Remembering your Lucky Strike Hit Parade

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Somewhere back in the early 70's, I don't remember just when, I drove a milk truck up in Nashville, Tenn. I used to listen to the big band station as I drove, and lo and behold, who was the disk jockey? None other than Snooky Lanson. Of course this brought back memories of the golden age of popular music, when we used to tune in to the Lucky Strike Hit Parade on television in the fifties.

The show started on the radio in the mid 1930's and ran for 15 years before airing on television in 1950. It was a weekly show that featured popular songs of the day that were determined by a national "survey" of record and sheet music sales. It was never revealed just how the survey came about, but most of the audience members were willing to accept the tabulations without question.

Both the radio and TV versions were sponsored by the American Tobacco Company's Lucky Strike Cigarettes. At the beginning of the TV show, a girl would come dancing onto the stage with a costume of a pack of cigarettes.

The TV version featured the top seven tunes of the week, along with a few Lucky Strike extras. The extras were older, more established tunes that were familiar to the listening audience. The top seven were presented in reverse order not unlike the various popular music countdowns currently heard on radio and TV.

Original cast members for the TV program included Eileen Wilson, Snooky Lanson, Dorothy Collins, Gisele MacKenzie (joined in 1953), June Valli, Sue Bennett, Russell Arms, and others including Johnny Desmond (1958-1959).

The television Hit Parade attempted to dramatize each song with innovative skits, complete with elaborate sets, and a large entourage of performers. Creating new skits for the longer running popular songs was much more difficult on television, particularly when we recall such hits as "How Much is That Doggie in the Window " (Snooky Lanson), and "Shrimp Boats are Coming."

An even worse problem for the show was the changing face of American popular music. Rock 'N' Roll was taking over the syrupy ballads that had been the mainstay of popular music during the 1930's, 1940's and early- to mid-50's. The earlier music had a multi-generational appeal and catered to the family audience. Rock music was clearly targeted to a younger generation, and much of the popularity of the faster paced rock hits was dependent on complex instrumental arrangements and the unique styling of a particular artist or group. Rock music's first major star, the brooding, sensuous Elvis Presley, was in sharp contrast to the sedate styles of Snooky Lanson and Dorothy Collins.

As Rock (and Elvis) gained in popularity, the ratings plummeted for the Hit Parade. The cast was changed in 1957, and temporarily canceled in 1958, and then revived again under new management with Dorothy Collins and Johnny Desmond. Despite the changes, the program was simply out of touch with the changing music scene and the last program was broadcast on April 24, 1959.

I know a few of you remember Basil Ruysdael announcing L.S.M.F.T.; Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco. Remember also "The Song From Moulin Rouge" (June Valli), "Your Cheatin' Heart" (Dorothy Collins), "April in Portugal" (The Hit Parade Dancers), "Singing in the Rain" (The Raymond Scott Quartet with Dorothy Collins ) and others. Who can forget the foggy scenery of the production of "Harbor Lights."

I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane. I kind of liked the simplicity and purity of the older variety shows.