Emmys flashback to 1953: 70 years ago the big winners were ‘Your Show of Shows’ and ‘I Love Lucy’

NBC’s landmark “Your Show of Shows” won its second consecutive best variety program statuette at the primetime Emmy Awards held Feb. 5, 1953 at the  old Hotel Statler hosted by Art Linkletter. The 90-minute live program had strong competition- “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends” (CBS); “The Colgate Comedy Hour” (NBC); “The Jackie Gleason Show” (CBS) and “The Toast of the Town” (CBS).

Other winners that evening included  another landmark series, CBS’ “I Love Lucy” which was named best situation comedy with NBC’s “Robert Montgomery Presents” receiving best dramatic program honors.  CBS’ “What’s My Line? claimed the title of best audience participation, quiz or panel show. NBC’s “Dragnet” was the recipient of the best mystery, action or adventure program.  KTLA’s “Time for Beany” won best children’s program, while Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” (CBS) received the Emmy for public affairs program.

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On the acting front, Oscar-winners Thomas Mitchell and Helen Hayes were named best actor and actress while Lucille Ball won best comedienne and Jimmy Durante was best comedian. Most outstanding personality went to Bishop Fulton J. Sheen who beat out the likes of Ball, Durante, Murrow and Adlai Stevenson, who had just lost the presidency to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“Your Show of Shows” showcased a quartet of exceptional, brilliantly funny people — Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. They created comedy magic in side-splitting sketches written by the likes of Mel Brooks, Neil and Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kallen. Reiner’s 1960s hit sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” the 1982 movie “My Favorite Year” and Neil Simon’s 1993 play “Laughter on the 23d Floor” were all based on experiences writing the series and dealing with the mercurial Caesar.

In a 2001 L.A. Times interview, Caesar told me that contemporary comedy series weren’t as creative as they were during television’s infancy. “I am not saying there is no creativity today-there is-but it is not as flourishing as it used to be. And the language that is allowed to be used I think it’s degrading. It has taken television down.”

There is a scene in “Laughter” where the Caesar character, Max, is wearing the wrong costume for a sketch. Caesar noted that it happened to him once. “I was doing a bus sketch with Carl, but they changed the running order. I said to my dresser, ‘Did you get the change?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry.’ He dressed me for the old routine- a leotard with leopard skins and gold lame boots. It was an actor’s nightmare. I looked out on stage and it was a bus sketch. I said, ‘shirt, pants!’ In 12  seconds, I had somebody else’s shirt, pants, clothes. I walked out and [Reiner] said ‘You’re kind of late this morning.’ I said, I had a little trouble dressing.’ I crossed my legs and he said ‘Boy, look at those shoes. They are beautiful.’ I had these gold lame boots on. I said, ;They look nice, but you have to feed them every morning and take them for a walk at night.”

Reiner told me in 2014 that it took him a while to gain entrance into the writers’ room. “At the very beginning of the show for the first couple of weeks I had to sit in the hall while the writers wrote.”  Then Reiner pitched an idea of spoofing foreign films. The writers loved the idea and invited him in the room where it was happening. “If I had an idea, I would say it.”

Caesar, noted Reiner, brought “sketch comedy to a level that never existed before. He was a comedian’s comedian. You have heard that many times about many actors, but as far as sketches are concerned, nobody could ever do a sketch like he could. He had a face that was rubber.”

One of the show’s most memorable sketches was its spoof of “This Is Your Life” called “This is Your Story” with Caesar trying to run away when he was plucked out of the audience to reunite with relatives and friends on the stage. “It is one of the funniest sketches every written,” said Reiner who added that he learned John Cleese thought he would hurt himself because he was laughing so hard when he watched it.

And Reiner revisited the sketch when he went to see the 1973 compilation film “Ten from Your Show of Shows.” He was sitting in the theater when he heard a woman scream with laughter during the “This is Your Life” bit. But it wasn’t a woman. “I said that woman is me!” I didn’t recognize the laughing coming out of me. To this day, I dare anyone not to laugh. It was Sid being so brilliant.”

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