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The Greatest Game Show Of All Time: “What’s My Line” 1950 – 1967 Remembered

Why is the late production by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman the greatest game show ever? It shouldn’t be. The general trivia that is the lifeblood of games hows is non existence, the celebrity guest barely speak, the prize winnings are not that much ($500 in 2023 money, and that’s if you win), and you can’t match intelligence with the panel.

The whole point of television (not to mention radio) game shows is to give away stuff, the tag line to 50s and 60s game show’s might well be “a new car”: luxury items for the middle class, the sort of prize that makes a difference.

But that isn’t “What’s My Line”. “What’s My Line allows a celebrity panel to interrogate people on their employment, the contestants may only answer with “yes” or “no” and when ten nos occur, the contestant wins. There are also celebrity contestant, with a variant on the rules (the panelist put on a mask so they can’t see who the celebrity is). There are over 700 kinescope recordings and the vast majority available on youtube and in 2023 the game show survives as more than a trip down memory but also a snapshot of post-WW2 culture and society (with conservative politicians bringing up the rear).

Some of it hasn’t aged well, whether it be a conveyor of ice blocks, diaper delivery, or a maker of corn cob pipes so many jobs no longer exist. Also, the sexism is quite shocking but it didn’t seem so, the male members of the panel, and the MC, are well beyond sexist: hitting on pretty and young contestants incessantly and creepily: the 50s, early 60s were a somewhat prudish time (they couldn’t say “pregnant” when a woman’s job was midwife), but people didn’t react the way we would today, they didn’t even notice. On a more psotivie note, the working class have never been so broadly represented and that matters: in the middle of the fifties the program embraced firmly work and the Protestant work effort, it is about working. But there is a gentility to the fields of inquiry and a comradeship between the panel, the moderator, and us the viewers, it remains palpable when you binge it now.

At the heart of the show there is the friendship between the former ABC Network news presenter and “What’s My Line” master of ceremonies John Charles Daly and panelists Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, and Bennett Cerf. All three are terrific but Dorothy Kilgallen should have been a prosecuting attorney. Dorothy Kilgallen had it down to an artform, the open ended question where she offer multiple choices, the pinpoint exactness of the where, when, and what is part of her personality (she started as a journalist at the age of eighteen). Sometimes she had leaps that defied expectations; it is almost as if she was guessing, and while the leader of the panel, Random House editor Bennett was sometimes her equal (he could find a contestant’s job based upon where they were born!), he wasn’t as inspired. Still, here is Bennett at his best, grilling a female union member (a habit they had of finding contestants who looked nothing like their job):

Bennett: “Fort Lauderdale is a great vacation spot, do you deal with many vacationers?”

Union: “Sometimes”

Bennett: “It is also on the water, does your job take you near the Atlantic Ocean”

Union: “Sometimes”

Bennett: “So I am correct in saying the uniform you wear is not a bathing suit…”

The fourth panelist was a recurring position, the best of whom was probably Steve Allen who left to start the Tonight Show. We had Fred Allen for awhile (the day he died, they gave tribute to him on the half hour 1030pm live prime Sunday program), a little before that the great Harry Block had the role until he was fired for being too inappropriate (I never saw ANYTHING like that), Steve Allen would’ve been perfect long time but he left for a better gig and after that it became a revolving position featuring Tony Randall (between Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies and “The Odd Couple”), Woody Allen back when he did talk shows, and an insanely young Tom Poston, and Jane Fonda in full sex kitten mode and not very good though she got Lee Remick straight out of the door as well, after the death of Dorothy it became a rotating position.

Of course, life is life, and Dorothy died from an alcohol-barbiturates mix in 1965 along with claims that she was killed for knowing who killed the Kennedys. She was irreplaceable but they replaced her anyway, and really just kept on going.

I mentioned that the show worked as a social litmus test with the celebrity guests (and us) an opportunity to see some of theatre, sports. movies, television, politics and other including Jack Benny, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Joan Crawford, James Cagney, Julie Andrews, Jack Lemmon, Jackie Gleason, Steve McQueen, Alfred Hitchcock, Doris Day, James Garner, Ronald Reagan, Jane Russell, Rosalind Russell, Fred Astaire, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, Gene Autry, Lena Horne, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Andy Griffith, Harry Belafonte, Ginger Rogers, Roy Rogers, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Sean Connery, Mickey Mantle, Louis Armstrong, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Salvador Dalí, Aretha Franklin, and many more. Some of the “mystery contestants” weren’t that hot but sometimes, Groucho Marx re-wrote the book, they were the highlight. Disguising their voices while John Daley tries to mislead the panel, there was a lot of laughter and a lot of joy: on one memorable occasion they had the panelists spouses as the mystery guest: no, really, all four of them. It was great to see Ted Williams of the Red Sox -with no devil horns!

To see some of the mid 20th century greatest performers (hell, artists, yes of course that was Salvatore Daly) if not at rest at least at play was fun and when they got around to discussing what they were doing in town (New York City) it was history coming to life, whether Liz Taylor talking about husband Mike Todd shortly before he died in a plane accident or Henry Fonda on leave from a stage production with his young son Peter, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on Broadway, Brian Epstein pushing “A Cellar Full Of Noise”, Louis Armstrong representing America in Africa, Jackie Gleason pre-The Honeymooners, all four of Bing Crosby’s sons, all of the remaining Von Trapps, Robert Ryan, and many, many more.

To make things more interesting, I began to look into these live celebrities entire careers (if they are now dead and most are), and it is fascinating: it becomes a kaleidoscope of here and now and gone, staring at these vibrant, smart, beautiful people is riveting, it is a game of hindsight.

The game refined itself over time, a whole lotta time wasting like having the panel take an opening guess were dumped and the show was streamlined as fuck by the time time they reach 1957. By the end of its initial run, it was set, the four panelists introduced each other, Bennett and Daly traded insults, women (and sometimes men: hi there Arlene) are whistled and flirted at, Daly says whether the contestant is self-employed or an employee in a service or product. From there, the panel quizzes, losing their turn when they get a no; the next signpost up ahead is whether or they work for a commercial and non-profit? Why? If it is non-profit it is probably a Government position, if profit it could be anything. If a mystery guess the panelists have spent the week figuring out who is town: “Are you currently on Broadway, in a first run moviehouse, or performing at nightclubs?” being a typical opening salvo.

By which I mean none of it is quite as difficult as it appears and the primary trick for panelists is not to get a no, to place the question as options and then parse it down. It is a matter of narrowing the choice till there is only one.

In 2023 “What’s My Line” is just a delight, John Daly is a witty guy and also a gentleman as we don’t see today, as well as insanely erudite without being a dick, Bennet has the sweetest smile you will ever see, Arlene Francis a popular celebrity (and I mean that in the current sense, she was sure an actress and on Broadway, but she was well known for being known) and Dorothy who seems lagged by the future, it is hard to forget that she was dead by 52 and it is just one more JFK question mark, is the GOAT.

There has never been a gameshow like “What’s My Line” – Wheel Of Fortune” is hangmen for morons, “Jeopardy” heavy duty trivial pursuit, “Price Is Right” a guessing game, and so on. There is an intellectual vigor to “What’s My Line”, a brilliant construction of what ifism, which while not difficult is neither obvious. While you and I might believe that anybody who though mystery guest Brian Epstein created the Beatles was an idiot, not when it is Dorothy.

By 1967 it was over and while it was syndicated,first running in the early 70s (and in color), it had become a daily strip and they couldn’t figure out how to keep to keep the celebrity guests major with that much room to cover. It didn’t recover from the loss of John Daly while his replacement is toothpaste, bland 30 something white boys.

It hasn’t been seen since and while deep into a world of celebrity and reboots it has been left alone. Part of you might think they didn’t want to mess with a classic, but cmon, this is commercial TV. It just didn’t. But it should have.

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