The Big Show – Meredith Willson’s Big Stage.

On Sunday night, November 5, 1950, NBC Radio debuted a new radio production…

The Big Show with host – Tallulah Bankhead, and music director – Meredith Willson.

The truth is, in 1950, radio was on its way out across America, being replaced by the newest innovation in family entertainment – television.

In one last gasp to capture a national audience, NBC Radio pulled out all the stops, airing a 90-minute star-studded program, The Big Show, beginning on Sunday evening, November 5, 1950 from 6 to 7:30 pm (EST). Each show, originating from The Center Theatre in New York’s Radio City – with occasional broadcasts from Hollywood – included some of the biggest names in the world of entertainment.

(M-0032) Meredith Willson was one of NBC Radio’s biggest stars. Read about Meredith Willson’s earliest days working as a musical director for NBC Radio.

You can listen to the full debut show (November 5, 1950) here. Below is the script for the opening segment:

Host Tallulah Bankhead: This is radio, 1950. The greatest stars of our time on one big program. And the most fabulous part about this, darlings, is that every Sunday we will present other stars of the same magnitude. Uh, pardon me if I sound like a name dropper, but, uh, let’s look into three or four of the names we’ve lined up for next week’s show: Groucho Marx, Fanny Brice, Jane Powell and Ezio Pinnnn-za! (Laughter) Well, now, don’t just sit there with your mouths open, darlings. I know what you’re thinking: you think such a radio show every week is impossible. And I’m sure that, after you hear our first broadcast, you’re going to say that show was impossible. (Laughter) Oh, no, that doesn’t sound quite right, does it? (Laughter) But NBC says nothing is impossible. All it takes is courage, vision, and a king-sized bundle of dough. Each week, there will be comedy, drama, music, all performed by the biggest stars of the time. Of course, darlings, now and then a clinker may sneak in, but we’re going to try–

Guest Jimmy Durante: Just a minute, just a minute. I heard that last remark and I resemble it!
The Big Show brought all the top names in entertainment together for a live 90-minute show. With music director, Meredith Willson (back row), in this segment are Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin, Bob Hope, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson from The Jack Benny Show.

Iowa’s very own Meredith Willson, born in Mason City in 1902, was the musical director for The Big Show, which ran for two years (1950-1952). Willson distinguished himself as a writer of symphonic works and popular songs, with his most famous work, The Music Man, premiering on Broadway in 1957, and was adapted twice for film (1962 and 2003). The idea for Music Man began in 1949, when Meredith was reminiscing with friends about his childhood years in Mason City. Willson referred to the show as “an Iowan’s attempt to pay tribute to his home state.” Read more here.

(L-0114) Here’s a NBC promotional picture (Oct. 20, 1951) of Meredith working on music for “The Big Show.” Read more here about Meredith’s song written for NBC’s 25th anniversary.

While serving as the musical director of The Big Show, Meredith introduced a number of his own compositions – two of which have great importance to us here at Our Iowa Heritage. Allow me to share them with you:

Written in 1950, this signature song of blessing was brought onto The Big Show as the closing song for the Thanksgiving show – November 19, 1950, and became so popular, it remained as the show’s closer throughout the next two years. Take a listen as the host, Tallulah Bankhead invites the evening’s cast to join her: 1) Mindy Carlson, 2) Bob Hope, 3) Jimmy Durante, 4) Perry Como, and 5) Eddie Cantor.

If you’re interested, click here to visit the Old Time Radio website – click on Show #3 – 50/11/19 for the entire 90-minute broadcast. May The Good Lord Bless and Keep You can be found at time marker 1:24:15.

This song went on to become one of Meredith Willson’s biggest hits, being recorded by some of America’s best known performers. Click here to read more about this beautiful tune I’ve adopted as my very own theme song.

The Big Show This is the eighth show of the season – The Christmas Show – December 24, 1950. The closer, May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You, features Tallulah Bankhead and eight guest “singers” – 1) Fran Warren, 2) Bert Lahr, 3) Jimmy Durante, 4) Meredith Willson (composer/music director), 5) Ed Wynn, 6) Margaret O’Brien, 7) Edith Piaf, and 8) Robert Merrill. ENJOY! To listen to the entire 90-minute program – click here.

Alright Hawkeye fans. Pay attention here. Our most famous University of Iowa school song was created in 1950 by Iowa’s own Music Man, Meredith Willson. Here’s the story behind this memorable song…

Over the years, a number of Iowa school songs have been written and recorded, with a handful being so well-received by Hawkeye fans, they continue to live on today. The very first song that made a big splash was a beautiful piece entitled Old Gold, written by John C. Parish in 1905. A decade or so later, W.R. Law wrote On Iowa (1919), which also caught on big with SUI students, and as you know, continues to be one of our favorites on campus today. Click here to read about other Iowa school-spirit songs.

But in the mid-late1920’s, the SUI marching band, which was under the direction of the university’s ROTC military department, began playing a very familiar popular tune, The Iowa Corn Song, at many athletic events. Co-written by George Hamilton, secretary of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, in 1912, the song, while popular with many, is “corny” indeed, so, by the late 1940’s, a brave music reviewer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Les Zachels, called ’em as he sees ’em, and challenged his friend, Meredith Willson, to come up with a new, and much more appropriate, fight song for the Hawkeyes.

Meredith took the challenge and on Sunday, December 31, 1950, on the ninth edition of The Big Show, Willson introduced, to a New Years Eve national radio audience, his new creation, The Iowa Fight Song. Listen to this rare recording of the very first performance of our favorite Hawkeye classic, performed with a 47-piece orchestra and sixteen singers…

If you’re interested, click here to visit the Old Time Radio website – click on Show #9 – 50/12/31 for the entire 90 minute broadcast. The Iowa Fight Song can be found at time marker 6:10. The other voices you hear on this cut are Tallulah Bankhead, Margaret O’Brien, and Ken Murray.
February 12, 1951 – A Hit in Iowa City – The Iowa Field House basketball crowd loved the first performance in 1951.

The good folks back in Iowa City caught wind of Meredith’s new fight song, introducing it to basketball fans at the Indiana-Iowa game in the Iowa Field House. The fans loved it, and The Iowa Fight Song has not slowed down in popularity since. Read more here.

Click here to watch the Iowa-PBS video – The History of the Iowa Fight Song.

Not all of Meredith’s songs made it big immediately. ‘Till I Met You’ – for example – made an appearance on the January 14, 1951 edition of The Big Show performed by Meredith Willson & his orchestra and featuring Fran Warren. Click here to read the full story about The Music Man’s love song – Till There Was You.

As for The Big Show, as we said, it was radio’s last big success. NBC went full-throttle in an attempt to keep radio, which had been a mainstay in American life since the 1920’s, from its predicted death, and The Big Show was thought to be a key to that effort. Newsweek Magazine stated that the show was “the biggest bang to hit radio since TV started,” and, as if to prove big bang and big bucks were mutual partners, some $100,000 was budgeted for a single installment.

The show’s success was credited to the host, Talllulah Bankhead, and her notorious wit and ad-libbing ability in addition to the show’s superior scripting. She had one of the funniest writers in the business on her staff: Goodman Ace, the mastermind of radio’s legendary Easy Aces. She included renowned ad-libbers in the show—particularly Fred Allen (he and his longtime sidekick and wife, Portland Hoffa, appeared so often they could have been the show’s regular co-hosts) and Groucho Marx, both of whom appeared on the first season’s finale and appeared jointly on three other installments. Meredith Willson’s contribution of bringing top-notch musical arrangements to each week’s show also was a big reason for the show’s success.

(L-0110) As Bankhead recorded in her memoirs, she took the show because she needed the money but nearly changed her mind when she feared she’d be little more than a glorified mistress of ceremonies with nothing to do but introduce the feature performers. “Guess what happened?” she continued, “your heroine emerged from the fracas as the Queen of the Kilocycles. Authorities cried out that Tallulah had redeemed radio. In shepherding my charges through The Big Show, said the critics, I had snatched radio out of the grave. The autopsy was delayed.”

Yet, in truth, while The Big Show was a big smash, it simply wasn’t quite big enough to put television in its place and keep it there. NBC cancelled the show after two seasons and a reported loss of $1 million, a major figure in those years. In fact, it was primarily because the program was unable to attract more advertisers, who were putting more and more of their money into television advertising. But, that said, The Big Show is remembered as one of the great final stands, at its best, of classic American old-time radio and — for its wit, colorful music and dramatics — as good as broadcast variety programming got on either medium.

And all Iowans can be proud of our own Music Man, Meredith Willson, for playing a big part in the show’s success. Click here to read more about Meredith, my Iowa-born musical hero.

A tip of the old hat to Meredith Willson and The Big Show. As, Hawkeyes, we say thanks for The Iowa Fight Song, and May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You!

Looking for more resources on Meredith Willson? Check out our suggestions here.

DYK-March 25, 2022

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

The Big Show – NBC Radio, Wikipedia

May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You, Meredith Willson, Wikipedia

May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You, The Big Show, November 19, 1950, OTRR-The Big Show

Iowa Unofficial State Song – The Iowa Corn Song,

Broadcast Audio Clips, Iowa Fight Song (The Big Show-1950),

The Iowa Fight Song, The Big Show, December 31, 1950, OTRR-The Big Show

Kudos to Tyler Brinegar, Senior Producer & Director at Iowa PBS – who used one of our rare B&W photos in his February 2023 Iowa PBS production on Iowa’s very own Meredith Willson. Click here for more!

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