Wednesday 9 December 2015

The Show That Was Bigger Than a Breadbox

Television had three different kinds of game shows in the ‘50s. There was the stunt show, like Beat the Clock or Truth or Consequences where contestants had to accomplish something silly or embarrassing to win something. There was the giveaway show, like Stop the Music or Break the Bank, where a host, either hyper or perma-smiling (or in the case of Bert Parks, both) had cash or prizes galore for the contestant with the correct answer. And then there was the parlour game, where celebrities would try to guess something about a guest—a name, occupation, secret, etc.

The latter were deemed the elite of game shows. No tawdry exploits while the audience screamed. No screeching and phoney dramatics by the host. No, the parlour games were much more refined and tasteful. And sophisticated. The celebrities came dressed in evening wear on the night-time shows.

The Goodson-Todman empire specialised in these kinds of programmes. Mark Goodson and Bill Todman both started in radio, Goodson as an announcer and Todman as a salesman. Together something clicked. Their three best-known shows of the parlour variety from the early ‘50s are What’s My Line?, its clone I’ve Got a Secret and To Tell The Truth. To be honest, they hold up after 60 years and are entertaining today.

The first was What’s My Line and debuted on February 2, 1950. The premiere was a mess. The director was replaced and so were two of the four panelists. By year’s end, poet Louis Untermeyer and gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen were joined by people with broadcasting experience—radio hostess Arlene Francis and radio comedy writer Hal Block. And that’s when Times-Herald syndicate TV columnist John Crosby decided to review the show.

The air of the show wasn’t quite rarified enough for Crosby. His target wasn’t Block, finally fired from the programme for his suggestive (for the ‘50s) comments directed at contestants of the opposite sex. It was Kilgallen, who seemed to provoke programme moderator John Daly into testy tete-a-tetes with her on camera.

This column appeared in newspapers starting December 30, 1950.


One of the oldest of the gimmick programs, with which television it already over-loaded, is "What's My Line?" (CBS-TV 10:30 p. m. EST Sundays). This one puts a premium on nosiness other people's business, not normally considered a nice habit, but I must admit it makes a fairly entertaining program.
"What's My Line?" is a panel show in which the panelists are asked to determine someone's occupation, using the animal-vegetable-or-mineral approach. The regular crew consists of Dorothy Kilgallen, Louis Untermeyer, Arlene Francis, Hal Block and John Daly, the emcee. The casuals generally come from that pool of floating guests who appear on everyone's program, including their own—Ilka Chase, Wendy Barry, Abe Burrows, Betty Furness and the rest of them.
Everybody ready for the game now? Well, Mr. Daly introduces a lighthouse-keeper—they dig up some wonderfully unusual occupations—and, after the panelists inspect him briefly for watermarks, they fall to questioning him. "Do you work for a profit-making organization?" "Is your business affected by the water shortage?" "Do you take people out of the dark and into the light?"
Since both the studio audience and the home audience know the answer, there is a good deal of dramatic irony in many of the questions. A fingerprint expert for the police department was asked if his work made the people he was performing the service for happier. He said no. Well, does it make them better? This question was thrown out as unanswerable.
Sometimes the questions are cutting, frequently unnecessarily so, especially when they come from Miss Kilgallen who appears to bear a grudge against all the guests. One of the mystery guests was a tall well-built woman with long earrings named Mrs. Linda Stone. From Miss Kilgallen: "I think she's a straight woman in a burlesque house in West New York, New Jersey"— a remark that embarrassed even me. Later Miss Kilgallen asked the same woman: "Are you able to handle many customers?," followed by "Do you work at night? Mrs. Stone, it developed, was a housewife.
Another guest of innocuous appearance turned out to be a sportswriter. "A writer?" shrieked Miss Kilgallen, incredulously. "On what paper?" The man worked on the "Journal-American," Miss Kilgallen's own paper, and went on to inform her that she passed his desk nearly every day.
Each program also boasts a mystery celebrity and during this part of the questioning the panelists are blindfolded. The mystery celebrities have included Elliott Roosevelt, Gypsy Rose Lee, Dizzy Dean and Ed Sullivan. While groping around for their identities, the panelists commit some pretty funny gaffes. When it was determined that Ed Sullivan had his own television show, Mr. Block asked him if he were funny. Mr. Sullivan sighed and said no. "You've got your own show on television and you're not funny?" remarked Block incredulously. Miss Lee was asked if she were famous for being well-dressed. Mr. Roosevelt was asked if he were a Republican. "No," said Mr. R. "I detect a touch of Harvard in that voice," muttered Mr. Block.
Dizzy Dean, who has gained considerable fame for manhandling the English language, not all of it deserved, proved to be a very tractable, well-spoken mystery celebrity on the show. When someone suggested he was Dizzy Dean, Miss Kilgallen gasped: "Oh, it can't be! He sounds too intelligent!" Old Diz has been accused of a lot of things but lack of intelligence isn't one of them. Miss Kilgallen later apologized.

If the audience detected anything unlikeable about Kilgallen, it didn’t care. What’s My Line? carried on every Sunday night until 1967, and then a syndicated version (decidedly more daytime looking) hit the airwaves for another seven years. The show brought the question “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” into popularity. The answer could have been the show itself.


  1. In the early days of the show, producer Gil Fates would suggest to the panelists (particularly the funny ones like Block) certain questions that he thought would get laughs. Some of the ones Crosby cited sound like they could have been these so-called "gambit" questions. Although this practice wasn't technically cheating, it was discontinued when the quiz show scandals erupted.

  2. Wasn't there a later scandal involving Ms. Kilgallen somehow manipulating the mask she wore during the "Mystery Guest" segment as allowed her to identify same all the sooner, eventually forcing her off the panel?

    1. Not that I recall. She was on the show up until several days before she died.

    2. Actually, she was on the show until the day (or the day before) she died. She appeared on the Nov. 7, 1965, episode and was found dead the next morning.