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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand. In 1956, much of America's public life was racially segregated. But in November of that year, one entertainer crossed an important color line in television.

(Soundbite of Nat King Cole Show)

Unidentified Announcer: Here he is, my good friend, Frankie Laine.

Mr. FRANKIE LAINE (Talk Show Host): One of our top singers in the country today, the wonderful Ms. Julie Christy. Say Hello to Mel Torme.

BRAND: Nat King Cole became the first black man to host his own nationally televised variety program. The World of Nat King Cole, a documentary examining Cole's life and career, airs tonight on PBS. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates offers this look at the singer's groundbreaking moment in TV history.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

In 2006, black television entertainers are fairly common, but that's the end product of a long evolution. In the ‘60s, Bill Cosby broke ground when he co-starred in an espionage series, I Spy. In the ‘70s, comedian Flip Wilson convulsed his audiences with a weekly variety show. And Cosby returned in the ‘80s to become America's favorite dad in a sitcom loosely based on his own life. But in the ‘50s, black America was largely invisible on the small screen, except for fleeting appearances.

(Soundbite of Nat King Cole Show)

Unidentified Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, the National Broadcasting Company presents with pride, the incomparable Nat King Cole.

Mr. NAT KING COLE (Entertainer): Thank you very much, ladies and gentleman. Thanks a lot for being with us, for letting us visit with you like this.

GRIGSBY BATES: Actor Whoopi Goldberg is one of the many celebrities, television executives, and family members who recount Nat King Cole's impact on society in this PBS documentary. The memory of a rare sighting of a black face on television during her youth stays with her to this day.

Ms. WHOOPI GOLDBERG (Actress): I can remember the first black newscaster in New York. Her name was Melba Tolliver. I remember the first black person in a commercial was Hattie Winston for Zest. We all sat around and watched, because we knew that something amazing was happening, because it was like a shock to people that we actually used soap.

GRIGSBY BATES: Except in the roles of slapstick comedians like Amos and Andy or sly house servants like Rochester and Beulah, ‘50s television wasn't black and white--it was white, period. So, given the scarcity of blacks on television until then, to have a black man without a chauffeur's cap or a butler's jacket smiling his way into America's living rooms each week was a distinct culture shock.

(Soundbite of song, “Unforgettable”)

Mr. Cole: (Singing) Unforgettable, that's what you are. Unforgettable…

GRIGSBY BATES: By the time his show premiered, Nat Cole was already an international celebrity with potent record sales. His label, Capitol, was often called the house that Nat built. Recognizing his popularity and salability, NBC decided to take the plunge. The first show aired on Monday, November 5th at 7 p.m.

(Soundbite of song, “Unforgettable”)

Mr. Nat King Cole: (Singing) Never before has someone been more unforgettable in every way.

GRIGSBY BATES: Sleekly groomed, nattily dressed, presented without the distraction of traditional showbiz gimmicks, Nat King Cole was singing the romantic ballads that had made him such a commercial success.

(Soundbite of song, “Unforgettable”)

Mr. Cole: (Singing) That's why, darling, it's incredible, that someone so unforgettable thinks that I am unforgettable, too.

GRIGSBY BATES: It was a watershed moment in America's living rooms. Outside America's living rooms, cultural and political change was occurring at a rapid pace, especially in the South. Former ambassador and civil rights architect Andrew Young puts Cole's television debut in context.

Mr. ANDREW YOUNG (Former Ambassador, Civil Right Activist): Right in the middle of the ‘50s, for 381 days, black people refused to ride a segregated bus. And they lifted Martin Luther King to national and international prominence as a leader. Now that was the period in which Nat King Cole was signing.

GRIGSBY BATES: Some performers, like Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr., participated prominently in the struggle. They raised funds and walked on the front lines of civil rights demonstrations. In contrast, Cole was criticized by some integrationists because he wasn't a highly visible part of the movement. But, says Harry Belafonte, Cole's sophisticated television persona had unique value as a civil rights weapon.

Mr. HARRY BELAFONTE (Singer, Actor): We had no person of color who had their own television platform or their own television space who could invade the homes of the American family that could strike blows at the myths that existed about who black people were and what we were about.

(Soundbite of Nat King Cole Show)

Mr. COLE: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

BATES: Cole's delivery was impeccably smooth, even when he sang in other languages. He often did this when he performed abroad. At a time when few Americans spoke a second language, Cole's version of classics in Spanish, Japanese, or here, French, was doubly impressive--even though his pronunciation sometimes wasn't.

(Soundbite of Nat King Cole Show)

Mr. COLE: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

BATES: There were, of course, limits, even for someone like Cole who was universally admired. As the documentary shows, Cole's guests were all colors, but he was forbidden close proximity to white women. The network was afraid they'd get too many objections like this one, recounted by Cole's producer and director, Bob Henry.

Mr. BOB HENRY (Former producer and director, Nat King Cole Show): Somebody once said to me, look, Nat can sing and dance his ass off as long as he doesn't marry my daughter.

BATES: He danced and flirted with Eartha Kitt and Ella Fitzgerald when they appeared on his show, but with guests like Peggy Lee and here, Dinah Shore, there was always a stool or a piano strategically placed between him and them.

(Soundbite of Nat King Cole Show)

Ms. DINAH SHORE (Actress, Singer): People really don't know where jazz came from. I don't, do you?

Mr. COLE: Well no, I've heard some people say it might have started with spirituals, something like this.

Ms. GOLDBERG: Really, you want to say, what did you think was going to happen on the--did you think the television was going to black out, was going to blow up?

BATES: Whoopi Goldberg.

Ms. GOLDBERG: You know, if he happened to touch, you know, Peggy Lee or something, what was she, she was going to turn black immediately?

BATES: Some historians say the network was worried about its southern affiliates. There had been reports of vandals sabotaging transmitters in some southern states in an effort to stop Cole from being broadcast. Any appearance of a cozy relationship with white women, even professionally, would have been inflammatory to some white viewers. Then there was the matter of attracting sponsorship for the show. There were a few advertisers, like this vintage beer commercial, sung by Cole himself.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Mr. COLE: (Singing) Everybody goes for Rheingold, they know Rheingold is so refreshing, you see. And I sure agree.

BATES: But not nearly enough. To its credit, on the weeks no sponsors could be found, NBC ran the show without paid commercials, essentially putting its money where Cole's mouth was. But his inability to find a regular sponsor to support the show eventually led to a painful decision, says Bob Henry.

Mr. HENRY: It wasn't the network's decision. It was Nat Cole's decision. He said, I can't find a sponsor, that's it, I quit.

BATES: Cole summed up sponsor's skittishness with a now-famous one-liner. Madison Avenue, he said, is afraid of the dark. The last program, his 64th, aired in December 1957. Despite its short tenure, the Nat King Cole Show had a profound effect. It demonstrated that the world would not come to an end if black performers were shown in prime time. It paved the way for other black television personalities in future decades. And it proved that sophisticated music and a glittering galaxy of guests could transcend racial barriers to find a universally appreciative audience.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COLE: (Singing) But that was long ago. Now my concentration is in the stardust of a song.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MADELEINE BRAND, Host:

There are vintage photographs of Cole, plus some classic tunes and audio from the original series at our Web site, npr.org.

Mr. COLE (Singing): The nightingale tells his fairytales.

BRAND: Stay with us. DAY TO DAY continues.

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