As Leno Returns, a Look Back to Where NBC Late Night Began

Starting tonight, Jay Leno returns to his Tonight Show berth, continuing the hosting duties he initially began in 1992. The Tonight Show’s long history started with Steve Allen (photo, left), who hosted the local WNBT-TV Tonight from June of 1953, going national on September 27, 1954. When Allen launched a prime time series in the summer of 1956, he cut back his Tonight hosting to Wednesday through Friday, and a series of guest hosts did the Monday-Tuesday hosting (eventually Ernie Kovacs took this on permanently) until January 1957. When Allen left, a “new” format emerged, a news magazine-type show (akin to the Today show) called Tonight! America After Dark, which lasted until July 1957 when The Jack Paar (Tonight) Show debuted. Following Paar was a six month interim Tonight Show that ran from April to September 1962 with guest hosts, until future “King of Late Night” Johnny Carson (photo, right) became a TV icon hosting The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992.

Little known today is the show that launched NBC’s late night programming: Broadway Open House. This variety series began on May 29, 1950 and ran from 11 PM to 12 Midnight. The initial hosts were Jerry Lester (Tuesday, Thursday, Friday) and Morey Amsterdam (Monday, Wednesday). The loosely formatted undertaking is described by The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows thusly: “Stars were invited to drop in and chat, or perform if they felt like it, and the regulars performed in comedy skits, songs, and dances.” Broadway Open House aired its final show on August 24, 1951. Between Broadway Open House’s demise and Steve Allen’s Tonight, NBC filled the late night time slot with the occasional special, such as several productions under the banner of NBC Opera Television Theatre.

Watch an episode of Broadway Open House (with Jerry Lester) and listen to one of the series’ directors, Alan Neuman, at the Archive’s Broadway Open House show page, that also features links to all of the versions of the Tonight Show.

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