Tales of Lost TV: The Esther Williams Aqua Spectacle

Swimmer and actress Esther Williams passed away today at the age of 91. Although without a doubt best known for her film roles, which included Fiesta (1947), Neptune’s Daughter (1949) and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), Williams also made a few appearances on television. She had a rare dramatic role in a 1957 episode of Lux Video Theatre and later guest starred on The Donna Reed Show and Zane Grey Theater. She also made many apperances on variety and game shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, What’s My Line? and The Steve Allen Show. Her most memorable television work were the two specials she starred in for NBC: “The Esther Williams Aqua Spectacle” in 1956 and “Esther Williams at Cypress Gardens” in 1960.

Of the two, the latter is far more well-known. NBC would repeat the special in 1964. The UCLA Film & Television Archive has copies of both versions in its collection. The Paley Center for Media also has a copy. But “The Esther Williams Aqua Spectacle” is nowhere to be found and must be considered missing (and perhaps lost). The hour-long special, sometimes referred to as television’s first “aqua show” or “water show,” was broadcast on Saturday, September 29th, 1956 from 9-10:30PM, as part of the network’s monthly Saturday Night Spectacular.

It was produced as part of an agreement made between NBC and Williams in which the network would finance a touring water show starring Williams. According to The New York Times, the show was called “The Aqua Spectacle of 1957” and would have a five week try-out in London over the summer and then tour North America in the fall. It would be televised four times by NBC, once in the fall of 1956, again in the spring of 1957 and twice more during the 1957-1958 [1].

Broadcasting*Telecasting also gave the name of the show as “The Aqua Spectacle of 1957” but reported it would air on NBC in the fall of 1957 [2]. When it opened at the Empire Pool (now known as Wembley Arena) in London on July 30th, 1956 it was called “The Aqua Spectacle of 1956.” The show ran through September 8th. On September 9th, The New York Times (again calling the show “The Aqua Spectacle of 1957”) reported that NBC had exercised a clause in the contract that allowed it to cancel the North American tour if the London try-out was not a success. But the television special was still a go [3].

Broadcasting*Telecasting published a list of NBC specials for the 1956-1957 season that also gave the title of the show as “The Aqua Spectacle of 1957” [4]. Television advertisements indicate that the special was broadcast live and at least parts were in color. In addition to Williams, the special featured Arnold Stang and Peter Lawford, comedian Don Adams, magician Ray Benson, dance duo Janik & Arnaut, jugglers the Bassi Trio, a swimming/dancing chorus and water skiing champions from several countries. Sportscaster Red Barber announced the water skiing performances.

Included was a water ballet performance of “The Frog and the Princess” as well as a parody of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” featuring Williams, Stang and Lawford. The special was produced by Ben Gage, who at the time was married to Williams. It was sponsored by RCA, RCA-Whirlpool and Oldsmobile. In advertisements and reviews, the special was alternately called “The Esther Williams Aqua Spectacle,” “Esther Williams’ Aqua Spectacle” and “The Aqua Spectacle of 1957.”

Critics were not terribly impressed with the special overall but did praise Williams. Jack Gould of The New York Times wrote “as might be expected, Miss Williams in the water was grace itself but the program’s drier interludes were tediously contrived. The talents of Peter Lawford and Arnold Stang were very sadly wasted” [5]. A review in Broadcasting*Telecasting, which put the cost of the special at $125,000, called Williams “lovely as lady-in-charge of proceedings both in and out of the water, her beauty charming the eye so effectively that the ear forgave some of the allegedly comic lines she was called on to utter” [6].

Ray Oviatt of the Toledo Blade concurred, writing “whenever Miss Williams was doing her langorous [sic] swimming maneuvers, the show approached the level of expectations. Between splashes by the star, though, the whole affair was dry, dismal and extremely dull.” He also noted that the swimming sequences did not work as well on television as they had on film, admitting however that it may have looked better in color [7].

And yet, despite these reviews, I would very much like the chance to see “The Esther Williams Aqua Spectacle.” If the special was broadcast live, there could be a kinescope out there but no videotape, as 2″ Quad videotape wasn’t in use until late in 1956.

Works Cited:

1 Adams, Val. “N.B.C. to Finance Water Show to Tour with Esther Williams.” New York Times. 27 Apr. 1956: 40.
2 “NBC-TV Spots Steve Allen Opposite ‘Ed Sullivan Show’.” Broadcasting*Telecasting. 30 Apr. 1956: 101.
3 Adams, Val. “News of TV and Radio.” The New York Times. 9 Sep. 1956: X13.
4 “NBC-TV Sets Up Season’s Special Shows.” Broadcasting*Telecasting. 24 Sep. 1956: 68.
5 Gould, Jack. “TV: ‘The Big Wave,’ Pearl Buck Story, Excels.” New York Times. 1 Oct. 1956: 54.
6 “In Review.” Broadcasting*Telecasting. 8 Oct. 1956: 14.
7 Oviatt, Ray. “Jackie Gleason Starts ‘Living Again.” Toledo Blade. 3 Oct. 1956: Page Unknown.

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10 Replies to “Tales of Lost TV: The Esther Williams Aqua Spectacle”

  1. The “Aqua Spectacle” has an additional historical fact associated with it. It was the first color program to use a new kinescope process that would allow the program to be broadcast in color to the other times zones. Until that show, all time zone delays were broadcast in black and white. Wish we could locate it even though the equipment to reproduce it in color is gone it would still viewable in black and white.

  2. I danced and swam as Ms. Williams’ “counter.” It took place in a circular pool in a Brooklyn TV production studio. I recall that Ernie Kovacs was in that show, and that when all in the scene were given prop beer steins with flip-up lids, Kovacs asked for a can of beer to be put in his stein. No mention of Kovacs. Can my memory of him be mised up with another show?

  3. I might actually have the film of this show. I’m going through several film reels currently but will need several months to sort through over 2,000 film reels.

    1. do you? I am writing a dissertation on synchronized swimming and would love to see it if you have a copy!

  4. My mother in law Frances Rainer was both a swimmer and a dancer in the show. She’s 90, but still remembers the production very well! I’d love to see it in any form

    1. Francis Rariner had an outrageous sense of humor. And she looked great in a swim suit.
      Stuart Hodes

  5. If anyone has a copy of this show, I would appreciate getting a open via E Mail on it.

    I was in the show as here swimming partner in London and the NBC show, as well as the Steve Allen show.

    Thanks i advance.

    Bill Damian

  6. Didn’t Esther Williams serve as an expert analyst on telecasts of the first two Olympic synchronized swimming competitions (Los Angels 1984 for ABC and Seoul 1988 for NBC)?

    1. I just read the Wikipedia article on Ester Williams. It states she was a synchronized swimming commentator for the 1984 Olympics, but there is no reference given for that statement.

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