Wednesday 1 January 2014

A Look Back at What's My Line

To your right you see a great caricature of the regulars of “What’s My Line?” that appeared in The Press-Courier of Oxnard, California on February 29, 1964 (the contestant’s “line” is “space creature”). Having stumbled on this, I thought I’d pass on the article accompanying it.

The show’s executive producer, Gil Fates, wrote the definitive history of the show, which began with an extremely awkward broadcast on February 2, 1950. A new director was brought in immediately and after a bit of a revolving door with panelists, things settled down for a long run on CBS.

This article in the Press-Courier is a look-back at the show. Not everything, of course. Louis Untermeyer’s departure due to the blacklist isn’t mentioned, nor is the firing of Hal Block for behaving like the bad boy at a Park Avenue cocktail party (Block would later be convicted twice for drunk driving). But it would have to do until Fates’ book in 1978.


Every Sunday, an estimated 14,000,000 Americans, minimum, will watch “What’s My Line?” They always have—almost ever since this oldest of television panel shows made its unsponsored debut as an alternate-week program on CBS, Feb. 2, 1950.
Untold other millions also will watch “What’s My Line?” this week overseas, where it is licensed in more than a dozen countries.
Chinese, on Formosa, listen to “Line” on radio, and presumably try to guess such occupations as coolie, rickshaw boy and kite flyer.
“Line,” because its home audience remains as loyal as John Daly, Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf and Arlene Francis, invariably outdraws the opposition. In longevity, “Line” plays second fiddle on CBS only to “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Ed preceded “Line” by 17 months, having premiered in June of 1948.
If it is true, as someone has said—wasn’t it Fred Allen?—that Ed Sullivan will be around as long as other people have talent, then it’s equally reasonable to supposed that “What’s My Line?” will continue to please as long as there are contestants with interesting occupations.
The future, however, wasn’t always so rosy.
In fact, on the night the show premiered back in 1950, “Line” creators Mark Goodson and Bill Todman paced the floor like expectant fathers. “We weren’t really sure whether we had a hit or a miss,” Goodson recalls. “We figured somewhere in between.
“Good for 26 weeks sure. A year, hopefully, maybe two.
“But if anyone, that night, had walked up and offered to place a bet that the show would be on the air for FIVE YEARS—much less 15—we would have grabbed the wager at any odds.
“It’s funny,” Goodson says, “but the fateful day was a Wednesday, not a Sunday. “What’s My Line?” has been broadcast for so many years on Sundays now that it seems as if it were always that way.”
But no, it was a Wednesday that Goodson and Todman shared that opening night with John Daly, then as now the moderator; and three other celebrity panelists: former Governor Harold Hoffman of New Jersey, poet Louis Untermeyer, and Dr. Richard Hoffman, New York psychiatrist. Arlene Francis joined the panel on the second show and Bennett Cerf, puns and all, took his seat next to the ladies on May 13, 1951.
By its fourth performance, in March, 1950, “Line” was sponsored and since the fall of that year, viewers have been able to see the program every week.
Many changes—mostly minor—have been made over the years in the format of “What’s My Line?”
A major feature of the show remaining absolutely unchanged, however, is the amount of money awarded contestants.
“Taking inflation into consideration,” Mark Goodson says, “What’s My Line?” today gives away less than it did in 1950—when the top prize was, as now, $50.
“Over the years, all through the rise and fall of the big-money quizzes, we have felt proudly poor. Call it reverse snobbism, if you will. “But we’ve deliberately stuck to the original $50 prize, which—don’t forget—also happens to be a scoring technique.
“Some time ago, one of our sponsors wanted us to give $100 for each ‘No’ answer instead of $5. We said absolutely not.”
Despite the $50 tops awaiting contestants on “What’s My Line?” Goodson-Todman has had more trouble retaining authenticity on the show than on any of their other productions. That’s because so many people resort to hanky-panky to get on.
“Some would-be “Line” contestants,” Goodson reveals, “even have business cards printed listing a phony occupation. In every case we check back with their employers or the local newspapers. And often we find that a guy who claims to be a gold-miner actually runs a delicatessen!”
Any person appearing on “Line” must sign an affidavit that he is what he claims to be.
“Even so, we’ve been fooled at times,” Goodson says. “One we brought a lady wrestler on the show, only to discover at the last minute she had wrestled with nothing stronger than temptation in her life. Obviously, she had lost.”
The chief requirement for a guest on “Line” is that his occupation be interesting, humorous, or in contrast to his appearance. “But of course it must be real,” Goodson explains. “For a job to be authentic, a person must make his living that way.”
Authenticated panel puzzlers have ranged from chicken plucker to rainmaker, and include a little old lady who makes false teeth for cows, an oyster opener, a pickpocket and mother-and-son sword swallowers, a beautiful blonde leader of an all-girl orchestra and a lady Justice of the Peace.
There have been some 2,000 of ‘em including some recent contestants whose occupations weren’t even in existence when “Line” debuted in 1950.
In this group are director of the Peace Corps, secretary to the Project Mercury astronauts, designer of the Telestar satellite and the president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
The roster of mystery guests, meanwhile, still further reflects the changing times. Signers-in have numbered such au courant-at-the-time attractions as Senator Tobey, Madeleine Carroll, The Continental, Francis the Mule and Howdy Doody. There were any number of mystery guest couples who, today, wouldn’t even be caught writing on the same blackboard.
Among them: Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Vic Damone and Pier Angeli, Shelley Winters and Anthony Franciosa, Hope Lange and Don Murray and Dinah Shore and George Montgomery.
Since early in the its run, “What’s My Line?” has leaned heavily on show business for mystery guests. Says executive producer Gil Fates, “That’s because our guest has to be instantly recognizable.
“How many sports figures fit that category? Whose grandmother knows Y.A. Tittle?
“Phil Rizzuto was the mystery guest on our very first show—and even he remained a mystery to the panel. We’ve had many other similar experiences.”
Inevitably, Fates has many fond memories of “What’s My Line?” His favorite involves a viewer’s request for a kinescope of a show she had missed when she and her husband were out of the country on vacation.
The viewer was Mamie Eisenhower, then First Lady.
Also memorable was the night Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt came to the studio when her son, James, was a panelist. Mrs. Roosevelt was invited to watch the show from the control room, where the director asked everyone please not to cough.
Mrs. Roosevelt thought he had asked her to leave, and she did. Fates later discovered her standing and watching the show in the rear of the theater.
One night an elephant trainer tried to stump the panel. The panel failed to guess his identity, but not a viewer of the show, who recognized the man as a much-sought-after auto thief. An alerted FBI arrested him at the studio.
“He subsequently received his ‘What’s My Line?’ check,” quips Fates, “even if it was for ‘peanuts,’ in prison.”
Fates described one of his “most relished moments” as the one when the panel was fooled by a candlestick maker—right after a butcher and a baker had appeared.
“It was especially fun, because Bennett commented, ‘I bet the next guest will be a candlestick maker.’
“To this day, I don’t understand how the panel didn’t get that one. I guess it just proves the fallibility of the human mind.”
Mark Goodson says he’ll always remember when Ethel Waters was a mystery guest. Blindfolded, Dorothy Kilgallen asked the great Negro actress, “Are you a blonde?”
There was a sudden hushed silence in the studio audience. How would Daly and the panel get out of this potentially embarrassing situation? But Miss Waters merely beamed.
“Honey,” she called out, “have you made a big mistake!”
“Tension vanished,” Goodson remembers, “the audience roared with laughter, and the night was saved.”

1 comment:

  1. Correction …. Bennett Cerf’s first show was 10/15/1950…. He did become a permanent panelist in 1951