The Leslie Uggams Show, which premiered in September 1969, was the first network variety show to feature an African-American host since the mid-1950s Nat "King" Cole Show. The Uggams show took over the CBS Sunday night slot vacated by The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the controversial variety show CBS had censored and then forcibly removed from the airways the previous April. Produced by Ilson and Chambers, the same team who put together the beleaguered Smothers programme, Uggams' show was given very little opportunity to prove itself and find an audience against the popular Bonanza on NBC. CBS pulled the plug in mid-season, replacing the show with Glen Campbell's Goodtime Hour in December 1969.
Leslie Uggams had achieved a modest amount of success both on Broadway and in television. As a teenager, she was a regular player on the Sing Along With Mitch musical variety show broadcast on NBC in the early 1960s. However, many critics argued that she was too much of a novice to deal successfully with the performance rigors of a variety show. Questions were raised about why Uggams was chosen to replace the politically contentious Smothers' programme. Industry observers noted that CBS, suffering from a public relations black eye due to its censorious activity, needed to rehabilitate its reactionary image. A black-hosted variety show which included a certain amount of social commentary on race issues might repair some of the damage.
The Uggams show was noteworthy for the number of African Americans who participated in the show's production, including technical personnel. Regular cast members included black actors Johnny Brown and Lillian Hayman. Resident dancers, singers and orchestra were racially integrated, and the show boasted a black choreographer, conductor, and writer.
A major feature of the show was a continuing segment called "Sugar Hill" about a working-class black family. Uggams played the wife of a construction worker in the sketch. They lived together with Uggams' mother (Lillian Hayman), unemployed brother played by Johnny Brown, and a "hippie" sister in an unintegrated apartment which resembled The Honeymooners home far more than the lavish and much commented upon integrated apartment building of television's other African-American family, the Bakers of Julia.
The show's quick demise generated protest and concern among black organizations from the Harlem Cultural Council, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Urban League. Whitney Young, Jr., head of the Urban League, publicly expressed his concern over what he considered an overhasty cancellation. He argued the show was not given any time to prove itself or institute necessary changes. He also pointed out that CBS's action diminished opportunities for black performers and technicians. Twenty-eight African-Americans were put out of work by the cancellation, according to Young. CBS countered that the show's demise had not generated much protest from viewers. While the canning of the Smothers Brothers had resulted in thousands of letters of complaint, the Uggams decision led to about 600 letters of disapproval.
While Leslie Uggams did not prove successful in a variety format, she did manage more notable achievements in dramatic acting. She went on to play major roles in the 1970s black oriented mini-series, Roots and Backstairs at the White House. The first African-American to really succeed in a variety show would be Flip Wilson in the season following the demise of the Uggams show.
Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra
The Howard Roberts Singers
The Donald McKayle Dancers
September 1969-December 1969 Sunday 9:00-10:00
MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks on White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.