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The hype before the flop: A look back at The Edsel Show
No matter how you feel about the Edsel, you certainly can’t argue with this: the car’s launch had some serious juice behind it.
Sure, it failed. Big time. The Edsel, widely considered the biggest flop in automotive history, flatlined for a number of reasons: bad timing, insufficient market research, confusing pricing, shaky dealer organization, quality and reliability issues, lack of distinction from other Ford Motor Company models, and, of course, an exterior design that many found, well, unsightly.
But the car’s failure wasn’t due to a lack of effort, certainly not in the marketing department. Imagine Beyoncé, Adele, and Paul McCartney joining forces for a live television show created solely to introduce the newest lineup of Ford automobiles. That was the idea behind The Edsel Show, an hour-long CBS special that aired 60 years ago on Oct. 13, 1957. It starred entertainment icons Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong, and Bob Hope, and it bumped The Ed Sullivan Show from its usual Sunday night time slot. Now that’s real marketing muscle.
While the public actually got its first glimpse of the Edsel on Sept. 4, five weeks prior to the show, the televised variety hour was the car’s true coming-out party. And Ford spared no expense. Crosby, Sinatra, Clooney, and Armstrong received top billing and were joined by a “surprise guest” (Hope), as well as Crosby’s son Lindsay, The Four Preps male quartet, and the tap dance team of Conn and Mann. But no one danced around the elephant in the room—the Edsel was in the spotlight from start to finish.
Videotape vs. kinescope
If not for the persistence of Los Angeles video editor and longtime Edsel enthusiast Kris Trexler, images and sound from the show wouldn’t be as clear as those available today. As Trexler explained on YouTube, “Prior to videotape recording, the only way to archive a television program produced with electronic TV cameras was to record it on motion picture film using a film camera pointed at a TV monitor. This ‘kinescope’ process produced inferior pictures and sound compared to the live TV broadcast.”
Trexler owned a kinescope copy of The Edsel Show, but knowing the history of videotape—which began on a limited basis at CBS starting in 1956—he thought the star-studded special might have been recorded in that format as well. He was right. Since videotape was not considered 100-percent reliable at the time and CBS needed to record the show and broadcast it on West Coast three hours later, the studio played it safe and used both methods. Only the kinescope version made it into the public’s hands, however.
Trexler reached out to CBS and asked if the videotaped version might have survived. Months passed before the query finally reached an engineer at CBS Television City, and he knew exactly where to find “Tape #I-60.” He was using it as a paperweight.
The black-and-white recording is the oldest surviving videotape in existence. Trexler shared it on YouTube, along with a comparison of the two recording methods.
The Edsel Show begins with a roll call of the stars, and then the curtain parts to reveal Ford’s newest passenger vehicle. A female choir sings—rising in pitch and volume with each sentence. “This is the Edsel… This is the Edsel … This is The Edsel Show!”
Crosby greets the live studio audience, referring to himself as “the Model T,” before admitting it’s time to “address the business at hand.” After a duet with Armstrong, Crosby announces, “And now we’d like to show you how the Ford Motor Company has opened the gateway to a whole new world, a new vista of motoring pleasure, with the ’58 Edsel. Won’t you come in?”
As an Edsel two-door hardtop appears on screen, the distinctive voice of radio and TV personality Warren Hull shares all the details. “This is the Edsel. Unlike any other car you’ve ever seen. This is the Edsel [image of the front]. This is the Edsel [image of the rear fender]. This is the Edsel [image of the rear]. This is the Edsel [full image of the car]. You can see how it looks. You have to feel the power of the newest V-8 engines in the world—the big new Edsel 400, and the larger Edsel 475. It is unlikely you have ever driven a car with so much usable power as the Edsel.
“And with Edsel’s exclusive Teletouch Drive you drive more safely, more easily than you ever have before because both hands can stay at the wheel while the Edsel shifts electrically.
“This is the Edsel. As its graceful flight deck and classic vertical grille suggest, it is elegant in every detail. And it acts the way it looks, but it doesn’t cost that much. See, drive, and be sure to price the new member of the Ford family of fine cars, the Edsel, at your Edsel dealer.”
In addition to learning about the car, the show offers a look at life in the late 1950s, with plenty of references to then-current events. As Crosby and Sinatra finish singing “On the Road to Morocco,” Hope drops by to break it up. “What about this bit?” he asks Crosby. “You’re singing our song … with him! After all, Dean wouldn’t do this to Jerry.” Of course, the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis broke up the year before.
Crosby defends himself by explaining, “I thought you went for a ride on the Russian moon,” a reference to Russia’s Sputnik satellite, which launched on Oct. 4, 1957, only nine days before the show aired.
Hope makes fun of the Hawaiian leis that Crosby and Sinatra are wearing, teasing them, “You look like two flower girls left over from Marlon’s wedding.” Marlon Brando married Anna Kashfi on Oct. 11, 1957, two days before the show.
Steering the conversation back to the Edsel, Crosby thanks Hope for coming. “Say, it’s real nice of you to drop in on the opening show, Bob, tonight for Edsel. We really appreciate it.” Hope answers, “Edsel? Is that what this is? Well, this will get ’em out on the highways, I’ll tell you that.”
Some meat with the potatoes
Clooney sings, “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” but the show doesn’t waver from its sole purpose. Soon after Clooney hits her final note, we’re deluged with the largest portion of Edsel advertising in the show, a 2-minute, 21-second introduction of each car in the new lineup. In an era of black-and-white television, it’s amusing that announcer Hull actually has to tell us the color of each car.
“This is the 1958 Edsel, the car that presents originality and elegance never seen before in any car at any price, and presents them in 18 different models,” Hull says as the parade begins. “This expensive-looking car is one of the Edsel Ranger series. A four-door, ice-green sedan styled like a hardtop that sells for no more than some models of America’s low-priced cars.
“The turquoise and white convertible you see driving up now is one of the Edsel Pacer series, with elegant Edsel styling throughout, such as these Edsel contour seats that are scientifically designed to give you separate back and shoulder support, with an overall feeling of luxurious comfort that means hour upon hour of fatigue-free, enjoyable driving. And the back of the front seat is divided in a new way that gives the middle passenger a full back rest, so you ride more comfortably than you ever have before.
“This two-door hardtop is one of the large and luxurious cars in the Edsel Corsair series. Its colors are copper metallic and white, one of over 90 Edsel color combinations that you can choose from, so you can completely satisfy your individual color tastes.
“This amber red and white four-door hardtop is one of the magnificent Citation series.
Upholstered in white vinyl and gold nylon, just one of an attractive array of the very latest high-fashion decorator fabrics, all color-keyed to match the car exterior.
“Here is the distinctive Edsel Bermuda, done in charcoal brown and driftwood, one of five Edsel station wagons, which give you your choice of both two- and four-door, six- and nine-passenger models.
“And this is the Edsel Citation convertible, in gold and white. Undoubtedly the most beautiful convertible in the world. See this and the other elegantly styled Edsels at your Edsel dealer this week. Remember, this is the year to get out of your old car and into the most elegant automobile of your lifetime.”
The show must go on
Just as viewers are about to cry uncle, they are gifted 17 straight minutes of entertainment, beginning with tap routine from Conn and Mann (oddly enough, after beginning the number with a head butt), followed by a Crosby-Sinatra medley, Lindsay Crosby singing with The Four Preps, and Sinatra and Armstrong singing another duet.
Then, in a restaurant scene that borders on sexist by modern standards, a man and woman discuss the Edsel:
Man: “And you just turn the key on the dashboard and the trunk opens electrically. And here’s how easy it is to drive … Can you flick that light switch?”
Woman: “Why certainly, anyone can.”
Man: “Then you can drive the Edsel.”
Hull breaks in with a final dose of Edsel info. “That’s right, driving the 1958 Edsel is as easy as flicking a light switch. For Edsel’s exclusive new Teletouch Drive shifts electrically at a touch. It’s a new idea that puts shifting where it belongs, so you can keep both hands safely at the wheel. And look, you can shift and turn the wheel at the same time, for the control remains stationary, which makes Edsel the world’s easiest car to handle. On the Edsel’s instrument panel, you’ll find many more new ideas, like this speedometer that glows red when you exceed the safe maximum speed you’ve set it for; this one simple dial that sets heat, ventilation, and air conditioning at a twist of the wrist; even a remote trunk release that electrically opens the luggage compartment.
“And under that long, straight Edsel hood you’ll find the newest V-8 engines in the world—the big new Edsel 400 and the larger Edsel 475, each one power matched to the weight of the car to put more usable power at your command than you have ever known before.
“Remember, driving an Edsel is an experience no man should miss. Discover for yourself the thrill of driving an Edsel, 1958’s one really new car. Visit your Edsel dealer soon, and when you do you’ll meet a fine business man with a broad automobile experience. He became an Edsel dealer because he had driven the Edsel, he had compared it, and he had carefully evaluated it. He’ll be glad to demonstrate to you, as he did to himself, that the 1958 Edsel is the car that offers you the most in elegance of styling and performance. There are 18 models and four series to choose from. Edsel prices are surprisingly low with models priced just above the lowest and ranging through the entire medium-priced field. You can afford an Edsel. Stop in and see—and drive—the Edsel tomorrow at your Edsel dealer.”
Song and dance fill the final 11 minutes of the special. But not before—in a clear case of overkill—Hull reminds us, “The Edsel Show has been presented by Edsel!”
The show outshined the car
Even now, in an era where celebrities endorse everything from headphones to digestion-promoting yogurt, this spectacle seems a little over the top. At the time, however, it was a major cultural moment that captivated the country.
The Edsel Show won Look magazine’s award for Best Musical Show of 1957 and was also nominated for an Emmy. It was considered Bing Crosby’s breakthrough TV performance and led to a contract with ABC for two Crosby specials each year.
Variety magazine loved the show too, writing: “The Edsel Show, a special kick-off for Ford’s new line of cars on TV, was a smooth, fast ride all the way.” Variety went further, calling Crosby’s performance “his best TV showing to date.”
Crosby used the event to score a charitable contribution for his alma mater by arranging for Gonzaga University to produce the show. The Washington school earned about $250,000 in profits, tax free.
Rosemary Clooney could have predicted the Edsel’s failure. In her 1999 autobiography, Girl Singer, Clooney wrote: “The show was built around the newest Ford offering, the 1958 Edsel. A new vista of motoring pleasure, unlike any other car you’ve ever seen. The only Edsel I ever saw was one they gave me to drive while I was rehearsing. I came out of the CBS Building, up those little steps to the street where my purple Edsel was waiting, like the Normandie in dry dock. Mr. Ford [Henry Ford II] was right behind me, heading for his Edsel. I opened the door of my car and the handle came off. I turned to him, holding it out to him. “About your car…”