Mike Wallace: They say you’re the father of our country.
George Washington: Some do, yes.
Wallace: They say you’re a man of integrity and high character.
Washington: I’d like to think so.
Wallace: They also say you never chopped down a cherry tree, it’s a myth, it’s a lie. True?
Mike Wallace was known for making people squirm as he got to the bottom of things. He became a hero to viewers on ‘60 Minutes’ (and acquired historic ratings) for trapping sleazoid rip-off artists with their own words. Not too many year earlier, he had a reputation for pointed—sometimes, too pointed—questions on his late 1950s one-on-one interview show on ABC. But long before that, back when he was still Myron Wallace and based in Chicago, he hosted a radio show called “Is it Fact or Fiction?” where, aided by a team of researchers that did the real work, he busted historical myths about Pompeii, the pilgrims, Sir Isaac Newton and even George Washington and the fabled cherry tree.
Wallace died this weekend at the age of 93, and the reputation he’ll leave behind to many is that of being a seeker of truth through a mire of BS. No higher accolade can be given to a journalist. And that’s travelling a fair distance for a man who spent part of his career hawking Elgin compacts on “You Bet Your Life.”
Perhaps no one else had a more prestigious debut on network radio than Mike Wallace, though the series seems stodgy and dull to most modern listeners. This newspaper clipping from February 7, 1939 reveals:
Myron Wallace, a University of Michigan undergraduate, will be added to the Information Please board of experts for the WJZ broadcast Tuesday at 8:30 p. m., in a test of the old and the new. Franklin P. Adams, one of the regulars of the board of experts, is a Michigan old grad of the class of 1903. Clifton Fadiman, the program’s ruthless master of ceremonies, will single out the two Michiganlanders with his questions on any and all subjects. John Kieran will be on hand as the other regular and Oscar Levant as the other guest for the occasion.This may have been the only time Wallace appeared on a programme and the term “ruthless master of ceremonies” was applied to someone else. Wallace acquired a reputation, long before ‘60 Minutes,’ of being an attack dog. Here’s what an unbylined piece in the Kokomo Tribune, dated April 26, 1957, had to say, as it went on to give a biography to date:
‘Mike Wallace Interviews’ To Make Debut on WTTV Sunday
Mike Wallace, whose much-talked-about “interviews in depth” will be brought to a nationwide ABC-TV audience starting Sunday (9 p.m., Channel 4), has brought to the interview type of television program a unique combination of dramatic suspense and almost surgical candor that gives viewers the feeling they are watching a real-life drama in which the characters reveal themselves to the full.
Perhaps the people best qualified to evaluate Wallace’s interviewing technique are those who have appeared with him before the TV cameras. Here are some sample opinions:
Elsa Maxwell: “I appeared on the show to correct the erroneous impression that I am paid to give parties ... I was not embarrassed in the slightest by the questions, even those on sex. I love a good, frank, adult talk ... Before the show Mr. Wallace offered to send one of his staff to discuss our questions and answers. I declined the offer, preferring to go on cold . . . I could fight back and I did.”
Faye Emerson: “There are no indiscreet questions—just indiscreet answers.”
Mr. John, celebrated milliner: “I enjoyed being on the show. I’d go on again tomorrow. Once a person goes on the show he leaves himself wide open and if he feels he has been victimized, it serves him right.”
Walter Slezak: “Mike Wallace is a tough customer and I wanted to take him on. have some fun with him ... I have no skeleton to hide, so it wasn’t in the least embarrassing.”
Abe Burrows: “The reason the program goes so well is that Mike listens to what his guest says and follows it up. Most interviewers on the air try to be clever. They don’t listen.”
Mary Margaret McBride: “Mike has great charm. His real interest in you is what makes the show so good.”
Behind Wallace’s emergence as the most arresting and incisive questioner of program guests is a 17-year background in network broadcasting—as newscaster, emcee, announcer and interviewer.
Myron (“Mike”) Wallace, born in Brookline Mass., on May 9, 1918, and a graduate of the University of Michigan, has been in network broadcasting since 1940, when he worked in Detroit as announcer and narrator of such programs as “The Lone Ranger” and “Green Hornet.” In 1941 he moved on to Chicago to announce “Ma Perkins,” “Guiding Light” and other five-a-week programs, in addition to conducting a regular newscast for the Chicago Sun-Times.
He joined the Navy in December, 1943, and served in the Pacific as a Submarine Force communications officer, and later as officer in charge of radio entertainment at Great Lakes. He returned to commercial radio in 1946, acting in and announcing a variety of programs. For a period of five years, he was known around Chicago as “Mr. Radio.”
Wallace launched his television career in June, 1951, as host of “All Around the Town,” a series of remote pickups from points of interest in New York. This was followed by an interview program which ran for two years, during which he had 2,000 guests. He has been active in every phase of broadcasting, from drama to quiz shows, parades, elections and conventions.
Important radio-TV credits include the TV series “Adventure,” of which he was co-host with Charles Collingwood in 1953; “Stage Struck,” an hour-long radio documentary on the theater in 1953 and 1954, tape recordings of which are preserved in the Library of Congress; the “Weekday” radio program, which he co-hosted with Margaret Truman and later with Virginia Graham; TV’s “The Big Surprise,” of which he was emcee; “Mike Wallace and the News,” a nightly TV news show, and “Nightbeat,” the prototype of “Mike Wallace Interviews.”
Wallace evidently picked on more than his guests. He and wife Buff Cobb hosted a late-night interview show starting in June 1950 from Chez Paree in Chicago. She once ended up with a broken toe because she kicked him too hard under the table over something he did.
One story the obits likely won’t have is this somewhat amusing one from the ‘Along Chicago Radio Row’ column in The Garfieldian, January 30, 1947.
Announcer-newscaster Myron Wallace could have qualified as a track star Friday evening when he sprinted out of the Balinese room at the Blackstone hotel, coatless and with dinner napkin in hand. For the first time in his radio career, Mike was so busy enjoying himself that he almost missed his 11 p.m. “Myron Wallace and the News” broadcast on WMAQ.
With ten minutes to reach the studio, he did some fast moving while his wife called the studio to have an elevator waiting and a stand-by announcer on hand. Half an hour later he returned to resume his dinner—still with napkin in hand.
Accurate? Seems so. And Mike Wallace wouldn’t have had it any other way.