Today on Channel 5 from Cincinnati, they re-broadcast a documentary from 2011 about the legendary Midwestern television host, Ruth Lyons. (Ruth Lyons: First Lady of Television.) It was fascinating, because she basically had the force of personality to ignore sexism (or inertia) and push her way to the top… and people loved it! She just did stuff instead of thinking about it, and she gently trolled others instead of being trolled.
She went from a job playing piano on WKRC radio, to emergency guest host, to on-the-spot reporter of the Great Flood of 1937. She wanted to do more news, but ended up becoming WKRC’s program director; and then took over the field of variety entertainment at lunchtime for housewives, on a new rival television station, WLWT.
Needless to say, nobody previously had known that housewives needed a variety entertainment and talk show format at lunchtime. Or a tv host who tested the products she was supposed to advertise, and refused to accept sponsors whose products stunk… and revealed the stinkage on the air.
She was a gifted, prolific songwriter (every week there was at least one new song by her), a good pianist in many styles, and a serviceable singer, but she had a real eye for talent and was interested in pushing people to the top. There was a reason that agents tried to get their clients on Ruth Lyons’ 50-50 Club. Back then, the Tonight Show was okay, but it was Ruth Lyons who sold albums and theater tickets.
She was beloved for speaking her mind, and her show had no color line. All her guests were her guests, who sat next to her on her rocking loveseat. She touched off controversy in 1963 by spontaneously dancing with a famous black singer, and then delivering an on-air talk the next week about how she had been getting nasty phone calls. The next week, the station was flooded with supportive phone calls instead.
She also pranked the All-Star baseball game in 1957, getting her audience to send votes for the entire Reds starting lineup, and thus creating an all-Reds National League All-Star team. (Needless to say, the voting rules changed the next year.) She apparently also wrote the lyrics to “We’ll Rally ‘Round the Reds,” to the tune of “The Battle Cry of Freedom.”
But after tireless years, her sister died of cancer, and then her adopted daughter was also diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had a stroke and started to get better… and then her daughter died in 1966.
Lyons tried to come back to work, but was physically weak and mentally fragile. She ended up breaking down on the show one day in January 1967, when her young friend Carol Channing was on, and Channing had to try to help her regain composure on live television. Lyons and her doctor decided she should retire, so she did. That day. She was a decisive lady.
From then on, her younger co-host Bob Braun helmed The 50/50 Club, which became The Bob Braun Show, and went on for years and years more. That’s the show I grew up with. His son Rob Braun worked in Cincinnati TV news as an anchor.
Lyons lived quietly in retirement, suffering a series of strokes that made her speech hard to understand, but also writing a memoir that was a local bestseller. She died in 1988.
Besides the daytime talk show, her greatest legacy is probably the Ruth Lyons Children’s Fund. Originally founded (as the Ruth Lyons Children’s Christmas Fund) to provide Christmas presents for poor kids who were stuck in the hospital over the holidays, it grew to provide all sorts of resources for kids and for hospitals in the Midwest. I still have my stuffed dog toy from when I was in the hospital, and plenty of people across the region can say the same.
Here’s an earlier documentary from 1988: Ruth Lyons: Portrait of a Legend.
Ruth Lyons Tribute in several parts, from Norwood Primetime Television, on December 6, 1985. Features many of her staff and singers, including Cliff Lash, her bandleader, who transcribed to sheet music all the songs she wrote by ear.
Here’s a half-hour of excerpts by the producer from Ruth Lyons: First Lady of Television. It includes the story of how Cincinnati and Dayton ended up with more color tvs per capita than a lot bigger cities in the rest of the US.
Ruth Lyons Children’s Fund is accepting donations. Every cent that you donate will go directly to hospitals and kids; there is no administrative overhead at all. “Happy Birthday, Ruth Lyons” tells the story.
Ten Tunes of Christmas: Ruth Lyons. The whole album. It sold more than 500,000 copies, back in 1958. And yes, of course Candee Records was Ruth Lyons’ own indie label!
“Sing a Song of Christmas” by Ruth Lyons, sung by her and her tv show staff. From the album.
“Wasn’t the Summer Short,” written by Ruth Lyons for Johnny Mathis.
“Have a Merry Merry Merry Christmas,” written by Ruth Lyons. Also from the album.
“Christmas Is a Birthday Time” by Ruth Lyons, sung by Ruby Wright.
“Let’s Light the Christmas Tree” by Ruth Lyons, sung by the Lennon Sisters.
“Christmas Lullaby” at about 7 minutes in, sung by Marian Spelman, for whom Ruth Lyons wrote the song in 1961. This seems like a really appropriate Christmas song for this crazy year, and I think all you parents will like it.
“Once Upon a Christmas Time” by Ruth Lyons, from her album It’s Christmas Time Again.
Another Tom from Ohio’s Youtube channel seems to have the most Ruth Lyons songs of anyone!
WLW Radio’s simulcast of The 50/50 Club, from 11/22/1963 (the day of JFK’s assassination). The bad news doesn’t arrive until the whole show is over, and another show is about to begin. No special guests, just in-house fun with the audience.
Ruth Lyons’ Coffee Cake recipe.