In 1951, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, NBC’s innovative vice president in charge of television, put in motion the development of a new daily program that would prepare viewers for the day ahead. The plan eventually crystallized around a two-hour program that would begin at 7 a.m. Weaver imagined a low-profile program people could listen to while preparing for the day.
Several names were considered for the program’s host (or in Weaverese, “master communicator”). But it just happened that Garroway, recalibrating after the loss of his show’s sponsor, happened across a trade magazine item about NBC’s planned morning experiment. The more he read about the job and the breadth of knowledge and abilities it would require, the more Garroway felt “I was made for this show.” Soon he was in New York, presenting his case to the network brass, and in late 1951 Dave Garroway was hired to host this new program.
When Today premiered on January 14, 1952, Garroway proved himself the ideal host for this new experiment in television. His low-key style went over well in the early morning, and his ability to ad-lib was indispensable when things went wrong…as they did. Paired with announcer/sidekick Jack Lescoulie and assisted by a newsman who handled regular news updates (initially Jim Fleming, then Merrill Mueller, then longtime anchor Frank Blair), Garroway made himself part of millions of Americans’ morning routines. Spectators and tourists made pilgrimages to the huge glass windows of the RCA Exhibition Hall on 49th Street, from where Today originated, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dave and hoping to be seen back home during the show’s regular looks at the people outside.
The first year of Today was rocky, as the show not only worked through technical issues but also sought its audience and tried to bring in a profit. Critics wondered if the show would last 13 weeks, and entertainment columns sometimes intimated the show’s days were numbered. But with the help of an able sales team, sponsors started to line up for time on the show. Many of them requested that Garroway do their commercials on the air. The man who couldn’t give away his piston rings 20 years before was now coveted by advertisers, who wanted him to pitch everything from dog food to automobiles to tombstones.
Also adding to the increasing popularity of Today was another addition to the cast. The producers didn’t originally intend for a baby chimpanzee, brought on the show as a brief diversion, to become a permanent fixture, but soon he was. The chimp gained the name J. Fred Muggs. While parents tuned in to get news and information, their children begged to watch the chimp’s antics. But while the audience loved him, things weren’t so happy on the set as Muggs grew, and got more temperamental. Gone by 1957, Muggs was briefly replaced by another chimp called Kokomo Jr., who did not last long on the show.
The 1950s brought Dave Garroway to unparalleled heights of success. He not only hosted Today, but also a brief New York-based revival of Garroway at Large. In addition, he began a weekly pre-recorded radio program, Sunday with Garroway (later Friday with Garroway), which let him do longer-form interviews and stories. When that show ended in 1955, Garroway transitioned into a new role as one of the hosts on NBC Radio’s ambitious and pioneering weekend radio service, Monitor. That same year, Garroway became host of the 90-minute series Wide Wide World, which used the power of live television to bring the world into viewers’ living rooms.
Dave Garroway was at the top of his profession. In his personal life, he married actress and dancer Pamela Wilde in 1956, and they soon had a son, David Jr.; the senior Garroway also adopted Pamela’s son, Michael, from her previous marriage. The Garroways lived in a quirky building in midtown Manhattan (a slender four-story building Dave referred to as “Garroway’s Narroway”), and had a weekend house on Long Island. The lifelong tinkerer and handyman had a house full of gadgets, a collection of exotic cars, a workshop full of tools, and endless curiosity about the world around him.
Dave Garroway should have been on top of the world. But something was wrong.
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