Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Appearing With Groucho

The interaction between Groucho Marx and the contestants on “You Bet Your Life” made the show unique and that’s probably why it was never really successfully cloned or revived. Some contestants were feisty and unintentionally funny. Others were nervous and unintentionally funny. And yet others were completely oblivious to Groucho’s putdowns and were unintentionally funny.

People who appear on game shows are part of our lives for a fleeting moment, usually a day or two (unless their name is Ken Jennings), then vanish as they’re replaced by someone else. Few of us every wonder “Whatever happened to so-and-so who was on such-and-such show last month?” Well, someone at the Radio and TV Mirror did. They found there was a neat little story about a couple who took the stage opposite Groucho on “Your Bet Your Life.” It was perfect for the housewives reading the magazine. It featured an ideal Mr. and Mrs. Young Suburban America of the 1950s, some amusing anecdotes and a happy ending.

The story appeared in the May 1952 issue, told from the point of view of the housewife-contestant (who perhaps received editorial assistance in crafting her story). You may zone out once she gets to the travelogue part but the first two-thirds of the story are an interesting account of what it was like being on the show.


It was a minor miracle, that's what it was. When we talk about it now, we still shake our heads and wonder whether we dreamed it all. Then we look over our gifts, our photographs, and we read some of the letters we received, and we are forced to admit that anything can happen when — you bet your life.
To start at the beginning and be sensible about it — which isn't easy — Tom and I are what I believe you would describe as the usual young American couple. We have been married a little over a year. We live in a modest, unfurnished apartment in Inglewood, California (a suburb of Los Angeles proper); we are buying our furniture, some of it on the installment plan, and we are expecting a baby any minute now. Tom is an electronic technician at Hughes Aircraft Corporation. I had held my secretarial job until we discovered that we were going to have a family. That's how average we are.
One night a young couple who live in our neighborhood telephoned to say that they had four tickets to the Groucho Marx television show, You Bet Your Life. Would we like to join them? It seemed like a fine idea.
I put on my favorite maternity outfit; a green gabardine skirt and a plaid taffeta smock. Tom slicked down his hair and we were ready. On our way to the station, the four of us kidded a little about appearing on a quiz show and winning the jackpot. We agreed that we would enjoy a television set of our own, or a trip to Europe, or a furnished bungalow into which we could move.
Tom said, "You married the wrong man, honey, for a break like that. I've never won anything in my life."
I said that I felt I had had all the luck a girl deserves when I met and married him. You know how wonderful it is when you're happily married and planning a great life together.
Actually it didn't occur to us that we'd have a chance to appear on the show. We assumed, as I suppose most people do, that the program was well set in advance. That's why Tom and I raised our eyebrows at one another when the show announcer, George Fenneman, asked for young couples in the audience to volunteer to play You Bet Your Life.
Tom leaned over and whispered to me, "Would you be game?"
"Why not?" I answered. "We have nothing to lose and I think it would be fun. Maybe we're smarter than we think!" (Tom is still kidding me about that.)
There were several of us who were ushered into various dressing rooms off the corridor from the main studio and there, couple by couple, we were interviewed. Tom and I still can't figure out how we happened to be chosen. Tom says it was because it was obvious that I was a "prominent" citizen!
We shook hands for luck and I noticed that Tom's hands were almost as cold as mine. "Scared?" he asked.
I started to say that I wasn't, but my throat was so dry that I couldn't speak for a second. When I could get my voice to function, I sort of squeaked, "Petrified." "Nothing to it," Tom said, putting his arm around me. "We're just going to talk to Groucho Marx. That'll be fun."
As we were the third couple to come before Mr. Marx that evening, we had final choice of the categories suggested. We chose famous resort spots, thinking of Lake Placid, Atlantic City, Miami, Colorado Springs, Palm Springs, Sun Valley, Honolulu, and even of Cannes and Biarritz. Mr. Marx rolled his eyes and waved his famous cigar in our direction after we had been introduced, and asked, "Which are you hoping for, a boy or a girl?"
I said that this baby was our first, so we didn't care.
"If it's a boy," Mr. Marx said, goggling from us to the audience, "name him after me. Imagine going through life with the name of Groucho Snodgrass!"
Tom and I nearly collapsed, laughing. Around the house we still refer to the anticipated as "Groucho!"
"In what state is Lake Placid?"
Tom grinned. He had thought of that resort when we first decided on the category. "New York," answered Tom.
"In what state is Sarasota?"
Tom and I looked at one another with wide eyes. I hadn't an idea in the world. I knew I had heard the word, but where? We whispered. I said I thought it sounded . like an Indian name. Time was running out, so we decided to say "Michigan."
"Sorry. Sarasota is in Florida. It is the winter headquarters of Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus. Too bad, kids," Mr. Marx said. It was obvious that he meant it. "I don't want you to go away broke, so for ten dollars can you tell me who wrote Brahms' 'Lullaby'?"
We weren't too flustered to know that one. The audience had uttered a groan when we didn't know where Sarasota was, but they gave us a nice hand when we won our ten dollars.
Oh well, we said on the way home, it had been a terrific experience and we had come home ten dollars richer than when we left— which was something exceptional in these days. During the next few days a number of amazing things happened. I received a jubilant letter from my mother in Chicago. We hadn't seen each other for four years and Mother had never met Tom, but she had caught that particular Groucho Marx show. You can imagine how thrilled she was.
We were just settling down to normal again when a representative of You Bet Your Life telephoned and asked what reaction Tom and I had experienced from being on TV. I told him some of our happenings and he said, "We want you to come back again. We have a surprise for you."
I wrote Mother to warn her to be watching, and we went back to the broadcasting studio the following Thursday. This time we weren't particularly nervous and Tom said that if they gave us another chance he was going to pick the same category again. He had been studying maps!
Groucho kidded a bit, as he usually does, then he said to Tom, "I wonder if you can tell me where . . ."
"Sarasota is in Florida," interrupted Tom.
"You bet your life," answered Groucho, and pulled a letter from his pocket. "Listen to this," he said.
The letter had been written by Mr. Tod Swalm, general manager of Sarasota (Florida) Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Swalm was aghast to think that anyone in the world was ignorant of the whereabouts of his city. He and Sarasota were, therefore, inviting Tom and me to enjoy a week's vacation in Sarasota as guests of the resort from the time we left Los Angeles by air until we again returned to Los Angeles International Airport.
We simply shrieked with delight, and so did everyone in that TV audience. It was a great night for Sarasota, and a greater one for the Snodgrasses.
Behind the scenes, afterward, Tom and I realized that there were some problems to be solved. Tom would have to ask for the time off, of course, and I would have to consult our doctor.
Even before Tom had left for the office the next morning, Mr. Nate Tufts, a representative of You Bet Your Life, was on the telephone, asking eagerly, "Can you go?"
I wanted to ask him who was more excited, the staff of You Bet Your Life or the Snodgrasses, but I didn't. I simply explained that it wasn't yet nine o'clock. Tom hadn't called me yet about his time off and I hadn't seen the doctor, but I can't tell you how pleased I was to have the entire staff of You Bet Your Life show such interest in us.
From that instant on, everything went along as if a fairy godmother had touched us with a magic wand. Tom's boss was as interested in our trip as the rest of our friends were. The doctor said I was getting along fine and that the experience would be priceless. Tom's mother said, when I told her that we were going to be sensible and buy no extra clothes for the trip, "You should have a suit in which to travel. Something new adds to a trip. Come on, let's go shopping."
We left Los Angeles at midnight on Monday, January 14. Tom had flown many times, but it was my first airplane trip. Everyone had said I would be able to relax and sleep, but who can sleep with one's heart going bumpety-bump, ninety miles a minute? I pressed my nose against the window and looked at the moon and then at the little , towns, twinkling like a nest of fireflies far, far below. I watched the night grow light, and the sunrise, too. I slept a little during the morning, and then we landed at Tampa at two o'clock in the afternoon.
Mr. Swalm of the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and representatives of the Campbell-Davis Motors of Sarasota met us in a new De Soto. Also there were several photographers who snapped pictures as if we had been celebrities. This flashbulb life bothered me at first, but after two days of it, Tom and I became veterans. We are to receive an album including every shot taken so that someday we will be able to tell this story to our grandchildren, complete with illustrations.
From the airport we were whisked over a beautiful fifty-mile drive to Sarasota. Our first impression of the city was that it was something like Laguna Beach, a charming resort city in Southern California. It had the same beautiful vistas of the sea, the same vacation atmosphere, the same alluring shops, but Sarasota was (whisper it) warmer.
Our first big thrill was the reception given in our honor. This was attended by the mayor and all city dignitaries, and we were given a key to the city. Also, Tom received a bright shirt and swim trunks as well as a camera and twelve rolls of film. I was given a handsome green leather shoulder bag, and a pretty full-circle peasant skirt. We were also given a set of Skyway luggage. The baby did very well, too: it was given a pink crib blanket, an air mattress, a set of fitted sheets, a comb and brush set.
Our "home" in Sarasota was the Coquina, an apartment-hotel which is the last word in luxury. We had an apartment with a compact kitchen, a living room looking out upon a beach whose sand is like face powder, and a beautiful bedroom. The refrigerator in our kitchen was stocked daily with cream, milk, ham, eggs, and wonderful bakery goods so that we could have breakfast whenever we awakened.
A luncheon was planned for us every noon, and dinner was planned for us every night. We visited almost every famous restaurant and night club in Sarasota. And how we danced on the moonlit terraces overlooking the ocean! It was twenty-four-hour paradise plus a second honeymoon.
Now that we are back in our apartment in Inglewood we remember the most wonderful week any two people could experience. I'm still misty-eyed about it and a good deal of my spare time has been spent reliving the days and recapturing the breathless feeling of being young, in love, and on a magic holiday.
The amazing thing to us is that making a mistake on a radio program could bring such a trip to two ordinary people. It proves that no one should ever give up hope of being touched by Lady Luck's sparkling wand. It happened to us. It could happen to you!

The Snodgrasses would have appeared on a fair number of TV sets that season. “You Bet Your Life” finished tenth in the ratings in 1951-52 with a 42.1 share, opposite “Stop the Music” on ABC and Burns and Allen and “Star of the Family” (with Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy) alternating on CBS. Groucho was still doing the show on radio, too, on Wednesday nights at 9 against Red Skelton on CBS, “Rogue’s Gallery” on ABC and “The Hidden Truth” on Mutual.

Something which is interesting is revealed in the photo of the Snodgrasses which accompanied the article. Nadine is visibly pregnant. Pregnancy was a touchy subject, at least when it came to sitcoms, and she may have been one of the first almost-moms to have appeared on network TV.

Thomas Louis Snodgrass and Nadine Willie Hickman were married August 18, 1950 in Los Angeles. Where are the Snodgrasses today? I haven’t been able to find out. If you’re reading, Tom or Nadine, drop me a note. But we can tell you they had a boy named Timothy Allen, 7 pounds 5 ounces. Sorry, Groucho.

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