Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Second Wittiest Man

Bill Cullen is my favourite game show host. He always had some little asides for the audience that were more like funny observations than someone trying to yuck it up. He deserves as much credit as anyone for the huge success in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s of The Price is Right (especially considering the show managed to live through the quiz show scandal). Groucho Marx famously called him “the second wittiest man on the air.”

However, I must admit that even though I’m a fan of Cullen, I’ve never really wondered about his opinion of potato chips, monkeys, life insurance and/or after-shave lotion. However, if you have, then this post is for you. It’s from the November 1958 edition of the Radio-TV Mirror (cover photo to the right). The fluffy fan magazine asked him about all those things, along with quiz shows (the scandal hadn’t broken when the article saw print) and guns.

Along for the ride was his second wife, Ann, whose sister was married to game show host Jack Narz. The photos you see accompanied the article.

Right or Wrong—This is CULLEN
Bill and his wife Anne have no secrets when it comes to airing their honest but surprising opinions on everything from programs to people
This is Bill Cullen "in the raw" — mentally. In the past ten years, many stories have been written about Bill as an emcee, husband, pilot and hobbyist extraordinary. This piece, however, is concerned with his opinions and ideas on such diverse people and things as potato chips, Godfrey, diets, after-shave lotion, Picasso, monkeys, love, Brigitte Bardot and many an unrelated subject. Bill is sharp. Groucho Marx called him the second wittiest man on the air. (You know who was first.) Bill's wit derives from a blistering curiosity and intelligent sensitivity.
The interview took place in his apartment, a couple of hundred feet above Manhattan's East River Drive. The scenery was beautiful. On one hand, through the picture window there was the metallic sweep of the East River. On the other, there was Bill's picture-pretty wife, Anne, who was invited to chime in with her comments on the following subjects:
Cocktail Parties. Bill: "Hate them. Never go." Anne: "I don't like them. Especially the big ones."
Children. Anne: "Well, I like them, but I don't have to have children to fulfill myself. I think Bill would make a marvelous father." Bill: "I think I'm almost too old to have them. I'm thirty- eight. Actually, I suppose I'm afraid of children under fourteen. I never know when they're going to haul off and kick me. And they're so unwieldy and noisy. To me, children are just cocktail parties without cocktails."
Diets. Bill: "I just go on eating what I like until my trousers get tight and then I diet. Dieting for me is simply knocking off bread, potatoes, spaghetti and such. Anne is lucky. She can eat anything and she never gets fat." (No comment from Anne.)
Ed Sullivan. Bill: "I always thought he was a good emcee. But, as the years have worn on, I'm firmly convinced he's a great one. He doesn't get on camera too much, doesn't get into acts, and he wears well. Besides, in my personal contacts, I've learned that he is a delightful man and very loyal."
Elfrida Von Nardroff. Anne: "I never watched her." Bill: "I never watch a quiz show that has questions over my head. It would ruin my vanity. But the Barry-Enright office is a very good office and I congratulate them on their success with Twenty One."
Extroverts. Bill: "Not for me, and I'm not one. The first argument Anne and I had was the night we met. She thought I was an extrovert! On the show, I'm paid to do a job. But, outside of that, I like a quiet, lonely existence. That's the truth."
Poker. Bill: "I like to play for an hour or two, but not penny ante. I don't think it's a game unless you're playing up to the point where you can afford it — and that frightens me now. I hate to lose. But, when I play for money, I don't get any great satisfaction out of winning. Can't help wondering how much it hurts the other fellow."
Jerry Lee Lewis. Bill: "I think he ought to pick on someone his own size."
Rock & Roll. Bill: "I'm not a rock 'n' roll fan. I'm not young enough to be savage. When I hear the beat, I don't want to get up and dance. I just feel like going to sleep."
Quiz Shows. Bill: "A good quiz show is a good show, and that's why a good one can go on for years. But there are too many imitations of the good formats and I think that's the problem today. The imitations hurt the good ones. So far as The Price Is Right is concerned, I'm particularly happy with the format. Basically, it's a good idea. We are not dependent on the popularity of any one contestant and have seldom had the same person on more than four or five times — and usually that has been on the daytime show. The game is the important thing."
Suspenders and Avocados. Anne: "I love avocados. Hate suspenders." Bill: Avocados are fattening. If you eat them, you've got to wear suspenders. I don't like either."
Funny Anecdotes. Bill: "I can't remember them. I don't feel funny these days. I'm serious. I have no desire to be a comedian or humorist. I'm sorry atomic energy was ever developed as such. I'm afraid that if one bomb gets into the wrong hands, it's goodbye-George. A terrible thing. Frightens me every time I see one in a newsreel. I truly, literally, get sick."
Godfrey. Bill: "I haven't been in touch with him in so long. When I worked with him, I found him easy to work with, good to work with. He hasn't hurt the world, nor has he given humanity any great gift. But he is very definitely a great performer. I think he will go on successfully for years."
Sack Dresses. Bill: "I like them." Anne: "I don't." Bill: "I hated them at first, but now I find them attractive. Besides, the skirts are shorter and I've always been inclined toward good legs." Anne: "The trapeze is horrible." Bill: "That I go along with."
Love. Anne: "I think it's wonderful. I'm in love and I enjoy it." Bill: "I think ninety percent of the people who say they're in love don't know what it means.
For some, it describes a need or a pleasant association or a convenience — and so they say, 'Well, I'm in love.' Most of them don't know whether they are or not. To me, love means something akin to worship or awe. No matter what a person does, no matter how vicious, you go along with him or her. It's selfless, all-giving. Like the old blues song the woman sings about the guy who left her, went off with another woman, got in jail, but she doesn't care so long as he comes back. Well, maybe I'm cynical, but that's the way I think it should be." Anne: "I don't feel that strong. If that were true, I don't think people would fall in love."
Horses. Bill: "I'm deathly afraid of them." Anne: "Bill gets nervous if he's watching a TV western and the cowboy walks by the hindquarters of a horse." Bill: "I never rode, because of my leg. But I think they are beautiful animals. Only cats are more beautiful."
Potato Chips. Anne: "I can take them or leave them." Bill: "All my life, I've loved potato chips. When I was a kid, I used to sit in the mohair chair listening to the radio and go through a half-pound bag of 'em every night. I was thin and the doctor told my parents I could eat all I wanted."
Brigitte Bardot. Bill: "I've never seen her except in stills. I personally think she's terribly over-rated, because I don't lean toward the animal or purely physical in women. In other words, the overwhelming optical effect. I think a woman should be pleasing in looks. If Anne hadn't been goodlooking, we would never have met — because I wouldn't have got talking to her, in the first place."
Shopping. Anne: "I like to shop." Bill: "I've changed. Used to be that, whenever I passed a store, I had to buy something. I couldn't go in for a new shirt that I didn't order a dozen — plus a gross of socks. But a couple of years back, when I found myself without a cent in the bank, I did an about-face. Now I think twice before I buy anything. I don't feel right if I don't put something in the savings account every week."
Cold Showers. Bill: "Anne can take them, but they're not for me. I cool down to tepid and jump out. I get a chill just watching other guys in a cold shower."
Picasso. Bill: "Love his work. We're collecting paintings, but only originals — so Picasso is out of our reach. Just can't afford him. But he's strong and makes you think." Anne: "I'd rather live with Matisse, because he's made more concessions to the viewer in terms of visual beauty." Bill: "Paintings are our hobby. Anne is a painter, and I've always been interested in colors and form. We have a routine on Saturday. Before dinner, we visit two or three galleries. We've gathered a fine collection of sculpture and paintings, but we have a rule — we don't buy anything unless we like it personally."
Frank Sinatra. Bill: "I think he's the greatest popular singer of our age." Anne: "I agree."
Guns. Anne: "I'm not afraid of them." Bill: "You can't outlaw them. If there were no guns, there would be more poison darts and more stabbings. You can't blame guns for the state of humanity. A gun in wrong hands is a dangerous instrument, but the wrong hands will always find something comparably bad."
Opera. Bill: "I like the corny ones like 'Madame Butterfly' and 'Carmen.' Wagner is too heavy for me. But Anne has a better understanding of serious music. Her father is a successful musician-composer." Anne: "But, still, I go mostly for light operas, too."
Surprise Parties. Bill: "I hate them. If anyone gave me a surprise party, I would be angry. I don't like to be given anything. I don't know what to say. It's easier for me to give than receive. Not more blessed, but easier. I don't know what it stems from, but presents bug me." Anne: "I love surprise parties. Bill gave me one on my last birthday. A real surprise. We'd often watched the sightseeing boats that go around Manhattan, and that's where Bill gathered my friends. It was a complete surprise and just wonderful."
Dogs. Bill: "That was one of our reasons in looking for a place in the country. Anne likes boxers and I like police dogs — so we compromised on French poodles. But it's never got beyond the talking stage, because we don't think it's fair to have dogs in the city. We're putting it off until we have a house."
Retirement. Anne: "I'd like a house in California with our own little swimming pool and enough closets for Bill's hobbies." Bill: "I'd like to 'semi-work.' Do one show a week and write the rest of the time. But I've been burned so often. I mean, when it comes to plans. Mostly my own fault. Due to mishandling of money. But it would be nice, even if just for a year, to do only one program a week. I could use the rest."
Bikinis. Bill: "I dig them the most — so long as Anne isn't wearing one. I'd like a law that all other attractive girls had to wear them. I'm a sun bug, you know, but wouldn't wear one myself. I've gotten soft over the years." Anne: "I love them. When we were house -shopping, I kept looking for pools or patios that were hidden by walls so I could wear a bikini."
Soap Operas. Anne: "Hate them." Bill: "All my life, I said that I didn't like them. But I'll tell you, if one came on now, I'd get involved and listen for two weeks. When I first came to New York, I used to turn on the radio and listen to programs like Snow Village and When A Girl Marries, and I found myself following the plots. Too often, people belittle them because 'it's the smart thing to do.' "
Do-It-Yourself Projects. Anne: "I think they're ruining people's imagination. I'm thinking of those painting sets where you draw by the numbers. However, if they lead people to work on their own eventually, then they're doing some good." Bill: "I love it for people who buy a house with their last dollar and have to finish off a room or attic themselves. But I can't drive a nail. If I had to have a bookcase and couldn't afford one, there's no two ways about it. I'd just roll up my sleeves and ask Anne to make it."
Monkeys. Anne: "I can't stand them. Too close to humans. They frighten me." Bill: "They always remind Anne of unfortunate humans. They remind me of fortunate animals. I can watch them all day. I think they're the world's greatest comics. Sometimes I like to stand back where I can't see the monkeys and watch the people. They're great, too."
After-Shave Lotion. Bill: "You bet." Anne: "I buy it for him by the quart."
Beethoven. Bill: "Great, and him I understand. A moving giant of a man — though I don't like quartets."
Compromise. Bill: "Very important word. Anne and I have unconsciously compromised — but we don't call it that. For me, Anne is the greatest woman in the world, so I find myself enjoying her to the utmost and saying to myself, That's fine. Now do something in return. But we don't compromise, in the common meaning. I once read that compromise may be, 'If you give up golf, I'll give up tennis.' That's not my idea. Too much like politics. I think that's bad." Anne: "People who are different have to compromise. But I agree with Bill. If you're conscious of it — if you have to 'trade' — that's bad."
Spaghetti. Bill: "Love it. And Anne's a wonderful cook." Anne: "Bill makes better spaghetti than I do." Bill: "Oh, no." Anne: "Oh, yes." Bill: "Anyway, I'm now experting on cheese souffles. About four years ago, I made friends with a chef who took me back into the kitchen and taught me. Well, the bugaboo in making a souffle is the fear that it will 'fall.' It won't, if you have confidence. The chef taught me something important — the only thing we must fear in making a souffle is fear itself."
Life Insurance. Bill: "Firm believer in it. I always feel if anything happened to me, I want Anne to be taken care of."
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Anne: "He better not." Bill: "I never have. That's a funny thing. All my life, I've been attracted to brunettes."
Books. Bill: "Sorry to say, my reading is dead. The shows have been devouring me.
Television. Anne: "I like it. I think you can get too involved with it. Sometimes you find yourself looking at terrible shows. However, Bill and I watch a lot of TV." Bill: "In the entertainment world, I think it's the most important thing that has happened in the century. I love sports and, consequently, watch ball games. When it comes to other programming, I think television has its moments. The trouble is with producers who imitate and follow suit. There are too many quiz shows and too many Westerns.
"I think," Bill concludes, "we have the right to expect at least as much from television as we got from radio. When I was at CBS Radio, there were Norman Corwin and the Columbia Workshop. And there were other such exciting shows on the other networks. Right now, I can't think of anything on television that is comparable to what was the best on radio. But it's not all the producers' fault. The recession talk is partly responsible. Sponsors insist on getting as many viewers per dollar as possible, because they want to move their products. When the sponsor doesn't feel so hard pressed, he gives the producer more freedom.
"At first, television dictated to the public. Now the public — with its seeming demand for quizzes and Westerns — is dictating to television. Obviously, a happy medium would be best for all."


  1. Many game shows of that era (WHAT'S MY LINE, I'VE GOT A SECRET, TO TELL THE TRUTH...) were populated by a unique array of "celebrity" panelists: Bright, clever intellectuals who made being smart look so damn cool! Bill Cullen was one the coolest!

  2. What's worth noting, too:

    In the early 1970's, Bill Cullen would do a Sunday-evening slot on NBC Radio's legendary weekend anthology show Monitor ... an example thereof, from 16 May 1971, being available for your listening pleasure here thanks to The Monitor Tribute Page.

  3. Bill was 'conversational' in that while hosting The Price Is Right or other shows, he wasn't manically focused on the game itself to the point that nothing else entered the conversation for that half hour.

    The Goodson-Todman New York-based game shows of the 50s and 60s tended to be like that, whether it was Cullen on "Price", John Charles Daly on "What's My Line" or Bud Collyer on "To Tell the Truth" -- even Gene Rayburn on the 60s/New York version of "Match Game" was a far different Gene Rayburn than the one who'd do the 70s version out of Los Angeles. I was disappointed Cullen wasn't the host of the revamped "Price is Right" when it reappeared, but given the new format and Bill's limited mobility, you can see why they picked Bob Barker for the job.

  4. If I may, Bill Cullen provided Mel Brooks with his "most embarrassing moment." Mel retells it here:

  5. There's a great biography on Mr. Cullen called Quizmaster. Very detailed and contains a lot of photos that I had never seen.