It was on September 27, 1954 that the Tonight Show first debuted on NBC.
Tonight Starring Steve Allen was hosted by Steve Allen. It was the first late night television series of any time to achieve long-term success. Allen’s run as host of the show lasted for two and a half seasons, beginning in fall 1954 and ending with Allen’s departure in January 1957. During its run it originated from the Hudson Theatre in New York City.
From 1950 to 1951 NBC had aired Broadway Open House, a nightly variety show hosted primarily by comic Jerry Lester. Broadway… demonstrated the audience potential for late-night network programming. The format ofThe Tonight Show can be traced to a nightly 40-minute local program in New York, hosted by Allen and originally titled The Knickerbocker Beer Show (after the sponsor). It was quickly retitled The Steve Allen Show. This premiered in 1953 on WNBT-TV, (now broadcasting as WNBC-TV), the local station affiliate in New York. Beginning in September 1954, it was renamed Tonight! and began its historic run on the full NBC network.
Allen’s version of the show originated talk show staples such as an opening monologue, celebrity interviews, audience participation, and comedy bits in which cameras were taken outside the studio, as well as music including guest performers and a house band under Skitch Henderson. A cmedic ensemble included the likes of Louis Nye, Tom Poston and Don Knotts.
But it all started on September 27, 1954 with Steve Allen, a person today under-recognized, if he is remembered at all.
Steve Allen (December 26, 1921 – October 30, 2000) was much more than the first host of the Tonight Show and personality ( he hosted numerous game and variety shows, including The Steve Allen Show, I’ve Got a Secret, and was a regular panel member on CBS’ What’s My Line?) He was also a musician, composer, actor, comedian, and writer.
Allen was an accomplished pianist and a prolific composer, having written (by his own estimate) over 8,500 songs, some of which were recorded by Perry Como, Margeret Whiting, Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, and Les Brown. Allen won the 1964 Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition, with his song written with Ray Brown, “The Gravy Waltz”. Allen wrote more than 50 books, has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Hollywood theater named in his honor.
A kinescope recording of the opening monologue from the very first Tonight Show under Allen survives. In this recording, Allen states “this show is going to go on forever”; although in context (and as part of a series of jokes) Allen refers to the fact the program is scheduled to run late into the night, his statement has come to refer to the longevity of the franchise.