Unity Through Variety by
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Prompted By Variety Shows

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A young Senor Wences with one of his puppets. My favorite was the “s’allright” box guy.

I don’t know if I would watch a variety show now. These days there are myriad choices that we lacked in our childhoods, and I probably would be drawn to shows that more strongly interest me. Back in the day, there were just three networks, probably just one TV in the house, and fewer choices. But variety shows themselves provided diverse entertainment, within some social limits of the time. These shows were a means of exposure to people and activities we might not otherwise have seen. And most important, a large group of people watched any given show, so you could share what you saw the next day, whether in a school hallway or at an office water cooler.

The old variety shows had something for everyone. If you didn't like one act or segment, there would be another in minutes.

I particularly like puppetry, so I thought back to the odd and quirky acts on some of these shows, particularly on Ed Sullivan. I hated Topo Gigio, the little Italian mouse–very irritating. But I loved Senor Wences, a very talented ventriloquist who had interesting puppets and used distinctive voices. He did ventriloquism with a character in a box that involved split-second and very funny timing, ending with the voice in the box saying “s’allright” and Senor Wences closing the box with a bang. He also did puppets’ voices while smoking a cigarette and gargling water. He was an amazing talent and inspiration to Jim Henson of the Muppets and many other artists. Without Ed Sullivan, I would not have known and enjoyed Senor Wences.

The old variety shows had something for everyone. If you didn’t like one act or segment, there would be another in minutes. For most people in the US, these shows were a common outlet of entertainment. I think that helped us, whatever our political beliefs and identities, have something in common with each other–something we lack these days.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: been there, funny, right on!, well written


  1. You’re so right Marian, it seems our society is becoming more fractured and losing much of it’s commonality.

    Thanx for reminding me of the wonderful Senor Wences, and of coure there was Edgar Bergen too!

  2. Suzy says:

    Mare, you make such good points! With only 3 networks and one TV in the house, variety shows were the perfect way to appeal to everyone in the family. Also your observation that if you didn’t like one act, another would be along in minutes. I wonder if a show like that could be successful now, even with our hundreds of channels and streaming opportunities. I suppose the closest we have is Saturday Night live, and that’s lasted for 46 years!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    I agree, we all loved Ed Sullivan. He always booked interesting, varied acts – something for everyone – and we all gathered to watch. You got a smattering of ballet, opera, Broadway, and yes, Rock and Roll, ventriloquists, really EVERYTHING! We didn’t seem so divided as a nation, the “reality TV” was Queen for a Day and was on during the day. It didn’t have the same platform these shows do today. They didn’t become celebrities. No host of a reality TV show (well, maybe Reagan was the exception, but he started as governor, and union president first), could switch parties and become president.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    Good points about variety shows and how they reflect, sadly, on our changing society.

    I always liked Senor Wences, too. And, while we’re at ventroloquists, what abou my favorite, Paul Winchell and all his characters? Maybe we need a prompt just on ventroloquists.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    If Retrospect is around in another 40 or 50 years, I imagine the common memories will be quite different, and wonder what the common threads will be. The three TV channels we had narrowed down our choices, for better or worse, but almost everyone watched the same shows in the 1950’s and we also had fewer music outlets and radio stations. Do the changes now sow seeds of division, or create more open minds?

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    You make a great point that these shows were popular in an era when there weren’t very many choices. I also hated Topo Gigio. These shows were part of an era in which people actually watched television together and saw things at the same time. Very different from today’s individualistic, streaming environment.

    • Marian says:

      I think the key is watching TV together, Laurie. This morning I read a horrifying article about how small children’s IQs have dropped during the pandemic because of lack of stimulation from frazzled parents. Yesterday I was at an outdoor party at my friend’s condo complex. There were two moms, with kids the same age, who live about two dwellings away from each other. Until this party, the kids had never played together, and they had a blast! The parents had kept them so isolated and didn’t seem to understand why it was important to have them outside, running around, with spontaneous play. My friend made the moms promise that they’d let the kids play together frequently.

  7. Susan Bennet says:

    Beautifully expressed, Marian. I would also add that there was an air of innocence projected by these shows, whether real or not. It was just fun, no “message,” at least until later. Who mentioned Queen for a Day? Men, I doubt you saw this one. A precursor of Phil Donahue and Oprah perhaps? The sad stories, the applause-o-meter, the tears, the crown — and then the crescendo, a life-altering prize of a washing machine. Boy, they don’t make them like this anymore…thank goodness!

    • Marian says:

      Thank goodness indeed, Susan. I guess the washing machine would have helped these poor women with what they were “supposed” to do, but yikes. And you are right, whatever innocence there was is long gone.

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