From 1971-1975, Regis Philbin would fly to St. Louis once a month to film "Saturday Night In St. Louis," a show that ran on KMOX-TV. The show was so popular that it outdrew NBC's "Saturday Night Live" in its early days. Here was a profile of the show that ran in the Post-Dispatch in June of 1973.
"Between the idea and the reality . . . falls the shadow." - T. S. Eliot
Saturday night in St. Louis . . . That phrase is fertile with suggestion of Roman circuses in this old river city, but the reality is bleak. Someone once said that the only thing one does in St. Louis on a Saturday night is to get invited to a private party . . . go out and have supper and see a picture show . . . stay at home, read or watch television.
"It's-s-s-s-s Regis Philbin's Saturday Night in St. Louis," booms the big-voiced announcer and Channel 4 on the local television screen pops alive with electronic graphics that look more like "Midnight Cowboy" in New York City than Saturday night in St. Louis. Melodic theme music gushes forth. Suddenly streets are full of traffic . . . red and blue lights criss-cross . . . waterfalls tumble in rainbow colors behind the Old Courthouse . . . that famed Gateway Arch arches into a night filled with promise . . . the sign on Cinema I is scanned backwards so that it comes out: I a m e n i C. Brief and bright are the graphics; they (almost) make one want to rush downtown to join this action. . .
But as the late T. S. Eliot, the local poet who left St. Louis at an early age wrote: "Between the idea and the reality . . . falls the shadow."
Along near-deserted streets, a few winos crumple . . . The American, the big downtown theater, has a darkened stage . . . the new Gaslight Square burns with only pale light . . . unless the local baseball team is in town the big stadium named for a man and his beer is deserted and locked . . . On the riverfront, there might be some ragtime . . . and in Kiel Auditorium sometimes there is teeth-rattling rock 'n' roll.
But except for a few "singles" bars . . . the tired burlesque dancers and a few good restaurants, where "fat meat and sweet wine" are dispensed at sour prices, St. Louis, on a Saturday night, is the biggest small town one would wish to visit. Now back to the tube . . . the illusion: "It's-s-s ..." Regis Philbin, a 39-year-old from the Bronx, dressed in mod clothes, wearing spit-polished Gucci shoes and beaming a grin that is half-boyish, half-Lothario of summer evening. It's Regis Philbin, the bright, articulate youngish man who used to be second banana to Joey Bishop on ABC television's late-night talk show . . . who is now a top banana in Los Angeles . . . and in St. Louis.
He flies in one weekend a month to video tape before a live audience the eight or nine shows that are shown on KMOX-TV on a succession of Friday and Saturday nights during the remainder of each month.
To digress for a moment, one must note that KMOX is the only electronic entertainment medium in town that has brought nationally known personalities as hosts to the local airways on a regular basis within the last year. In addition to Philbin, KMOX-TV has Jerry Baker and his plants-and-people show. Until early this month, KMOX radio programmed the flamboyant and controversial Charles Ashman, author of "Kissinger, the Adventures of Super-Kraut." But Ashman who chaired a radio talk and call-in show, resigned unexpectedly. There was little comment from Robert Hyland, CBS Radio regional vice president, although the local papers printed stories of the resignation. Several sources at KMOX said, however, that the radio and television personnel at the CBS-owned station do not talk to each other much anyhow, so Ashman's departure doesn't disturb plans to keep Regis Philbin shining on Saturday night television. But KMOX officials refused to say how much Philbin is paid to shine.
Last night, Philbin traded jokes with Norm Crosby . . . and next weekend that television bigot of bigots Carroll O'Connor - Archie Bunker is scheduled to visit Philbin.
"Remember, this is Saturday night in St. Louis," Philbin said to the audience, a collection of Moolah Temple Shriners and their wives, all seated on little soft-ball stadium-like bleachers in the cramped 40- by 50-foot Studio B.
"It's after midnight," Philbin continued, "and you've been out all night. You are loose . . ." The Moolah members chuckled: "Haw, haw, haw . . ."
It was 2:31 p.m. on a recent Sunday afternoon and the Moolahs were stone sober, but Philbin was attempting to wrap up a grueling weekend of taping "Saturday Night in St. Louis" so he could catch a 7 p.m. jet and be in Los Angeles to host a three-hour Monday morning television talk show that begins live at 9:30 on KHJ-TV. He does that show five days a week.
Three massive color cameras, each costing $85,000, weighing 500 pounds and sitting on wheeled pedestals, were aimed at Philbin. "Thirty seconds," a floor man screamed. That film of an illusionary St. Louis on a Saturday night and the music flashed up . . . then, the fade to Philbin. Men operating the big cameras began trucking . . . panning . . . tilting . . . zooming . . . craning and focusing on Philbin and four cavorting clowns from the Moolah Shrine Circus. This was Phil-bin's local bit for the show before he moved on to his "big" personalities who had been flown into St. Louis to be on the show. Ray, a midget clown, was trying to get Philbin to blow up a balloon. The star was huffing and puffing . . . Next door, in the control room, Fred Burrows, the director, was watching Philbin and Ray on three black and white monitors . . . deciding which image he wanted to order up next on the big color monitor that was being fed into the videotape machine.
Burrows screamed into his microphone link with the cameramen and the "switcher," the technical director. To Burrows's right sat cool, blond Beth Forcelledo, producer of the Regis Philbin Show, who came from Chicago last year to join KMOX-TV. Beth followed the shooting script, watched the red hand on the clock ticking off the seconds and advised Burrows.
"I don't feel that I am a different person. I don't know why people are in awe of me," Jeanne Carson said. Philbin had finished the clown bit. Now, chic, petite Joanne Carson, ex-wife of talk-show host Johnny Carson, was talking to Philbin. She was dressed in a flowing blue gown, the neckline plunging a bit; not too much. Joanne talked about her divorce . . . her West Coast television show . . . and reasserted her independence before Philbin brought comic Henny Youngman and his fiddle onto the show. Youngman had flown down from an engagement in Chicago. "I found a new birth control device," he cracked. "My wife takes off her makeup." The Moolah Shrine audience guffawed. "I once wanted to be an atheist," Youngman continued, "but I gave it up . . . they have no holidays." More haw, haw. "I call my wife Watergate; she bugs me." Haw, haw.
Next, Philbin brought on a prim, graying fellow named Bill Rankin who had written a book defending American women. Rankin, a former Marine jet pilot who had been around the world several times, indicated that he had done research to back up his book. Time ticked. "He's got to kiss it off . . ." Fred Burrows, the director, muttered into his microphone. Philbin ended the show with Joanne Carson getting "married" to the professional bachelor while Henny Youngman screeched his fiddle and a Moolah Shrine bagpiper from the audience squealed his bagpipes.
"Fifty-nine, forty-four," Beth Forcelledo sighed, indicating that that segment of Saturday Night in St. Louis was in the videotape machine 18 seconds short of an hour. Less than 15 minutes after taping this Saturday Night segment, Philbin, who had changed into another mod outfit, was back in Studio B to tape a 30-minute segment with Joanne Carson and Henny Youngman. This would be shown, Beth said, on a Friday night immediately after the 6 o'clock news.
Because that is prime time, the two personalities would receive $80 each. This is provided in the contract with American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). For the hour show, the ex-Mrs. Carson and Youngman each received $67. That show was aired at 12:35 o'clock on a Sunday morning . . . as Saturday Night in St. Louis.
"Viola is my Mrs. Miller," said Regis Philbin, nibbling a sliver of bacon. Now it was 11:45 a.m. Sunday high up in a revolving riverfront restaurant. Beyond, lay the nearby towers of the city; the distant northern squalor. No illusion here. Viola, he continued, is a St. Louis woman who shows up for just about every one of his local shows. Often he refers to her in the audience, as Jack Paar does to his Mrs. Miller.
Mrs. Miller was resurrected after Paar's 10-year absence from the national tube. Philbin forked into scrambled eggs and said he liked St. Louis . . . liked doing the show here. The response has been good, he said. He reminisced about those days when he was sidekick to Joey Bishop. A sidekick, a second banana, he implied, must watch his step; not anger the star.
But now Philbin is the star ... at least on regional television in St. Louis and Los Angeles.
Philbin began in television in the 1950s as a page in "the third balcony" of the "Tonight" show in New York City when Steve Allen was host. Ten years later, he replaced Allen on the old Westinghouse show on national television. Unlike entertainers such as Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson . . . Regis Philbin makes up his own questions and often "wings" the show . . . plays it by ear.
The ability to do this he attributes to his early days as a radio and television newsman. (Merv Griffin, one source said, reads his questions to guests from an "idiot card" off camera; Carson has a research staff that asks guests what they want to talk about.)
Durinq this particular weekend of taping, Philbin had interviewed Ann Miller, once one of the "giants at MGM" who lamented that she was now better known for a soup commercial on television. She hasn't danced a step, said Miss Miller, since she was struck by a boom last summer onstage at the Municipal Opera.
Ron Fields, handsome and nervous, stepped by the breakfast table to talk with Philbin. The voung man had been on the show taped the afternoon before . . . hypinq his book on his grandfather, W. C. Fields. ("Ah! A man who hates dogs and kids can't be all bad," W.C. once said, but young Fields announced that the old man really had a tender heart.)
Regis Philbin has been host of the Saturday Night in St. Louis show since last fall. His guests have included svelt physical fitness "freak" Debbie Drake, a behemoth Olympic wrestling champ from Iowa, Richard Dixon who looks like President Richard M. Nixon, doq psychologist Dr. Michael Fox of St. Louis and Spriggy, the razor-thin leader of the thin liberationists from New York City.
The list also includes author Jani Gardner and her advice-for-wives book: "If You Love Him, Bite Him . . ." The list is longer. Illusion . . . escapism . . . wish-fulfillment. Despite the uneven quality of his shows. Regis Philbin has cast a nice shadow of illusion over the reality of St. Louis on a Saturday night. As KMOX-TV official Chris Duffy said, "It's the only game in town . . ." At least after midnight on Channel 4 on a Saturday night.
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