Tennessee Ernie Ford
The Ford Show-America's Favorite Prime Time Variety Show
Debuting on October 4th, 1956 on NBC, The Ford Show has remained one of the most innovative, unique and enduringly entertaining prime-time variety series ever produced for television. Virtually overnight, it cracked the Nielsen top ten, and before the end of its first season on the air, it had become the # 1 half-hour variety show in America -- a spot it held from April, 1957 to June of 1961. Consistently fresh, and always on the cutting edge of live television, The Ford Show featured all the ingredients of the top variety shows of the day; great guest stars, top-of-the-line writing, production and direction, and memorable music. But one element clearly separated it from all others; Ford closed virtually every show with a hymn, gospel or spiritual number. Initially opposed by both Madison Avenue and the network (and more than one member of the earliest production team) it would soon become the most popular portion of the show, and gain Ernie the distinction of almost single-handedly bringing inspirational music into the mainstream of popular entertainment.
Produced by a team of young pros the likes of Bud Yorkin, Norman Lear, Danny Arnold and Cliffie Stone, to name a few, The Ford Show aired for five years -cranking out 191 broadcasts in all- featuring the show's long-standing supporting cast, The Top Twenty, and 129 of Hollywood's most legendary guest stars, informally dropping by for a visit with one of Hollywood's most legendary "good-guys"...the man at the center of The Ford Show's phenomenal success and the man many people today still think the show was named for -- Ernie Ford.
Already one of the entertainment world's biggest recording stars, Ernie's Emmy-nominated daily Tennessee Ernie Ford Show on NBC (January, '55-June, '56) had also made him one of the most popular television personalities in the country. The Ford Show magnified that popularity literally by the millions. It brought Ernie not only into the kitchens, but into the living rooms, dens --and yes, bedrooms-- of homes across the country every week, making him virtually a neighborhood fixture on Thursday nights. Through his natural, unaffected charm, friendliness and honesty, Ernie became much more than just a host for his own prime-time variety show...he became a cherished member of millions of American families from every corner of the country and from every walk of life. By the end of the third season, Ernie was arguably one of the top five television stars in the business, and Thursday nights undeniably belonged to Ford Motor Company.
But the pressure of doing a live prime-time network series was beginning to take its toll on Ernie, and as the fourth season was coming to close in June of 1960, he announced that the next season would be his last. The announcement sent shockwaves from Hollywood to Madison Avenue to Detroit in a matter of minutes. Within hours after the announcement, Ford offered Ernie what would later be reported as the largest salary ever offered a prime-time star, if he would only remain. But money was not the issue and no amount offered changed Ernie's mind. "We've had fun, it's been a ball...but we've taken this about as far as it can go...and we're beginning to milk it. I want to go out at the top of the game, before the audience begins to feel the same way".
And so, at the very '...top of their game...' The Ford Show brought down the curtain for the very last time on Ernie and The Top Twenty on June 29, 1961. Ford never sought a replacement host, and the show was never revived. It was, for five years, one of the most exciting and entertaining chapters in the annals of Classic Television.