Thursday, March 19, 2009

What's My Line

The Game Show That Was Bigger Than a Breadbox

About two years ago, after twisting and turning my way through”the wee small hours of the morning,” I reached for my TV’s remote, clicked my way through a sea of infomercials, and landed upon “What’s My Line.”

For those of you who are too young to remember the show, I can tell you that it was, (and may still hold the record as) the longest running prime time weekly game show in TV history. Long before “Wheel of Fortune” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” there was “What’s My Line.”

The original program ran for close to eighteen years, beginning in 1950 and ending in 1967. Outside of some early tweaking, the show remained pretty much the same over the years, as thousands of contestants walked across a modest set to a chalk board, signed in, sat down, and whispered their “line” into host John Charles Daley’s ear, as their generally quirky occupation (“Makes Ouija Boards”) flashed across the screen for the benefit of the studio and TV audience.

Over the next three-to-five minutes, panel members did their best to guess what the guest did for a living. Stumping the panel didn’t make you rich; it just made you happy. The most a contestant could win was fifty dollars, a figure that remained the same despite inflation, from the first broadcast to the last.

Once a night (and sometimes twice) blindfolded panel members would have to guess the name (rather than line) of a “mystery guest.” After a week’s-worth of combing the New York papers, said panel members seldom faltered, despite an attempt on the part of the celebrities to disguise their famous voices. Every now and again a duo, trio or entire team of mystery guests would tiptoe across the stage and huddle over a single mic, taking turns answering questions in in effort to further confuse the panel. The ruse seldom worked, but it was fun to watch the likes of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gourmé, The McGuire Sisters and Rogers and Hammerstein make the effort.

The panel, for the most part, was made up of creative folk: entertainers, writers and publishers who never seemed to tire of asking the same questions show after show and year after year. Among the most popular: “Might I use your services?”, "Was the product ever alive?” and the ever-popular query coined by Steve Allen, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

If the questions were familiar, so were the panelists, many of whom spent the better part of the show’s run behind their one-size-fits-all desk. The wittiest of the bunch was publisher Bennett Cerf, who, at his best, was extremely clever. At his worst, he was downright punny.

Panelist Arlene Francis was another long-time panel member. A more-than-minor-but less-than-major Broadway, film and TV actress, she added a bit of warmth and glamour to the show, with trend-setting fashions punctuated by her signature diamond-studded heart pendant.

Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen was the yin to her yang. Known for being a tough reporter, her on-air persona was pleasant but not what you would call "toasty." According to Bennett Cerf’s biography, she was by far the most competitive of the group, there to win the game rather than entertain the troops. Her death, just hours after her last broadcast, was both unexpected, and mysterious.

Another panel member, comedian Fred Allen, passed away suddenly the following year. His seat was filled by Ernie Kovacs, who moved on in a matter of weeks. After that, any thoughts of a permanent replacement were set aside, although some stars like Steve Allen, guested more than others.

In total, there were some eight hundred and seventy-six episodes, providing us with close to two decades-worth of on-going American pop culture. Show by show, hair styles, stars, politicians, references, ‘lines’ and trends moved us onward. Viewed in retrospect, it is a veritable fashion parade, as hoop skirts replace sheaths, the sack gets sacked for the harem dress and teased hair rises above the more perfect dos’s of the fifties. Only the men remain true to their Brylcreem and bow ties.

The show itself is a study in obsolescence, with its corny intros, cardboard sets and outdated occupations. And yet these are the very things that make it so appealing. It is a time capsule filled with diaper service executives, corset models, human cannonballs, gas station attendants, telephone booth makers and no-smear lipstick demonstrators; a place where people who made mustard plasters, bottled cod liver oil, played half of a vaudeville horse or sold false teeth for cows could rub elbows and chalk dust with the likes of Bette Davis.

Throughout its close-to-eighteen-year run “What’s My Line” attracted more “A-list” celebrities than any other show of its time, providing us with a video scrapbook of the movers and shakers of that period. Had you been watching it over the past few weeks you would have seen Esther Williams, June Allison, Claudette Colbert, Hedda Hopper, Gary Cooper, Phil Silvers, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman.

Tune into “What’s My Line” over the next few weeks and you just may see Maureen O’Hara, George Jessel, Jack Paar, Nelson Eddy, Peter Lorre, Charles Laughton, Peggy Lee, Kathryn and Arthur Murray, Shelley Winters and a very young Jane Fonda.

Please don’t misunderstand. I certainly don’t recommend a steady diet of sleep deprivation. I just thought you'd like to know that, should you have one of those sleepless nights, “What’s My Line” is a wonderful way to lull yourself back to z-land.

If, per chance, you have the ability to record TV programs for later viewing, so much the better. You can, as they say, "have your cake and eat it too." And if like me, you find yourself wanting to know more about the show and its cast, you’ll be happy to know that the library has a book on the subject, written by the show’s executive producer, Gilbert Fates. It’s called What's My Line? : The inside history of TV’s most famous panel show, and it’s a doozy.

I also enjoyed At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf, which I picked up for a song on eBay. Mystery fans will find a wealth of information on the Internet on the thriller-like circumstances surrounding Dorothy Kilgallen’s untimely death.

Well, nighty night, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite! And be sure and keep that remote handy, just in case. You'll find “What’s My Line?” on The Game Show Network. GSN: your vocation station.

Till the next time...

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