Ernie Ford's 40 year-long career in television began in 1948 as a cast-member of the ground-breaking musical variety show, Hometown Jamboree, hosted by one of Hollywood's most legendary innovators, Cliffie Stone, the man who not only discovered Ernie, but eventually became his first manager, executive producer of his first daily series for NBC -The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show- and later for NBC's Emmy-nominated prime-time hit, The Ford Show.
Eventually, Ernie's popularity caught the attention of the NBC bigwigs from New York who'd just built a new television studio out near the orange groves of Burbank. (It'd be a long, long time before it would be known as 'Beautiful Downtown Burbank'). They thought he might work as a replacement host for a game show they were hoping to revive in the ratings, called "The College Of Musical Knowledge", a hilarious contest originated by bandleader Kay Kaiser that paved the way for "Name That Tune" and other classic game shows. While the show never reached the ratings that the network hoped for, Ernie's natural charm gave the show a personality it never had while hosted by his predecessor, a factor NBC and others took strong notice of.
Meanwhile, over at CBS, someone else was also watching Ernie Ford --very closely. She was scouting for someone to play the part of a country cousin visiting his city relatives in New York, and Ernie fit the bill to a tee. Her name? Lucille Ball. The show?...what else? Regarded today as among everyone's (including Lucy's!) all-time favorite episodes, "Tennessee Ernie Visits" and "Tennessee Ernie Hangs On" became two of the highest rated I Love Lucy episodes in the original series' run. Originally airing May 3rd and May 10th, 1954, they comprised the first story-line built completely around an outside character, and the first two-part episode ever filmed for the series. So successful was Ernie's appearance, that Lucy asked him to join the cast for a third episode scheduled to shoot the second week of January the following year, entitled, "Tennessee Bound"; a shoot Ernie very nearly had to turn down -- for a good reason. Production was scheduled to begin that same month on NBC's newest morning variety series, and this was one show Ernie couldn't afford to miss. Especially since he was the host and the show was named after him!
The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, "... Live -- from the historic El Capitan Theater in Hollywood...", premiered January 5th, 1955 to rave reviews coast-to-coast. Running daily -five days a week- featuring conductor Jack Fascinato and a cast of some of Hollywood's sharpest new talent, the show's easy, informal mix of music, humor and talk -- all tied together in Ernie's own inimitable style made the show was an instant hit, garnering Ernie and the show an Emmy nomination before the close of its first year on the air, and making Ernie a household name virtually overnight.
Then, in September of 1955, Ford Motor Company announced it would be sponsoring it's own prime-time variety show on NBC, and the search for a star to host the show was on. Over at MCA, Ernie's agents were in full swing, and before the month was over, Ernie, Cliffie Stone, agent Berle Adams and producer Milt Hoffman were seated around a football-field-sized conference table in Detroit across from Henry Ford, Jr., and the NBC network heads. One year later, on Thursday night, October 4th, 1956, the result of that meeting aired coast-to-coast with the network's broadcast premiere of The Ford Show Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Running for five seasons --1956-1961-- The Ford Show became one of the most successful prime-time variety series' in network history. Featuring the unparalleled talents of Ernie's supporting cast, The Top Twenty, and sparkling with the brightest, biggest guest stars in the business, it was the first show to ever unseat Playhouse 90, and the first show of its kind to ever earn an Emmy nomination during its first season. Reaching an estimated 30 million viewers every Thursday night, The Ford Show remained the # 1 half-hour variety show in America for its entire five-year run; a success never equaled by any prime-time variety show.
And then, in 1960, in a move that sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry and Detroit, Ernie announced that he was leaving network television and Hollywood to spend more time with his family. "We've done some great shows over the past five years--but we've about milked it for all its worth. I want to say goodbye before the audience starts to feel the same way." "I want to watch my boys grow up, and I want them to know me as 'Daddy', not 'Tennessee Ernie Ford'". Leaving at the very top of his game, and turning down what would later be reported as the highest salary ever offered a prime-time host, Ernie kept his promise, and on June 29, 1961, NBC aired the last Ford Show. No new host was sought by Ford, and the series was never revived.
However, in 1961, unable to ignore the incredible outpouring from the legions of fans who remained loyal, Ernie signed a five-year contract with ABC for a new daily variety show that would originate not from Hollywood, but from San Francisco, just a few miles from Ernie's new home in the Bay Area. "I couldn't say no," Ernie said. "They gave us complete creative control, and let us tape just three days a week. That gave me plenty of time to spend with Betty and the boys, and still keep my hand in." But the series would not last. Just three years into the five-year run, the deal was mutually revised, Ernie was released from contract and the show was cancelled. It was the last series Ernie would ever host.
In the years that followed, Ernie became one of the most sought-after guest stars on network television, and hosted a series of Specials for NBC and PBS that consistently earned record numbers and consistently reminded everyone of why Ernie Ford would remain one of the most beloved and admired stars in television's history.