The age of modern entertainment was born when the microphone replaced the megaphone as an amplifier of the human voice in the 1920s (a transition we might call "crossing the Rudy Vallee''). The bulky microphone soon took on a symbolic role, signifying the urgency and excitement of radio itself.
In the early days of television—the late 1940s—when newsmen were newsmen and microphones were almost as big as a breadbox—the new medium's radio roots were still visible (or rather, visible for the first time). Microphones often obscured performers, with wires snaking across the stage. Or they hung from booms that descended from above, intruding into the TV picture with amusing regularity.
A microphone used on one of the most popular shows of what is now recalled as the golden years of television today resides in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. It belonged to Max Liebman, the pioneer producer who created "Your Show of Shows," a 90-minute variety program starring comedians Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. The Saturday night show premièred in 1950 and ran through the 1954 season on NBC.
The boisterous, vaudeville-trained Caesar and the petite, fey Coca specialized in antic comedy that often careened into genius. One memorable skit included a parody of the steamy Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr beach scene in From Here to Eternity; in it, Caesar wore swimming trunks and black socks. The tremendously popular show shaped comedians and television comedy for years to come, from Nichols and May through Seinfeld and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." It also launched the careers of staff writers Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Liebman's turf, recalls Brooks, was not for the fainthearted. "Max was heaven and hell," he says. "When he was in a good mood, he was the kindest, sweetest, most loving father imaginable, but when he was in a bad mood, you had to watch out. If I told him a joke he didn't like, he'd throw a lit cigar at me. But I was younger and more agile in those days, so I could always duck."
Reiner wrote skits and appeared in them. "We called Max ‘Herr Doktor,'" Reiner recalls, "because he did a lot of doctoring on scripts. For the writers and the comics, he was a great counterpuncher, a worthy adversary who was terrific at taking work and honing it."
Liebman's microphone, an RCA 77DX, quite literally stood between showbiz hopefuls and their dreams; he recorded potential acts with it on acetate disks (magnetic tape was still in its technological infancy). To look at the microphone today is to sense all the aspirations of those who auditioned—mixed, no doubt, with a dollop of stage fright—in a single, numinous object.
When the show ended in 1954, after ratings had begun to slide, Liebman went on to produce a series of 90-minute musical spectaculars called "Max Liebman Presents." He died in 1981 at age 78. Caesar, 82, published his autobiography, Caesar's Hours, last year; a video collection of the show was released in June. Coca died in 2001 at age 92.
In 2000, workers renovating the City Center office building in Manhattan forced open a closet that had been locked for 20 years. They discovered a trove of the producer's scripts and memorabilia, including one of his toupees, though it apparently vanished before the artifacts were sent to the Library of Congress.
Brooks says Liebman's "Show of Shows" represents a high-water mark for comedy on TV. "Max put on the equivalent of a Broadway revue once a week," says Brooks. "We used to call the job ‘Max Liebman University.'"