When the musical first came into our living rooms
Feb 20, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
In today’s world of streaming media, it’s easy to enjoy musicians from every genre. With the power of Netflix, in one moment you can watch Barbra Streisand sing her heart out to a packed arena and in another moment, you can find yourself front row at “Jersey Boys.” Accessibility to music is something we’ve always craved: from the first, crudely made musical instrument to the stunning concert halls of Vienna, humanity longs for musical harmony.
Put simply – music connects us. For me, musicals are the most beloved expression of that harmony. Besides, what’s not to love? The elements are beautiful: a story (often filled with a sense of adventure and romance), iconic characters, dance scenes set to an amazing soundtrack – musicals have so much to offer. Yet, in the burgeoning days of theater, access was often limited to the coasts or bigger cities that could support a Vaudeville performance. The invention of television dramatically altered the trajectory of our culture and music played a prominent role in that shift.
With the recent revival in musically-inclined programming, I was surprised to learn the rich history of the television musical. I couldn’t believe the year was 1944 when the musical first came into our living rooms. The title of choice: “The Boys from Boise.” The plot’s headline: showgirls stranded in Idaho, raising money to get home by working as cowgirls. Sounds like a winner to me – I can only imagine the comedic opportunities (especially with song titles like “You’ll Put Your Brand on My Heart” and “Western Omelet”)! When this program aired, the world was still at war and the wave of consumerism was merely a ripple in the ocean. However, Esquire magazine was one of the first corporate sponsors, airing three commercials during the broadcast. At this time only a small minority of Americans owned a television, but the impact of this first musical event was evident during the early days of t.v.
Only three stills from the airing survived – check them out here!
Looking back at the programming of the 1950s, you can see how producers sought to captivate their viewers with the excitement of musically-focused entertainment. Take for example the long-running series, the Ed Sullivan Show or American Bandstand. When you delve beneath the surface of these early shows, it’s evident that these programs weren’t just about the art. These shows were also powerful vehicles for product promotion. The background of “The Boys from Boise” isn’t as purely artistic as we may hope for either.
This experiment in early programming was the brainchild of an electronics engineer (Allen B. Du Mont). His hope in the late 1930s was to sell his latest technological inventions. Quite simply – if t.v. took off, he would become a very rich man. (Even richer than he already was, thanks to his status as the developer of military-grade radar.) Being a smart entrepreneur, Allen realized he would have to convince the public that television was something they needed. To create demand, he established the DuMont Television Network.
The early days of television were like the wild west and the DuMont team was no exception. Comprised of young professionals (20-somethings) who did as they pleased in this uncharted territory, the DuMont Television Network created much of the television landscape we know today. “The Boys from Boise” was a 60 minute program, with a working budget of about $142,000 in today’s money. Doesn’t seem like a lot of working capital for changing an entire industry!
While the network was well-funded by DuMont, the musical was still too experimental to warrant significant funding. After all, their programming efforts were focused on dialogue. DuMont Network was the first station to develop a soap opera and a variety show. While the world of television has changed significantly since 1944, I think the spirit of DuMont’s first musical lives on. After all, consider the success of NBC’s recent, live musical events: “The Sound of Music” in 2013 & “Grease” in 2016. The times, they are changing but our love of music intertwined with storytelling remains. Tell us about your favorite musical events in the comments…