Don “Creesh” Hornsby’s name would most likely have been as well known as Steve Allen, Jack Parr, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno if death hadn’t overtaken the 26-year-old Long Beach comedian in May 1950.
Hornsby—who lived in Long Beach with wife Dorothy, daughters Dawn and Dare, and son, Dave—started his showbiz career in 1948 at the Jack Lasley Cafe at 2nd Street at Santa Ana Avenue in Belmont Shore. Hornsby was a tremendously gifted concert pianist and composer and while at the cafe, would combine his piano artistry with song parodies, magic tricks, unusual facial expressions and hilarious ad lib comic patter. Sometimes he climbed into a rubber life raft suspended above his piano and tossed dry ice at the audience.
Given his theatrics, Hornsby’s performances were talked about throughout Southern California and people drove from all over the Southland to catch his act.
The screwball comic did a five-hour show without a break, eating his meals on stage while he reeled off a seemingly inexhaustible supply of gags. Every 30 seconds he bellowed out “creesh” and if a lady customer appeared jittery as he swung over her head on a high trapeze, he would boom out, “Don’t get nervous: I know what I’m doing!” Two minutes later he would have her on stage for a magic act where he would tie two scarves together and tuck them down her neckline. He would then mutter “creesh…creesh” and pull the scarves. Suddenly, where the knot used to be, was a brassier. Hornsby said the theme of his comedy structure was “constructive escapism” which he called “creeshism,” which meant that anything can be funny in the proper situation.
His success in Long Beach brought another comedian to his door, Bob Hope, who loved Hornsby’s act and placed him on Hope’s weekly radio show.
Always on the lookout for new material, Hornsby made a tour of Europe in the summer of 1949, watching shows in Paris, Bern, Naples, and other foreign cities, and when he returned to Long Beach, he revealed he was developing a new type of act that he hoped would carry him to New York.
Hornsby had his chance to preview his new act in February, 1950, when Hornsby appeared with Bob Hope, Doris Day, Les Brown, and several other well known stars at the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium in a live radio performance which was broadcast coast-to-coast. His radio and stage success caught the attention of NBC television executives in New York.
Two weeks before his death, NBC announced it had signed Hornsby to a five-year television contract to present a late-night show out of New York: Broadway Open House, which was network television’s first late night comedy variety show. It was televised live on NBC from May 29, 1950 to August 24, 1951, airing weeknights from 11PM to midnight. It went on to become the Tonight Show.
Unfortunately Hornsby did not even get to perform one show of Broadway Open House given his death on May 22, 1950. Hornsby was stricken by polio and placed in an iron lung; within a week after he was diagnosed with the disease, he was dead.
The Tonight Show would become the longest running program on television, creating stars overnight and making its hosts icons of the American television viewing audience.
However, the fame and glory that should have been Don Hornsby’s was cut short by infantile paralysis. Let us remember him here.