If you were around at the time, you might remember when radio/TV host Arthur Godfrey fired popular crooner Julius La Rosa from his show. It caused a uproar at the time, and ended up being a pretty significant turning point for both entertainers’ careers. But there’s more to the story.
Julius La Rosa was yet another Brooklyn-born Italian/American with singing aspirations. After high school he joined the US Navy, was trained as a radioman, and settled in. It was the late 1940s and peacetime, so it was a pretty good life for a young guy. Having a little time on his hands, he joined a Navy choir and eventually had the chance to make a little money on the side by entertaining in bars and at the Navy officers club.
Meanwhile Arthur Godfrey was riding high as the star and host of a popular variety show that was broadcast on both radio and TV. He had a lot of loyal fans, but critics didn’t appreciate his folksy style, which often included a tacky or coarse aspect. A good example was his big hit record, which is definitely non-PC.
Godfrey was in control of just about every facet of the show, including decisions on who appeared. He had a stable of regulars but he also loved uncovering new talent. (After all, his show was originally known as Talent Scouts.) He was a Navy veteran, was still a reserve officer, and had a very comfortable relationship with Navy brass. When young La Rosa’s buddies began lobbying for him it was like a match made in heaven, and Godfrey invited him to sing on the show.
He was a smash and was offered a chance to become a regular as soon as his enlistment was up. Once the young sailor left the Navy behind, he made his debut as a regular on the show, becoming one of those who sat at the side waiting their turns in every show. It was November of 1951 and was the beginning of a period of success.
La Rosa became a fan favorite very quickly, and Godfrey was delighted. After all, the show’s ratings were up and once again he’d proven his ability to spot new talent. But the prickly Godfrey had a king-size ego and La Rosa’s rising popularity began to rub him the wrong way. It was especially galling when the young singer’s fan mail exceeded Godfrey’s own by an ever-increasing amount.
Meanwhile LaRosa’s career was going in new directions. Godfrey’s musical director, Archie Bleyer, had started a record company on the side, and the singer was a natural fit. His first couple of records did moderately well, but he then had Top Ten hits on “Anywhere I Wander”, and “Eh, Cumpari!” His solo career building, La Rosa decided to hire an agent, but Godfrey always discouraged his performers from having agents. He said he didn’t have time to deal with a bunch of outside reps, preferring to deal with the performer directly. La Rosa did it anyway. Of course it was really about control, and subsequent events would reinforce that.
Godfrey probably wasn’t too thrilled by Bleyer’s role in La Rosa’s success (in fact, he too would eventually be fired) but for now he was focused on the popular singer. It’s difficult to know what was going on behind the scenes, but things began to unravel. Just one example was when La Rosa missed a dance session for a family emergency and Godfrey kept him off the show the next day. As other incidents occurred Godfrey built up a real head of steam, and he finally went to the network to discuss his intentions. I’m sure they weren’t thrilled by the idea, but nobody wanted to say no to Godfrey, who was the powerful star of an enormously profitable show.
On October 19th, 1953, the hammer fell. On the radio portion of the show Godfrey introduced La Rosa, who sang “Manhattan” and then sat back down. Godfrey then said “That was Julie’s swan song for the show. He’ll be going out on his own now”.
It’s been reported that La Rosa was stunned, and asked the guy sitting next to him, “Was I just fired?”
Having a volatile boss give you a quick heave-ho is nothing special, but doing it on a live broadcast raised the tackiness factor to a level that wouldn’t be equaled until a certain occupant of the Oval Office began doing it with tweets. Fans of the show were just as upset as La Rosa was, and it resulted in a big scandal, with the majority condemning Godfrey. It didn’t help when he said La Rosa didn’t show the proper “humility” — a statement that just made Godfrey seem even more haughty and conceited.
La Rosa was riding high after that. Beginning with a series of appearances with Ed Sullivan (who was Godfrey’s bitter rival), he also continued to churn out new records and stay very busy for a while. Things slowed down in subsequent years but he continued to perform in a variety of venues, and even did a little acting. He was 86 when he died in 2016.
As for Arthur Godfrey – sometimes known as “The Ol’ Redhead” – he didn’t exactly fold up his tent after that, but he definitely began a slow fade. Eventually he was just hosting the occasional special radio or TV show before pretty much retiring. He was 79 when he died in 1983.