September 21, 1951: The Biggest Show of ‘51
It was something new for Boston, and for the rest of the country, too. “The Biggest Show of ‘51” was the brainchild of Joe Gale, the president of the Gale Agency, the big booking and promotion firm. His plan: assemble an A-list roster of entertainers in a single show, book it into arenas and auditoriums that could seat thousands, keep the show working every night, and hold down ticket prices—maybe to about what you’d pay for just one of the headliners in a concert hall. Gale called the high volume/low price strategy a supermarket approach.
For his first effort, the Biggest Show of ‘51, Gale lined up the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, and the King Cole Trio, whose recording of “Too Young” had been the country’s number one song that summer. The supporting acts included dancer Peg Leg Bates, a pair of comedy teams in Stump and Stumpy and Patterson and Jackson, comic Timmie Rogers, and the Marie Bryant Dancers. (Bryant sang “Sunny Side of the Street” in the film Jammin’ the Blues.) It cost about $24,000 a week to stage this show, and Gale charged venues $4,000-$5,000 per night for it.
The Biggest Show commenced its national tour with three nights at the 13,000-seat Boston Garden, September 21-23. Ticket prices ranged from about $2 to almost $5. Boston was the exception to the rule. This was a one-nighter tour; even New York City was a one-nighter for the Biggest Show of ‘51. Three nights in Boston were probably scheduled so the show could work out any kinks.
Ellington’s band played for the whole show, and Ellington himself served as emcee. Vaughan and Cole sang their hits with Ellington’s band, and Cole played a bit of piano as well. Given the show’s time constraints, there was no opportunity for the band or its members to stretch out.
Overall, the tour was every bit as successful as Gale had hoped. I couldn’t find final figures, but the net after the first five weeks was $350,000. Boston, with a net of $18,000, was a disappointment. No telling why the show didn’t draw well. Perhaps it was poor advertising, or perhaps the show was a little too chitlin’ circuit for some of the white audience, or perhaps it followed too closely after Jazz at the Philharmonic, which had sold out Symphony Hall the previous weekend.
I did not find a review of the show in the Boston papers. Instead, I found trumpeter Clark Terry, who joined the Ellington Orchestra as a permanent member on November 11, 1951, the same night that the Biggest Show of ‘51 stopped in St. Louis. Terry’s recollections of his first night struggles getting settled, and of some of the Biggest Show performers, are better than a review. Find it in Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry, on pages 128-132.
The supermarket approach was here to stay. There were Biggest Shows of ‘52 and ‘53 in Boston, and George Wein’s Festival of Modern Jazz in 1953 and 1954, and the Birdland Stars of ‘55, ‘56’ and ‘57. Not to mention that outdoor supermarket called the Newport Jazz Festival. For better or worse, Gale found a working strategy in 1951.
This audio clip might have come from a stop on the Biggest Show of ‘51 tour. It’s Sarah and Nat and Duke and “Love You Madly.”