Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Game Show Host Who Wanted to be a (Blank)

When you hear the name “Gene Rayburn,” two words come to mind. They’re not “Broadway actor.” It’s a shame because I suspect those are the words Rayburn would have wanted to come to mind.

Rayburn fancied himself as a stage performer and got a huge break when he starred on the Great White Way in the musical “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1961. But he got lured back into the game show world on TV the following year to host the (here come those two words) “Match Game.”

Like most people in 1950s television, Rayburn began in radio. His initial fame came from co-hosting a morning show in New York City. Then he got national exposure on TV in the early ‘50s as the announcer on the original “The Tonight Show.” That’s a pretty good resume, but it wasn’t for Rayburn. Here’s a syndicated newspaper column published March 19, 1958.

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TV In Review
Woes Plague Rayburn


For Gene Rayburn, the last four years have been a frustrating case of hurry up and wait.
Back in 1954, the National Broadcasting Co. gave Gene a rush call while he was disc-jockeying at a New York station. “We have a time slot for you,” he was told. Gene dropped everything, got to work on a format and was all set to go before the cameras when the agency owning the time period exercised his option—on another show.
An ABC executive sought to placate the dejected Rayburn. “How’d you like to be ‘second banana’ to Steve Allen, until we get something for you?” Gene was asked. Steve was getting together his cast for the original Tonight show at the time, and Rayburn having burned his bridges behind him, joined up.
Rayburn has been with Allen since and his life has been one round of disappointments and bad breaks.
FIRST OFF, IN 1955, he came down with hepatitis and was bedridden for 16 weeks. “I’m an expert on this disease,” he said solemnly. “I read every piece of literature on it.
“The thing that broke my heart is that I got sick just when Steve and the others went to California for 10 weeks. That was when Steve did ‘The Benny Goodman Story.’”
Rayburn got to California the following year but he did it the hard way. He broke a leg skiing. “Plaster cast and all, I went this time,” he said.
Although Gene was an important cog in the Tonight show, when Allen shifted over to Sunday nights exclusively he found himself with less and less to do. Occasionally he would get into a man-on-the-street sketch but usually he was concerned merely with getting the show on and off the air.
THEN GENE BECAME “the voice of Pontiac.” He was visualizing a future filled with security a la Bill Lundigan [who was the on-camera endorser for Chrysler] and Betty Furness [same for Westinghouse] when Pontiac decided the next season to get out of television.
“This fouled me up, but good,” Rayburn recalled. “I thought I had a good chance to become Buick’s announcer but somebody mentioned that ‘product association’ business. I’m dead as a car announcer for five or six years, until they forget I ever sold Pontiacs.”
Gene was never lower in spirit when NBC finally came through with the show of his own it had promised him four years before. Both the Home show and Arlene Francis had failed to hold an audience in the mid-morning period and the network decided to try a quiz program in this time.
The program is Dough Re Mi, a giveaway devised by Jack Barry and Dan Enright. Inasmuch as this team was responsible for both Tic Tac Dough and Twenty-One, two of television’s most successful quiz shows, no one can blame Rayburn associating himself with Dough Re Mi. But I, for one, can commiserate with him over the long hot Summer ahead. If the show lasts that long.
If you haven’t seen the program, it is a rather uncomplicated affair built around the old game of spotting tunes from a few notes. Three contestants bid for the right to guess a song’s identity with $100, $300 and $500 riding on the answers. If this sounds like a dull outing, it is.
IT SEEMS EXTREMELY doubtful that this show will do anything for Rayburn. Although Gene fancies himself as a comedian, he hasn’t shown any inclination to Dough Re Mi as a springboard for larger things in that direction. He apparently visualizes his assignment as keeping the contestants at ease and the game moving along pleasantly and expeditiously as possible.
While this is sufficient for the quiz show which has either (a) a lot of money to give away, or (b) exceptional personalities among its contestants. Dough Re Mi has neither. I’d like to see Gene take advantage of his hard-won position and strike out boldly to establish the show as one in which the quiz-master is more important than the quiz. He has nothing to lose. And he might attract the attention has sought these four long years.

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In a way, Rayburn kind of accomplished that last paragraph. In the ’70s incarnation of “The Match Game,” the game was pretty much secondary—but not to Rayburn, as he steadily held the show together. The six stars were more important than the contest.

Here’s a little more background on Rayburn from a piece found in the Jamestown Post-Journal of July 2, 1960. “The Match Game” hadn’t come along yet, and neither had “Bye Bye Birdie.”

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Top TV Personality
Gene Rayburn Does Unexpected


Early morning risers in the 40's will never forget me zany skits and humorous chit-chat with which they were greeted by radio's "Jack and Gene" show which later became the "Rayburn and Finch." The guiding light behind these shows' almost unlimited store of humor was Gene Rayburn. Not only the public but the entire entertainment world was amazed at the inexhaustible material which made up the daily format of the show. It was a program unique for its time.
This radio show also known as "Anything Goes" proved an excellent stepping stone for Gene Rayburn. As star of "Dough Re Mi" on NBC-TV (Monday through Friday 10 A.M. EDT), viewers and contestants alike have become prepared to expect anything to happen.
On Labor Day of last year, "Dough Re Mi" opened with the announcement that, because of the holiday, there would be no show. Viewers then saw the staff scurrying away, cameramen removing lenses from cameras, and the studio lights dimming.
Though the idea for this gag opening came just before air time, everyone connected with the program quickly got into the spirit of things for the unexpected is to be expected on this informal musical quiz show.
Gene has a lot to do with the surprises and humor that mark the program. Almost all the comedy results from Gene's spontaneous and inventive ideas. Undoubtedly, his varied background and comic talents contribute much to his ability to guide the show through these impromptu moments.
Gene was born in the town of Christopher, in the southern part of Illinois, but grew up in Chicago where his family moved when he was still an infant. He attended grammar school and Lindbloom High School there before entering Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. He left college after his freshman year to come to New York where he was hired as a page by NBC.
Between guide tours, he attended the network's announcing school where out-of-town station mangers hired young men aspiring to careers in radio. He soon landed his first announcing job. It was with WGNY in Newburgh, N.Y., where he remained for a year and a half. He then moved to WITH, Baltimore, and later to WFIL, Philadelphia, finally returning to New York, 1942, to work at WNEW. He stayed there until enlisting in the Air Force.
After the war Gene returned to WNEW and started a morning radio program that was to be an important springboard in his career. His first partner was Jack Lescoulie, and they billed themselves as "Jack and Gene." When Lescoulie quit to go to another station, Gene teamed up with Dee Finch and became known as "Rayburn and Finch." The show lasted more than five years, until 1952, when Gene joined NBC, where he has worked continuously ever since. First, WRCA (then WNBC) gave him his own radio program, and two years later he joined Steve Allen on the latter's local television show. He continued with Steve Allen on the NBC-TV Network's "Tonight" and then on the Sunday evening "Steve Allen Show." He has been the Star of "Dough Re Mi" since it premiered Feb. 24, 1958.
Gene's other TV appearances have been on panel shows and in dramatic roles on "Robert Montgomery Presents," "Kraft Theater" and other series.
"When I did 'The Man Who Vanished' on 'Robert Montgomery Presents,' I developed a real thirst for dramatic acting, and I haven't lost it I am extremely anxious to do a play on Broadway."
He also has done extensive Summer Stock work, including appearances in "Seven Year Itch" and 'Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" Last summer he broke all records at the Buck's County (Pa.) Playhouse where he starred in "Who Was That Lady I Saw You With?"

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Despite Rayburn’s hope for a stage career, he was convinced to accept the host’s job on “The Match Game,” which debuted December 31, 1962. The celebrities were NBC stalwarts Arlene Francis and Skitch Henderson on the first week, Sally Ann Howes and Abe Burrows on the second, and Peggy Cass and Peter Lind Hayes on the third. Rick DuBrow of UPI reviewed the opener. His column of January 3, 1962 containing this sting:
NBC-TV this week is initiating a new daytime quiz show, "The Match Game," in which panel teams try to write the same answer to questions by the host, Gene Rayburn. The original match game, which requires only a book of matches and a cozy tavern, was taught to me in Gus' Pub in Chicago, and I can assure you it is more pleasant. The new show is dreadful, geared for incredible simpletons and the screaming ninnies in the studio audience. Wednesday, a panelist could not think of a city in Asia. A guest, Arlene Francis, thereupon named Viet Nam as a city.
If DuBrow was cringing over the studio seat warmers in the sedate 1960s version (questions were of the “Name a state that begins with the letter I” variety), one can only imagine what he thought of the frenzied audience of the 1970s (answers included “tinkle,” “boobs” and, on at least two occasions, made veiled references to Charles Nelson Reilly’s sexual orientation).

I quite liked the original show (especially the great theme, “A Swingin’ Safari”) and was a little disappointed when the new one came on in 1973 because it wasn’t really the same. However the celebrities jelled, and I don’t think any game show has provided more laughs than the re-born Match Game. It’s something I’m sure Rayburn was proud of. But I still get the idea he kept hoping for a phone call to return to the stage, and sing and dance with a Birdie.


  1. Gene was also back doing radio for NBC on their weekend "Monitor" show when the network was running the original "Match Game". The Monitor tribute page has an early 1964 show up done by Gene and marking George Burns' birthday.

  2. Back in 1997, The Game Show Network, was showing old shows on Sunday evenings called “Sunday night in black and white.” The programs varied from week to week. One of those shows was a children’s game show called “Choose Up Sides”, where two teams of kids perform “Beat the Clock” type stunts to win prizes. The host was a young Gene Rayburn.

  3. while working for WNYW-TV (previously WNEW and WABD) in 1989-91, I would see Gene Rayburn from time to time buying fruit at the deli/grocery on the corner of 67th and 3rd ave-seemingly not recognized by anyone else!