Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Bill Cullen, A Born Ham

Who’s the best game show host ever? Easy. Bill Cullen.

Bill always seemed to be having fun on camera and that he enjoyed nothing better than to play games with contestants. He never came across as a phoney, condescending or self-indulgent. And he could blurt out a funny pun or one-liner out of nowhere. To me, there was only one host of “The Price is Right.”—the man who uttered the immortal phrase “Tell him what he wins, Don Pardo!”

I came across a feature story on Cullen in the February 1949 edition of Radio and Television Mirror (“Television” was in smaller letters than “Radio.” Things would soon change). You may appreciate Bill’s talents even more when you read about his creatively irreverent antics during his early radio days. It’s a little long but full of fun and interesting little things you probably have never heard about before.

Bill died on July 7, 1990. There’s really not a place any more on TV for his kind of talent. It’s TV’s loss. Perhaps it’s just as well, as there was only one Bill Cullen.

Bill Cullen TAKES ALL
Radio’s youngest quizmaster never needed a golden spoon—he was born knowing how to be in two places at once

BOIL rapidly the following ingredients: a rapier wit, a triple portion of imagination and a dash of pepper.
End result: Bill Cullen, the youngest successful quizmaster on the networks.
At the age of 29, Bill's incisive wit has made him a third degree specialist on radio's two popular quiz programs, Winner Take All and Hit the Jackpot. Groucho Marx calls him the best quizmaster in the business. In all, Bill Cullen does eighteen network shows a week. Not bad for a kid who four years ago was riding herd on a flock of records in Pittsburgh.
And success is easy for Bill. He merely acts natural.
"I'm an extroverted introvert with an inferior superiority complex," Bill explained. "In other words—a born ham."
He began to prove this at an early age in the public schools of Pittsburgh, his home town. He emceed student assemblies, broke up scholastic spelling bees with his clowning, organized shows to buy a new coat of varnish for the gym and when he disagreed with the policy of the official school paper, he published one of his own.
"Besides, I'm restless," Bill said. "I like to get things done in a hurry."
Impatience led him to announce he was quitting school at the age of sixteen. When he couldn't be argued out of it, his father, a practical man, gave Bill a job in his garage and worked him so hard that at the end of five months Bill gladly returned to high school and later went to the University of Pittsburgh.
It was during his high school days that Bill became interested in a radio career. In fact, he talked local merchants into buying the school a public address system so he could work with a microphone. But an automobile accident that left him with a permanent limp confused the next few years of his life.
"While I lay in the hospital for two months," Bill said, "I decided I could do the most good as a doctor."
He registered at Pitt in a pre-medical course. If Bill had worked his way through college selling magazine subscriptions or clerking in a store, he might be William Cullen, M.D. today. Instead he got a radio job for his after-school hours. During the next four years he nearly knocked himself out carrying a full schedule at Pitt and working full time at the station. But he convinced himself that his real interest was radio, not medicine.
Bill remembers well his Pittsburgh experience at WWSW and his friends there well remember him. Cullen's stunts are legendary in Pittsburgh radio. And when they speak of him, it's with the same feeling of awe that old timers have for a hurricane that once ripped through the country.
Because WWSW is an independent station devoting most of its time to news, record shows and sports coverage, Bill's gift of gab was a definite asset. But he would easily get dissatisfied with a program that became routine.
Early in his radio career, he announced a daily program of recorded classical music. He began to doubt the attentiveness of the listeners, so on one program he played Tschaikowsky's Fourth in reverse. There were no repercussions. The following night Bill bought himself a toy whistle and while recorded music of Wagner hit the air. Bill opened his announcer's mike and began to improvise over the Wagner. A few minutes later the phone rang. "What kind of Wagner is that?" a listener demanded.
"This is a new Stan Kenton arrangement," Bill told her politely, hung up and continued tooting his whistle.
Bill's remarkable talent for stepping up to a mike cold and giving colourful and adequate descriptions of a vacant lot surrounded by a blank fence won him the job of assisting the sports announcer. During time-outs and rest periods, he would come on the air with a quick sports resume, then do color. Only twice did he do actual play-by-play reporting and each time it was a catastrophe.
He was assigned to a high school football game that turned out to be a dud. Bored, and realizing that the radio audience must be too, Bill took off his glasses, carefully wiped the lenses and put them in his pocket.
"Now I can't see and the game won't distract me," he said.
WITH that he began to report a football game as he thought it should sound. He excitedly described 50-yard runs for touchdowns, intercepted passes for touchdowns, fumbles over the goal line. At the end of the afternoon, exhausted and hoarse, Bill announced the final score as 35 to 34. Actually it was 7-0.
Bill broadcast one more sports event for WWSW. It was a year later when the station's kindly and patient manager had forgotten the football circus. There was a hockey game to be covered that night and the regular announcer was ill.
"Know anything about ice hockey?" Bill was asked.
"Grew up with the game," he said.
On the way out to Duquesne Gardens that evening, Bill turned to the engineer.
"Ever see a hockey game?" Bill asked.
"No. Did you?"
It was a rare night for hockey fans. Bill memorized the names of ten players and no matter who was substituted, the original ten made all the plays. Bill called the ice, the field; the puck, a ball. When a player fell, he was "down on the twenty-yard line." If two players scowled at each other. Bill was describing a bloody fist fight. Instead of giving a resume during rest periods, he picked up a newspaper and read Dick "Tracy to the sports listeners.
The pay-off was that died-in-the-rink hockey fans were laughing with him, not at him. The next day sports columnists wrote that it was the most hilarious program they'd ever heard. But the team owner never allowed Cullen in for another broadcast. Reason was that during a dull moment Bill had described the puck soaring into the bleachers and landing in a woman's cup of coffee.
As a practical joker. Bill's imagination kept the entire staff on constant alert. Perhaps it's a trade secret but most excess energy of announcers goes into horseplay—specifically, trying to break up a fellow announcer while he is on the air. Introduced to this aspect of radio, Cullen brought the full force of his imagination into play. Oddly enough, Cullen's zany stunts remind one of the kind of gags credited to Groucho Marx, one of Bill's boosters.
Take the Musical Bus show. Because Bill was on duty at the same time of day, he had to listen to another announcer do this program for months. The Musical Bus started off with recorded sound effects of traffic noise and the motor of a bus. Bill figured the show needed life, made a new recording of sound effects and substituted his platter for the usual one.
The announcer opened with the same stock announcement, "WWSW invites you to ride the musical bus."
The standard effects followed of a bus driving through heavy traffic. Suddenly there was the zoom of a high powered airplane followed by the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun and the explosion of bombs. There was the sound of the bus crashing and people screaming. It was typical Cullen reaction to monotony.
WHILE Bill was in Pittsburgh, war broke out. Not one of his personal battles but the bigger one with Germany and Japan. Bill was classified 4F because of his bad leg. Being kept out of action was an emotional strain on him. He finally found a branch of the army, Specialists Corps, that would take men with physical handicaps. He signed up, but the corps was dissolved. Still a civilian, Bill put all of his money into flying lessons. In a short time he had his pilot license and served as Air Patrol Pilot. He piled up 400 flying hours. He was twenty-two then and developed a serious interest in current events. He asked for and got a nightly news broadcast. Immediately, he broke away from the lazy habit of announcers who read news direct from teletype reports and began to dig into newspapers and periodicals for additional information. In time, he built up a good audience, but it was on this show that another announcer decided to even up some of the gags Bill had pulled.
Since Bill was a whiz at the art of ad lib, it was decided to let him prove it. He walked into the studio one night at 10:45 with fresh-off-the-wire material. He hadn't broadcast more than a sentence when his friends pulled the main light switch and plunged the studio into a blackout. The laughter was loud for a minute but when they quieted down, the pranksters were amazed. They heard Bill's voice coming out of the control room speaker, giving the news completely unperturbed. And he continued to ad lib the news in complete darkness for fifteen minutes.
One of the announcers involved in this gag had the habit of coming on the air each night with, "We have some hot news tonight." The next day he was speaking both literally and figuratively. Bill had soaked part of the manuscript in lighter fluid. As his friend began the broadcast, a match touched the paper. Both the news report and announcer went up in the air.
"You won't last another six weeks," the station manager always told Bill after one of these episodes. But the manager was too good-hearted and Bill was too valuable to be fired. He left Pittsburgh on his own initiative in April of 1944.
"I'm getting a network job in New York," he told them.
Three weeks later he had one.
Actually Bill came to New York cold. He had no prospects and knew no one. At that time Columbia had an "XYZ" system for auditioning announcers. 150 applicants were chosen from records for the "X" group. Out of these 50 would be selected to audition in a "Y" group. Finally, in the "Z" group, there were only three announcers, one of whom got a job.
Bill didn't arrive at the CBS studios until they were down to the "Z" level and there is a lot of talk about how he got in. One story has it that the men were auditioning with recordings and Bill substituted his for one of the finalists. Another rumor says that Bill locked one of the applicants out on a fire escape then took his place. Perhaps neither is true but Bill was in the "Z" group and got the job. "I was hired as a news reporter," Bill said. "Today, I'm still waiting for my first news broadcast."
His first assignment was on a network show, Fun with Dunn. All he had to do was to introduce the show, be quiet for thirteen and a half minutes, then take the show off the air. Keeping quiet for thirteen minutes was a tough assignment for him and one day the producer made the mistake of writing a gag line into the beginning of the show for Bill. When he came to the line, he threw away his script and began to ad lib. Five minutes later the regular show got started and Bill's reputation was established at CBS as an off-the-cuff wit.
A few months later the program was replaced by the show Sing-A-Long and that was replaced and the next program was replaced but Bill continued to stay on till Winner Take All moved into the period. For six months he assisted Ward Wilson on the program. When the format was changed. Bill moved into the quizmaster's job and ever since has done an outstanding job.
"I get a big kick working with contestants on the program," Bill will tell you. "But let's not talk about the regulars."
But Bill will talk about the "regulars," the people who try to make a profession out of contest appearances.
There's a New York model Bill calls Macushlah Jones who sometimes makes up as a bobby soxer, sometimes as a Park Avenue deb. "7-Up" O'Brien is another who always walks into the studio carrying her shoes and crying that she walked a hundred miles to get on the show. There is "Ming Toy" Smith who claimed she was a painter —she'd painted "Men" and "Women" on rest room doors. But Bill spots the regulars and never do they sneak into any of his shows.
BILL'S married now to a lovely vocalist, Carol Ames, who has a lot of talent in her own right. She's sung on the Paul Whiteman and Arthur Godfrey shows and in some of New York's best night clubs.
"I took the initiative in dating Bill," Carol will tell you.
They had met first on a CBS program when Bill was announcing and Carol singing. She took a lot of ribbing from him but they never dated. A year later, Carol was in her apartment listening to the radio when she heard Bill fluff a line. She picked up the phone, got Bill and teased him about it. An hour later they were sitting at a bar.
"That was our first date," Carol said. "And you know how these things are. You can tell from the beginning when you click together."
Bill courted Carol with the same imagination he puts into his shows. On her birthday they took a plane to Boston for dinner.
Last Christmas eve Carol was sharing an apartment with two other girls and had a date to meet Bill in a bar. He was over an hour late. Bill finally showed up apologetic and carrying two big shopping bags. They were her gifts and he suggested she open them. She did. The bags were stuffed with nothing but paper.
"Are you upset?" Bill asked.
"You're better than an hour late, pull a bum gag and ask a foolish question."
"I'm sorry," Bill said remorsefully.
"I'll take you home."
They walked to her apartment silently.
By that time Carol was kicking herself for being a bad sport. But when she walked into the apartment, there was a huge, trimmed Christmas tree staring in her face.
"In all, he had twenty-seven gifts hidden around the room," she said.
THEY saw a lot of each other for two years. When Bill began to talk about marriage, he found Carol willing.
"Look, I'm due for a vacation in a month," he said. "We'll have a quiet ceremony and a real honeymoon."
One month passed, two, three, four and no vacation. Finally, Bill took the matter in his own hands. It was on Wednesday, July 28th of last year.
"Let's get married," he asked Carol.
"With or without a honeymoon."
"Today's Wednesday," Bill said, thinking aloud. "How about Friday? Friday's a nice day of the week."
Both knew that any day they got married would be a great day but there was one more angle.
"We'll keep it a secret," they said. "No fuss. No announcements. No publicity."
Bill figured he could knock off after his Friday afternoon show until Sunday evening. It fitted in with Carol's plans because she was appearing daily on the Arthur Godfrey show. Everything was fine until Godfrey sensed Carol's excitement. Before they went on the air Friday he coaxed the secret out of Carol.
"But don't tell anyone," she pleaded.
"Absolutely not," Godfrey promised.
Fifteen minutes later his promise slipped and the whole country knew Bill and Carol would be married that afternoon.
When they arrived at the Park Avenue church a few hours later, there were 500 excited fans on the street.
They had 36 hours alone in Long Island. The following Monday Bill and Carol moved into the Strand Theater with a stage presentation of Winner Take All. After three weeks in the theater, Carol began a singing engagement at the Raleigh Room in the Warwick and Bill settled down to his routine schedule of eighteen weekly shows.
"The first few months of our marriage," Carol said, "we saw less of each other than at any other time."
They live now in a four-room apartment in a Manhattan hotel. Together, Bill and Carol redecorated the living room in Chinese modern.
Decorating is one of his many hobbies along with color photography, magic, sailing, painting, flying and cooking.
"And drugstores," Carol added.
"That's definitely a hobby. He goes out to buy aspirin and comes back with a shopping bag full of gimmicks—eye pads, face cream, tissue, bottle openers. There's no end."
Their best friends, the Todd Russells and John Reed Kings and the Joe Carneys, will tell you that Bill and Carol make a swell couple and will wait a hundred years, if necessary, for their honeymoon. Life's being good to them, even without one.

Incidentally, the photos of the happily-married Cullen feature second wife. The happy part of the marriage didn’t last. He re-married a few years later to the sister-in-law of Cullen’s announcer at the time, fellow game-show host Jack Narz, who was game-show host Tom Kennedy’s brother.

1 comment:

  1. Happy 4th of July sir! Keep the excellent blog coming. It's become another good place for me to learn about animation's past.