On This Day: ‘The Tonight Show’ Premiered with Steve Allen in 1954

by Suzanne Halliburton

Late night is cluttered with talkers. But decades ago, the original The Tonight Show was a novelty and a program that changed how people watch TV.

The Tonight Show, hosted by Steve Allen, premiered Sept. 27, 1954. NBC had the honor of changing the TV game. Technically, Allen called his show Tonight. It was a play on the early morning Today show.

And what was going on in the country and the world people were talking about?

A Japanese ferry sunk in a typhoon, killing more than 1,100 people. The Philadelphia Athletics played their last game in the city before moving to Oakland. The World Series started that week, and in game one, Willie Mays made his historic catch. Schools in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore were integrated. As for entertainment, the first remake of A Star Is Born (Judy Garland, James Mason) premiered at theaters that week. Plus, there was a new Humphrey Bogart movie. He starred with Ava Garland in the Barefoot Contessa.

So why not do a late-night talk show? Call it something simple. The late Steve Allen wanted folks to know he didn’t create late-night TV. Rather, it already was there, he said, in the form of local shows and bad movies.

But The Tonight Show did nail down a formula hosts still are using. Allen said he “workshopped” it all.

Allen wrote: “The low-key opening monologue, the jokes about the orchestra leader, the home-base chatter with the announcer sidekick, the kidding with the studio audience, the celebrity interviews—all of these were selected for personal convenience but in time came to seem the “natural” talk-show formula.”

In First The Tonight Show, Allen Joked About It Being ‘Mild’

The first episode, which was filmed from New York’s Hudson Theater, featured an all-star lineup. Mays was there. So were Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme and Wally Cox. Gene Rayburn, who went on to host The Match Game,” was the announcer. Skitch Henderson led band.

In his opening monologue, Allen joked about the show’s length — it was set for 105 minutes.

“This program is going to go on forever,” Allen said. “You think you’re tired now.”

He told the audience NBC picked the theater because it “sleeps 800 people.”

As for The Tonight Show itself, Allen said: “This is kind of a mild show. You can decide in about a week if you like it. … It’s not spectacular. it’ll be kind of monotonous.”

Allen undersold it. The show, with six hosts, still continues today. Allen predicted there could be a “Son of Tonight Show.” He got the name wrong. However, there are really late night talk shows following the late ones. You can check out the opening show here.

Allen said: “Inventing the talk program was, frankly, rather like inventing the paper towel. The result is useful, a source of enormous profits, and the world is somewhat better off for it.

“But it’s hardly to be compared with doing a successful weekly prime-time comedy series, painting an unforgettable portrait, composing a beautiful musical score, or discovering a cure for a crippling disease.”

Here’s another taste of The Tonight Show with Allen as host. He died in 2000 at age 78. By then, Jay Leno hosted the show Allen started.