold further advertising dollars from the network if Kaufman wasn’t fire? Perhaps he network hadn’t intended to keep This Is Show Business on the air on a sustaining basis until Kaufman reignited interest in it.

A cynic might think the network fired him just to fan the flames while waiting for the American Tobacco Company’s contract to run out. The same article in The New York Times that announced Kaufman’s return also revealed “another sponsor showed some interest in picking up the program” [13].

Lost Forever

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely recordings of Kaufman’s joke exist. According to The New York Times, “the remark was clipped from kinescope film recordings sent to nineteen stations that did not carry the program ‘live'” [14]. Could an unedited kinescope or an audio recording exist? It’s possible. Even if a recording does exist, though, it probably won’t make for compelling television. What Kaufman said wasn’t all that controversial in 1952 and it certainly wouldn’t be considered controversial today.

Works Cited:

1 Gould, Jack. “TV Show Drops George S. Kaufman As Yule Carol Quip Draws Protests.” New York Times. 30 Dec. 1952: 21.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 “C.B.S. In Dilemma On Kaufman Show.” New York Times. 31 Dec. 1952: 21.
5 “Minister Assails C.B.S. Dismissal of Kaufman From TV Program.” New York Times. 1 Jan. 1953: 25.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Gould, Jack. “Kaufman Returns to TV Jan. 24; Was Dropped for Christmas Quip.” New York Times. 4 Jan. 1953: 65.
9 Ibid.
10 Gould, Jack. “Radio and Television: Columbia Network Exhibits Courage in Kaufman Incident by Defying Sponsor-Agency Ban.” New York Times. 5 Jan. 1953: 26.
11 Ibid.
12 13 Ibid.
14 “C.B.S. In Dilemma On Kaufman Show.”


10 Comments

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    Irving Mansfield [best known today as Jacqueline Susann’s husband] produced and “packaged” “THIS IS SHOW BUSINESS”, later “rewrapping it” as “DICK CLARK’S WORLD OF TALENT” for ABC in the 1959-’60 season (Jack E. Leonard was the equivalent to George Kaufman on their panel). The show was basically a “talent showcase” for rising performers, with a three-member celebrity panel criticiqing {sic} their performances and offering advice, along with spontaneous remarks and opinions, such as the one Kaufman gave that fateful night in December 1952.

    Groucho Marx was a lifelong friend of George’s (he co-wrote most of the Marx Brothers’ Broadway productions which became feature films), and both shared the same sarcastic outlook on life. Probably Groucho’s greatest compliment of Kaufman was when he once said, “See if you can find me a date…someone who looks like Marilyn Monroe and talks like George Kaufman”.

    American Tobacco “owned” the 7:30-8pm(et) time period on CBS’ Sunday night schedule from 1949 through 1959- and they KNEW their star radio comedian, Jack Benny, was going to appear in that time period in some form or another. Jack appeared bi-weekly from 1954 through ’59, after easing himself into a somewhat regular TV schedule which included his initially appearing on Sundays every six weeks (1951-’52); then four (1952-’53); then three (1953-’54); and finally, as his radio show was winding down, every other week. It was important to American Tobacco to schedule a program as popular as Benny’s to keep the audience watching EVERY Sunday night…and “THIS IS SHOW BUSINESS” seemed to fit the bill. But by late 1952, they wanted to sponsor a filmed series (opposed to “THIS IS SHOW BUSINESS” airing live) that was more “compatible” with “THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM”…and Ann Sothern’s “PRIVATE SECRETARY” was that series.

  • Cee Jay says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but this reminds me of when Arthur Godfrey fired singer Julius LaRosa on the air and I think that was just because Godfrey felt LaRosa was getting more popular than he was…I also remember hearing that when LaRosa was gone the ratings fell so Godfrey had to rehire LaRosa?

  • RGJ says:

    Godfrey did indeed fire LaRosa live on television (and over the radio; the program was simulcast) on Monday, October 19th, 1953. But he didn’t hire him back. Supposedly, Godfrey felt LaRosa lacked humility, but it may have been LaRosa’s hiring of a manager that set Godfrey off.

    Incidentally, Godfrey also fired his musical conductor Archie Bleyer shortly thereafter.

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    I wish it HAD happened on TV, ‘RGJ’, but Godfrey gave LaRosa the ax on RADIO only, at the very end of his program on TUESDAY, October 19, 1953. See, on Tuesdays and Thursdays during that period, the simulcast of Godfrey’s 90 minute daily radio show ended at 11:15am(et). He made certain what he had in mind was done AFTER the TV edition went off the air, around 11:25am(et). That morning, instead of featuring him during the first half-hour or so, Arthur deliberately kept Julius waiting for his “turn” at the mike until literally near the end of the show. After his introduction, Godfrey reminded his audience of how far Julie had come in the two years he was associated with his various shows, then remarked that he had no “stars”, and that some day, LaRosa was going to be “a great big name”. He then asked him to sing “(I’ll Take) Manhattan”, which he did quite well, as usual. As the applause died down at the end of the song, Godfrey said, “Thanks ever so much, Julie. That was Julie’s swan song with us…(a gasp is heard from the audience) He goes now, out on his own, as his own star- soon to be seen on his own radio and TV programs, and I know you’ll wish him godspeed as much as I do (several groans are heard from the audience, as the show’s theme begins playing)…This is the CBS Radio Network”.

    Godfrey did this to “protect” himself; he wanted to fire LaRosa because he violated his iron-clad rule of “no outside representation” amongst his cast; anyone who was a regular on Godfrey’s shows were represented by HIS agents and management team- but Julie went out and got his own agent, anyway. A CBS executive advised him, “Look, you practically hired LaRosa on the air when you invited him to join your show after he won on ‘TALENT SCOUTS’, didn’t you? The only way you can protect yourself legally is to FIRE him on the air”. Arthur then got rid of Archie Bleyer, who’d been conducting his radio and TV shows for over eight years, because he was also running the record company [Cadence] that signed Julius LaRosa in late 1952, enabling him to have his first big record hits outside of Godfrey’s shows…and there was the fact that Archie also signed Don McNeil, host of “THE BREAKFAST CLUB” {Godfrey’s morning radio rival, on ABC} to record an album, and Godfrey didn’t like that, either…

  • RGJ says:

    Barry,

    The vast majority of sources I have found, including all the contemporary newspaper articles about the firing, state it took place on Monday, October 19th, 1953. (At least one source says it happened on October 19th, 1952, but that’s obviously incorrect). Plus, some of these articles even specifically mention that the firing occurred on radio AND television. For example, from the Wednesday, October 21st edition of The Chicago Daily Tribune:

    In an unprecedented action, 23 year old La Rosa had received his walking papers from the Godfrey show Monday morning in the presence of a nation-wide radio and television audience.

    […]

    Announcement of the split was made by Godfrey on his morning TV-radio program. While Godfrey’s office insisted the announcemenet was made in accordance with a previous agreement, it apparently was unexpected by La Rosa, who professed to be “a very confused guy.”

    If LaRosa was indeed fired at the end of the Monday, October 19th, 1953 edition of Arthur Godfrey Time, then it should have been seen on television and heard over radio. Newspaper listings in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Daily Tribune all have it running for ninety minutes on radio AND television (from 9-10:30PM Eastern). With that said, if a television recording of this controversial incident did exist, I would have expected it to have turned up by now.

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    I apologize- October 19th DID fall on a Monday in 1953, and Godfrey’s show was on for the full 90 minutes on radio AND TV that morning. I know the transcription of the radio version exists, but as for a kinescope of “the incident” [especially between 11:25 and 11:29am(et)]…who knows?

  • RGJ says:

    I wonder if it would have been cut out of any kinescopes by CBS the way the network cut out Kaufman’s line about “Silent Night.”

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    Not likely, as it became a major news story for several days after the broadcast. There was nothing “objectionable” about Godfrey’s on-air dismissal of LaRosa for it to be “snipped out” of “delayed broadcast” kinescopes. The question is, of course, does ANY portion of even the last 15 minutes of the TV version exist today??

  • pBOB says:

    I believe Lawerence Welk fired a dancer/singer live during his television show for upstaging him and for what he thought was sexual suggestive dancing. He got a lot of hate mail over it and tried to rehire the dancer who refused to return. I don’t remember her name.

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    She was Welk’s “Champagne Lady” (#1 female vocalist with his orchestra), Alice Lon. He claimed she showed “too much leg”, and released her from her contract in 1959. She never came back to his program; he eventually replaced her with the ultra-wholesome Norma Zimmer in 1960, who stayed until her retirement over a decade later.

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