Long before ‘American Idol,’ the performances were live -- and strange


Television’s “American Idol” is, of course, famous partly for its comically inept performances.

But in the 1950s, the fans of two talent shows on local TV were treated to some moments that were more bizarre than anything “Idol” has shown.

That’s because the programs -- “Hollywood Opportunity” and “Rocket to Stardom” -- were live. And the performances they aired, no matter how weird, couldn’t be edited.


Take the time an actor pulled a gun on the audience during his angry monologue on “Hollywood Opportunity” -- a rant, ironically enough, about how Hollywood wasn’t giving him an opportunity to earn a living.

One of the witnesses was Stan Chambers, the commercial announcer of the KTLA-TV Channel 5 show.

Yes, that Stan Chambers, the newsman who is now in his 63rd year at KTLA.

In his memoir, “News at Ten,” Chambers recalled that the audience gasped when the out-of-work thespian produced the firearm. Backstage, the reaction was no different.

“He didn’t do that at the audition!” director Jack Parker shouted.

“Let’s play it cool,” a cameraman said as the actor waved the gun menacingly.

Someone suggested dropping the curtain, but Chambers pointed out that the actor might fire through it and hit someone in the audience.

“Or he could turn and try to hit us,” a stage manager said.

Suddenly, the actor muttered, “There comes a time when you realize it is the end.”

He jammed the gun into his stomach. A shot was fired. He fell and lay motionless on the stage.

After a few moments, he got to his feet, brushed himself off and exited, toy pistol in hand.


The audience responded with what Chambers called “nervous applause.”

The contestant’s name is lost to history, but the judges awarded him no prize that night.

In 1955, two years after “Hollywood Opportunity” went off the air, Oldsmobile dealer Bob Yeakel began broadcasting an amateur talent show from his showroom on Wilshire Boulevard.

He called it “Rocket to Stardom” because a rocket was the company symbol at the dawn of the Space Age.

The show became so popular that it ran more than 18 hours, from Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. In an unusual arrangement, one half of the show appeared on KHJ-TV Channel 9, the other half on KTTV-TV Channel 11. “The talent on the show, to understate it, is not exactly good, but apparently this makes little difference, and a considerable amount of goodwill results,” Billboard magazine wrote in 1956.

Goodwill could translate into good business. Yeakel estimated that 60% of his sales were related to the show, and he became the biggest Olds dealer in Southern California. He died in 1960 when his small plane crashed on the San Bernardino Freeway.

Despite what Billboard said, some of the contestants were talented. One was Duane Eddy, who would become a recording star known as the “King of Twangy Guitar.”

Then there was the Fairfax High senior who won a singing competition in 1957.

His name: Phil Spector. The future record producer, who is now in prison for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson, appeared in a duo that sang a romantic ballad, “In the Still of the Night.”


Perhaps the most memorable of all performances on “Rocket to Stardom” was the one by comic Lenny Bruce, who passed himself off to producers as a bad singer named Herb. Bruce’s pal Jack Sheldon was introduced as his trumpet-playing accompanist.

Bruce biographer Albert Goldman wrote that Bruce had “a maniacal speed-freak’s grin on his face” that night and was “all decked out in an absolutely incredible zoot suit that must have come out of the attic of some aging Lockheed worker who last donned its vast lapels and pagoda shoulders in 1944.”

The two pranksters launched into a rendition of “Lonesome Road,” Bruce wailing off key and Sheldon playing just as badly.

“Look, Mac,” Bruce snapped at Sheldon in the middle of the song, “can’t you get my key?”

When host Betty Yeakel, the owner’s sister, tried to intervene, Bruce yelled for her to get off the stage.

“Look down, look down that lonesome road,” Bruce rasped, more out of tune than before.

The host, finally realizing it was a put-on, asked Bruce and Sheldon to leave, but they refused. So ushers were summoned.

“The spectacle concluded,” Goldman wrote, “with Lenny and Jack racing up the aisle of the studio screaming, ‘H.J. Caruso is innocent!’ ”


(Caruso, a car dealer, was then on trial for -- and later convicted of -- grand theft and forgery.)

Actually, Bruce let the producers off easy that night. The comic, who died of a drug overdose in 1966 at the age of 40, was arrested several times during his career for uttering obscenities onstage.

But he kept his act clean on “Rocket to Stardom.”

It’s just too bad that he came along a couple of generations too early for a chance to respond to the nasty jibes of Simon Cowell, the “Idol” judge.

Of course, Bruce’s retorts would have never survived the censors on network TV.