"Television has never seen anything like the turnover of personnel on The Red Buttons Show. The writers, directors, producers and supporting players come and go so fast the star can't learn their names before they head for the exit." - Voice of Broadway, April 8, 1954
"Mel Brooks, signed just a week ago as writer-director of The Red Buttons Show, has resigned." - Variety, September 30, 1954
In the spring of 1952 NBC had a reputation as the domain of sketch comedy. The Texaco Star Theater starring Milton Berle popularized televised sketch, The Colgate Comedy Hour with Martin & Lewis amplified it, and Your Show of Shows introduced us to the work of Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. NBC's sketch comedy programs had something for each demographic, showcasing both lowbrow and highbrow styles, enjoying ratings dominance and critical acclaim. Competitor CBS was desperate to emulate NBC's success and in October 1952 attempted to do so by investing in a comedian named Red Buttons. His moniker fit his burlesque roots where it was common for nouns like Rags or Peanuts to be used as first names, an offshoot of burlesque strippers who also used strange pseudonyms.
The Red Buttons Show had an enormously popular first season on CBS and Buttons was hailed as "the comedy find of the year." But the second season was so disastrous that chroniclers called it the most severe fall from grace in comedy history. The Red Buttons Show was praised after its first several episodes, but press coverage soon changed from one of critical elation to a marveling at the chaos behind the scenes. “The first year Buttons was a major sensation,” wrote Colliers magazine. “The second year he went right down the tubes.”
Success ruined Buttons as he destroyed his own show. His ego and anxiety expanded and his agitation was taken out on his employees. The slightest thing could set him off and his secretary was terrified of him. "Red scares me Monday [broadcast] nights," she said. "He doesn't make sense." He routinely fired employees after only a few weeks on the job. Variety called Red Buttons the only TV star with "more writers than scripts." The employees he retained often quit on their own, unable to handle the volatile, irrational atmosphere. He screamed at future legends like Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks, telling them to fuck right off. They did. By 1954 there were few comedy writers left who hadn't had some sort of terrible experience with The Red Buttons Show. Octogenarian comedian Bobby Ramsen says, "He fired all the people who later became the icons of American comedy. Red had different writers every week. 'They're not sending me out naked again! This is the worst crap I have ever seen!' God, he was terrible. Buttons became a monster."
Between 1946 and 1949 he came into his own playing the Cadillac Hotel in Detroit, the Lord Tarleton Hotel in Miami Beach and the Goldman Hotel in New Jersey. He played Catskill venues like The Flagler, The Grand Hotel and The Livingston Manor. A review of his act at the Loew's State presentation house said, "Buttons opened slowly, gradually building with gags, mostly hep lines, before going into his material. His old stuff, The Autograph Book, The German Emsee, and his old stand by Joe and Paul, rocked them. He also showed two new routines; The Football Player, which was hilarious and timely [and] Punch-Drunk Pug, a masterpiece of pathos." All the routines and characters appeared on The Red Buttons Show three years later. By the early 1950s he was a regular at the Paramount and the Roxy, massive Manhattan theaters with five shows daily. His Catskill bookings also improved and he played the gigantic Concord Hotel. In between gigs he spent time at 1650 Broadway, address of Hanson's Drugstore, a hangout for struggling comedians. When his career took off he swapped Hanson's for Lindy's, a hangout spot for successful comics. Lindy's was where show people convened late at night and the place to go if a comic bombed and wanted to shake the feeling. "I practically lived in Lindy's," said Buttons. "It was like being at a house party, only you paid for it. You'd be surprised how many lives Lindy's has saved, keeping guys from being by themselves."
Buttons had his television debut June 1950 on the Dumont Network's Cavalcade of Bands, following it up with a CBS stand-up shot on This Is Show Business. A few months later Buttons guest hosted an episode of NBC's very first late night program Broadway Open House.1 August 12, 1951 he was on Star of the Family, a variety show hosted by his old army buddy Peter Lind Hayes. September 1951 he did an episode of the TV series Suspense, starring in a biography of real-life comedian Joe E. Lewis, the comic who had his throat sliced open by the mafia.
"Who are you writing against this season?"
- comedian Jack E. Leonard talking to a former member of the Red Buttons writing staff
CBS producer Marlo Lewis, the man who shaped the original version of The Ed Sullivan Show, saw Red Buttons on both Broadway Open House and Suspense. He suggested to his CBS superiors that they sign Buttons for prime time. They did and The Red Buttons Show premiered on CBS, initially Tuesday night against NBC's Milton Berle, on October 7, 1952. The William Morris Agency put together the talent while advertising agency Benton and Bowles convinced General Foods to sponsor the program. It was done from The Maxine Elliot Theater, which CBS was now calling Studio 51. The review in Variety noted, “As with any such program, it’s the writing that counts, and Buttons was blessed with some sock material.” The initial writing staff consisted of Sam Locke - a man who wrote teenage beach movies in the 1960s, Will Glickman and his writing partner Joe Stein - who later wrote Fiddler on the Roof, and Larry Gelbart, the legendary comedy writer in charge of the television series M*A*S*H*. Variety added that if the writers could "continue to come up with the proper material, everybody can be happy.” But the reality was the proper material didn't matter. When Buttons was handed his own television program, his whole attitude changed. He no longer was a charming, impish burlesque comic, but a man believing in manifest destiny. He became impossible to please. Buttons would never be satisfied. He didn't think his writers were worthy. He faulted them for everything and yelled as he wandered the studio hall in a bathrobe. Ego grew and resentment brewed. By the end of the month half his miserable writing staff would leave the program "by mutual consent."
The first episode was a smash. By today's standards the sketches are hokey and labored, but the television fans of 1952 loved it. "It was an overnight sensation,” says cast member Pat Carroll. “I remember standing in the room after they showed the first episode. They had a big party at [Manhattan restaurant] Danny's Hideaway. I said, 'How does this feel, Red?' He said, 'Kid, it only happens once in a lifetime.' Red was surrounded by Time, Life, Look, all the theatrical newspapers and he was an overnight star." Comedy writer Bob Schiller said the credit for its success mostly belonged to the head writer. "The Red Buttons Show was an overnight success. Larry Gelbart was responsible for it." The press singled out the Buttons appropriation of a 1930s Yiddish novelty song Joe and Paul, in which he intoned contemporary cracks to a redundant beat. It was a routine he had used in his stage act for several years. Billboard wrote, "That vamp with the 'Ooh-Hah' might well become as firmly established a trademark in his future TV shots and become equally as famous as Milton Berle's 'Uncle Miltie' or Jackie Gleason's 'Away We Go." Indeed, the song and the phrase - which evolved into "Ho, Ho, Hee, Hee" became one of the program's primary gimmicks. CBS moved the program to Wednesday nights after the premiere. The second episode, gimmicks and all, was highly anticipated. But as it turned out, just prior to the second episode, Buttons collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.
The anxiety-ridden comedian fainted backstage. Instead of his second episode, CBS viewers were treated to an old B-movie starring character actor Guy Kibbee. "Buttons collapsed on the set just a few minutes before the second show was slated to take the air," reported Variety. "Medicos attributed the collapse to exhaustion." He felt enormous pressure after the unexpected praise following his debut. He directed his stress inward. Buttons told the press, "My ribs are pallbearers. They're burying my stomach."
From then on Buttons directed his stress outward rather than inward and it became his staff that suffered the stomach pains. Buttons wrote about his stress in a Variety editorial: “My first thirteen weeks in television - it’s been the roughest, toughest three months in my seventeen years of show business. I don’t want to say the reviews were great. They were. But this is when I found out, for the first time, that the coin has two sides. Believe me, the easiest half hour of the week is when I’m on the air. It’s that other 167 and a half hours… skull sessions with the writers… read the script… memorize it… play it out in rehearsal…it’s not good… throw it away… start all over… another conference…this is better…polish it up…rehearse some more …the censors don’t like this bit…rewrite it…more rehearsal …whose got some ideas for next week…let’s go…this won’t work…where are the writers...”
Read the script... Throw it away... Where are the writers... Buttons had already lost three of his four original writers by November 1952, just one month into the run. Glickman, Locke and Stein all left rather than fight with their boss. Of the original four only Larry Gelbart remained, staying on for "one year and three fights." Too much sudden fame and too much sudden power were to make the whole show unworkable. Ben Starr, an elderly comedy writer who died earlier this year recalled, “They hired Larry Klein and I to write for The Red Buttons Show. The pay was great. We started telling him about the kind of characters we were toying with. He said, ‘Okay. I want a character that is funny, but not so funny that... For the marine character I want him to be tough, but not so tough that...’ I said to Larry, ‘Good, but bad? This guy wants both sides of everything.’ I saw in two seconds this was not going to work. When Larry and I were alone I said, ‘I don’t know about you - but I ain’t moving to New York for this. Red Buttons is crazy.”
The program moved to Monday nights the first week of January 1953. CBS advertised the block between 7:30 and 9:00 PM as "just like color TV" since the evening's line-up of The Arthur Godfrey Show, I Love Lucy and The Red Buttons Show all starred redheads. General Foods was moving the Buttons show to Mondays in an emergency pinch after one of their other programs succumbed to an organized boycott. Life with Luigi was a sitcom featuring Italian stereotypes. When anti-defamation groups waged a campaign against its racial caricature, General Foods caved. Life with Luigi was canceled and Red Buttons moved into its spot.
The Red Buttons Show was firmly established in popular culture by April 1953. It was airing on 87 different affiliates and viewed by an estimated 27 million viewers every week. Merchandise followed. Buttons with his face on them were the first obvious product. General Foods used his face on Maxwell House coffee cans. Next was a 45 produced by Mitch Miller called The Ho Ho Song with flipside Strange Things Are Happening, novelty tracks based on the catchphrases Buttons used on his show. They sold close to seven hundred thousand copies. With a recently incorporated song publishing firm, he raked in all the royalties. Buttons was asked to endorse a clothing line, a luggage brand, a board game, a follow-up 45 called The Buttons Bounce, beachwear, a brand of Red Buttons pajamas, a soft-drink called Ho Ho and even a furniture line. He and the show were profiled in Colliers, Life, Parade, TV Guide and several other periodicals. He was enjoying new wealth with a Sutton Place penthouse apartment, a blue Cadillac convertible and made-to-measure clothes from President Truman's tailor. “He was suddenly rich," said comedy writer Bob Schiller. "Nouveau riche. When we came to his apartment [for writing sessions] we had to sign in, so he could deduct us for tax purposes.”
While he tortured his staff and delighted the merchandising arm, his old friends at Hanson's Drugstore were less than thrilled. They thought Red's new status would elevate their own, but instead he ignored them. “It started off so good,” says 87-year old comic Will Jordan. “But all his friends like [comedian] Jan Murray hated him because he never invited them to appear on the show.” Buttons abandoned his Hanson’s cronies. “He fell into ire with the other guys,” says old Hanson’s comic Jackie Curtiss. “He always said, ‘If one of us makes it - we all make it. And then when he got his own show he disappeared and no one could get a hold of him.”
The first season of The Red Buttons Show held its June 1953 wrap party at Leon and Eddie's, the popular comedy venue on 52nd Street. It was the final time that particular crew would be in the same place. At the end of the year Buttons fired most employees that hadn't already quit, despite the unexpected critical and commercial success of the first season. While the game show Masquerade Party aired as the program's summer replacement, Buttons fired his producer Al Span and his supporting actress Pat Carroll. The press reported she left of her own volition: “It’s understood she [Carroll] is going after her own show with Dick Shawn as a partner.” But it was a lie. "I was only with him one season," says Carroll. "George Burns told me, 'You got too popular on the show. Red had to fire you.' I don't know, but I was out by the end of the season."
“This is Buttons' second season up as a major TV network draw and on the basis of Monday’s [show] there should be no diminution of fans. None, that is, if his stable of writers – and there are five – do right by him.” - Variety, September 23, 1953
The second season of The Red Buttons Show started on September 21, 1953 following I Love Lucy. It broke a new record for most affiliates carrying a show, with 127 stations participating every Monday night. The new staff included Jess Kimmel, Max Liebman's former assistant, as producer, actor Joe Silver as the new straight man and Emmy winner Burt Shevelove directing. Bob Schiller, a future writer on All in the Family, was a new hire and discovered another reason for the high turnover. Buttons had been an untested comic when he became a hit and as such his original contract was drafted for an unknown comedian rather than a TV star. According to Schiller, in order to placate him, money was regularly transferred from other departments to Red's paycheck. "I had an eight week deal," said Schiller. "At the end of the sixth week I was making pretty good money. The attorney who handled Red called me in. He said, 'We're not picking up your option.' I said, 'I'm writing with these other guys and it comes into you anonymously. You may be getting rid of the best sketch writer in America. You have absolutely no idea what I do.' He said, 'You're making too much money. As you know Red was an overnight sensation. He gets very little money. So we have to take money from the writer's budget."
Larry Gelbart was fired in December 1953 along with fellow comedy writers Hal Collins, Buddy Arnold and Woody Kling. The replacements included Danny and Neil Simon, but they didn't last much longer. Neil Simon remembered the gig as "no thrill." However, it did mark the split of the brothers as a team. Danny Simon was promoted to head writer while Neil went solo and became one of America's most popular playwrights. Writing team Hugh Wedlock and Howard Snyder replaced Danny Simon four weeks later only to be fired in March. A whitewashed press release said Snyder and Wedlock “exited The Red Buttons Show because of budgetary differences.” The trade papers seldom put the real story in print as CBS press agents controlled the narrative. 91-year-old comedian Jack Carter, a contemporary of Buttons, is more honest: "It was terrible. Red almost had a fistfight with one of the writers, an elderly man. He almost came to blows with Red. It was that bad. Red couldn't get along with anybody. He had some good, big writers. Imagine him coming to blows. Red thought he knew it all.”
General Foods renewed The Red Buttons Show for an additional fifty-two weeks starting in Feburary 1954, but that optimistic contract would not endure. Changeovers in production staff and program format accelerated greater than before, bringing the show to the brink. Former mountain comic Don Appell was hired as the new producer and prolific 1950s gagman Artie Stander became the head writer. Three weeks later Variety reported that Artie Stander was suffering from bleeding ulcers and writing The Red Buttons Show from a hospital bed.
CBS went into damage control, planting puff pieces in periodicals like The Radio TV-Mirror. Elliot Lawrence, the musical director of The Red Buttons Show, lent his name to a ghost written article. It chalked up the backstage drama to worrying. "I think Red Buttons is a terrific guy. One of the best. Natural. Kind. A loyal, generous friend. An immensely talented and experienced performer. And a worrier. What a worrier!"
After a year and a half with no continuity of writing staff, the quality was all over the place and the ratings dropped. One anonymous CBS executive complained that Buttons was ruining everything. "Buttons is a great comic and he'd have a great show if he'd stick to being just that. But he wants to be head writer, producer, director, music director, choreographer and everything else." The Red Buttons Show burned through every available comedy writer. It now had to be written mostly by freelancers. No one else would dare join the staff. Variety reported in May 19, 1954, “After trying a new format and nine new writers within a three-week period, the [show] has reverted to its original format.” By the time that bit of information hit the newsstands the program had been canceled and the longterm contract was broken by the sponsor. Tired of the drama, logistical issues and slumping ratings, General Foods put their support behind Parke Levy's domestic sitcom December Bride. The Red Buttons Show had its final month on CBS in June 1954. Life reported, "Buttons, who had been a success, had not been getting as many laughs this season. Nobody knew exactly why, but everybody and their uncles had theories." Buttons was canceled, but apparently enjoyed the controversy. "Pity the poor writers on The Red Buttons Show," wrote columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. "The comedian has discovered his much publicized hirings and firings make good [promotion], so he's determined to remain the most hazardous employer in show business."2
That summer Buttons headlined the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas for ten thousand dollars a week. His manager Jonas Silverstone remained in New York, working with advertising agency McManus, John and Adams to sell The Red Buttons Show to Pontiac and NBC. Naturally, a new contingent of writers were hired including Harry Clork, Sumner Long, Larry Marks and Ben Starr. Marks and Starr accepted the gig but changed their mind at the last second. “The pay was great," says Starr. "The guy who was going to produce it was named Ben Brady. I did not like this guy. He was an attorney who became a producer. I didn't trust him, I didn't like him, he was a liar. I thought to myself, 'You can't deal with Buttons.' So we go to the William Morris office to see [Buttons' agent] George Gruskin. Ben Brady was there. We said, 'Buttons is crazy and you're a liar.' That was the end of that even though our picture was in TV Guide with a story on it."
Buttons had run out of people to produce and direct his show. He started offering directorial posts to comedians like Julie Oshins, a Catskill favorite who wrote for comedian Danny Thomas. He was hired to direct the new NBC series and helped Buttons mull over a pile of freelance material with obscure bylines Ed James, Al Schwartz, Albert Styles, Stanley Adams, Johnny Greene, Ed Tyler and Hy Friedman. Danny Simon returned and Arnie Rosen joined as the permanent writing staff. The NBC version of The Red Buttons Show premiered at 8:00 PM on Friday, October 6, 1954, replacing an outgoing news-magazine program hosted by Dave Garroway. The Red Buttons Show was slated for three weeks a month, the off-week used as a testing ground for Pontiac's other sponsorships. The reviews were not favorable. “It’s going to take a lot more scintillating material than was evident on the premiere for Buttons to dominate the period … unfortunately, there wasn’t much of an assist from his writers.” One of those writers had recently been promoted. Julie Oshins was named executive producer and his directing job was handed to a rambunctious young talent who'd just finished a successful run with Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows. Conflict between Buttons and the new writer-director was immediate. Variety reported, “Red Buttons and Mel Brooks, one of his writers, couldn’t see script to script on his Friday nighter.”
Mel Brooks has little memory of his time with Buttons other than to say "he was terrible." Brooks wrote on the first episode and was slated to direct the second, but just wasn't able to hang on. If he had, it would have been his directorial debut a good thirteen years before The Producers. Instead after only one week on the writing staff and an additional six days after being named director of The Red Buttons Show, Mel Brooks resigned, already sick and tired - like the rest of the industry and most of the public - of Red Buttons. Comedy writer Bob Schiller said, "Red had a bag of tricks. He did them and they got boring after a while; he didn't do anything different. 'Ho, ho, ho...' How often can you listen to that?"
Buttons was television comedy’s cautionary tale. He burned every bridge and when his own bridge collapsed nobody felt sorry for him. “When he fell from grace, he came back to Hanson’s Drugstore and begged everybody to let him back in the circle," says Hanson's comic Jackie Curtiss. "Of course, all the guys wanted nothing to do with him. He came into Hanson’s and nobody would talk to him." Three years later Buttons had made amends and reinvented himself. He won acclaim for a dramatic turn in the film Sayonara, for which he got an Oscar. "A few years passed and Red Buttons was up for the Academy Award," says Curtiss. "He said, ‘Guys, you gotta pray for me. If I make it - that means for the first time in history a Borscht Belt comic wins an Academy Award!’ All the comedians went over to Joey Bishop’s house in New Jersey to watch the Oscars - Buddy Hackett, Phil Foster and everybody. Red Buttons won and everybody cheered. Phil Foster said, ‘Hey. We gotta send Red a telegram.’ It read, ‘Congratulations - and goodbye again.”
2 In 1957 Ben Freedman, a former Red Buttons Show writer, wrote a novel called Lootville. Its protagonist, a bitter TV writer, explained: “Lootville [is where] the real money is earned by the ‘talent’ who really aren’t that talented … the material was lousy, the acting putrid, the production stank, the whole thing was just ghastly.” It was Freedman's contribution to a mini-genre of fiction about comedy's enfant terribles. If you talk to the survivors of old time radio comedy or early television comedy, there is a consensus that most star comedians were terrible to work for. Eddie Cantor in the 1930s, Milton Berle in the 1940s, Red Buttons in the 1950s; not to mention Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason; all successful comedians widely detested by the people that worked for them. Disenchanted writers walked away and got their revenge by writing novels and teleplays based on the experience, fictionalizing the account, and turning their former comedian bosses into literary villains. Ernest Lehman, best known as Alfred Hitchcock’s screenwriting collaborator, wrote a short story for Liberty magazine in 1948 called The Life of Sammy Hogarth. It concerned a radio comedian who sold himself to the public as a great humanitarian yet was a human piece of shit behind the scenes. It was based on Lehman’s brief time working as a gag writer for Eddie Cantor. Lehman revisited the theme three years later when Cosmopolitan assigned him to profile The Texaco Star Theater, the popular Tuesday night variety show starring Milton Berle. Lehman detailed Berle’s bullying of stagehands, writers and producers. When Lehman submitted it to his managing editor he was told they couldn’t publish it; the composition was so salacious that it bordered on slander. It may have been accurate, but Cosmopolitan would not risk a lawsuit from comedy’s most potent star. Instead Lehman changed the names and published it as a fictional short story in 1952 called The Comedian. Producer Stanley Kramer optioned it for a film, although did nothing with it. Five years later Rod Serling adapted the story for an episode of Playhouse 90, which was directed by John Frankenheimer. Mickey Rooney gave his greatest performance as the egomaniacal comedian destroying those in his path as he slowly destroyed himself. Jackie Gleason and Art Carney starred in a similar teleplay called The Laughmaker for the CBS anthology series Studio One about an entertainment reporter assigned to profile a comedian - only to discover him a narcissistic boor. Hal Kanter, a comedy writer for Bob Hope, published a novel called Snake in the Glass about a comedy star reaping abuse on his writers, using his position to seduce girls. Comedy writer Norman Krasna wrote a novel called The Glass Bed with an identical premise. Carl Reiner wrote and directed The Comic starring Dick Van Dyke, a motion picture about the downfall of a narcissistic old comedy star.
John Fenton Murray
The New York Times, June 20, 1950
The Reading Eagle, October 31, 1952
The New York Times, November 2, 1952
Colliers, October 16, 1953
Variety, March 11, 1954
Billboard, May 8 1954
Life, June 7, 1954
Variety, September 30, 1954
Variety, October 6, 1954
The Milwaukee Sentinel, September 20, 1953
The Laugh Crafters by Jordan R. Young, pg 192-194
Bob Schiller, Interview with Academy of Television Arts and Sciences
James Sheldon, Interview Academy of Television Arts and Sciences
Bobby Ramsen, Interview with Author
Ben Starr, Interview with Author