Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Time To Stump the Experts

Information Please was, in a way, the Jeopardy! of the network radio era. It was a question-and-answer programme that aspired to be not low-brow. There was no Bert Parks screeching “STOP THE MUSIC!” There were no screaming studio audience members yelling at a wheel being spun.

The main difference between the two is, instead of three ordinary-folk contestants, Information Please relied on four erudite intellectuals to respond correctly, with dry wit if at all possible.

Frankly, I find the programme dull, despite the presence of a usually-amusing Oscar Levant. Evidently, I’m in the minority as the quiz lasted 13 years on radio and got a brief run on television.

The Herald Tribune syndicate’s John Crosby analysed the show in his column of October 8, 1946. He gets in a shot at a stupid contestant on another quizzer as he explained the problems attracting an audience for radio guessing games.

Interestingly, the New York Herald Tribune version of the story talked about Mobiloil sponsoring the show. The Ottawa Journal’s copy says Texaco. I thought this might be because Canada never had Mobil stations but I see papers in Greenfield, Mass. and Dayton, Ohio also say “Texaco.” The Oakland Tribune reads “an oil company.” I’ve used “Texaco” here.

Information, Please Returns

NEW YORK, Oct 8.— "Information, Please" is back on the air again after a summer recess and the opening program demonstrated it's still the most intelligent quiz show on the air and its badinage the most literate on the air (C.B.S., 10:30 p. m., Wednesdays). Clifton Fadiman, who possesses possibly the most cultivated voice in radio, is still in there pitching them and Franklin P. Adams and John Kieran, assisted by a couple of guests, are still in there catching them, or most of them. Guest stars on the opening program were Fred Allen and Oscar Levant, a couple of sharpies from other branches of the amusement industry.
The great problem on a quiz show is to select questions which are hard enough to stimulate the average listener and not so difficult that they simply bewilder him. "The Quiz Kids", who throw around square roots of six-figure numbers like tennis balls, are so far ahead of most listeners that their program is less a quiz contest than a stunt like a dancing bear act. It's fun to watch but impossible to take much part in. The questions on most quiz programs are ridiculously easy, as is exemplified by the following sample—taken verbatim from "Allan Prescott’s Party (A.B.C., 5 p.m., Sundays).
"What author said the report of his death was greatly exaggerated?"
"It wasn't William Shakespeare, was it?"
"No, it wasn't.”
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"Information, Please" steers a sharp course between extremely difficult and too easy questions. Its puzzles are literate, thought-provoking, and fun to guess at even when you guess wrong. Here are a few of them from the opening program, the answers to which you’ll find at the end of the column:
1. Why would the following persons be of value to the Dodgers? , (The pennant race hadn't been decided then.) (a) Two Headed Grogan. (b) Dick Merriwell. 2. You lift an object with your left hand while the index finger of the right hand performs seven arc-like motions. What are you doing?
3. Name the poems in which three successive lines begin with the word "she".
4. Identify the member of the partnership who (a) did the painting in the Currier and Ives team, (b) is the Senator in the Smith-Connally team, (c) was the straight man in the Moran and Mack team.
5. Name three lines of poetry which suggest horse racing.
6. Name two fictional characters whose lives were considerably altered by reading.
While you’re mulling over those, here is a conundrum which came close to sinking the "Information, Please" experts this Summer. During the war "Information Please" parted company with the American Tobacco Company. The Texaco Company took over the sponsorship at the old hour on N.B.C. (9:30 p.m. Mondays).
At the end of last season, Texaco dropped its sponsorship and this season came up with a new program, the Victor Borge show. "Information, Please" had little trouble finding a new sponsor but suddenly discovered that its old spot was now owned by Texaco. As a matter of fact, the program had great difficulty finding any evening time on the air. Its switch from N.B.C. to C.B.S. will do it little harm but the new time, 10.30 p.m., is too late for many school children who used to listen to the program as part of their homework and also, at least in the East, for many adults who prefer music to quizzes at that hour.
Many other media, notably this newspaper, are supported by advertising, but no other media, with the possible exception of sky-writing, is so completely controlled by advertising. Suppose a newspaper were run on the same basis, as broadcasting. Let us say Walter Lippmann, who usually occupies either the split or editorial pages of the many newspapers he appears in, were sponsored by Proctor & Gamble. Suddenly the sponsor decided that a comic strip, say "Superman," would sell more soap than a political columnist and dropped Mr. Lippmann. The sponsor could then insist that "Superman" occupy the same coveted spot in the paper formerly occupied by Mr. Lippmann's column. No newspaper publisher would put up with it, but the broadcasters accept such a pushing around as a matter of course.
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The answers to those questions:
1. (a) He was the two-headed pitcher of "Duffy's Tavern" who could watch both first and third at the same time. (b) He was the mythical pitcher whose curve broke both ways in the same pitch.
2. Dialing a telephone. (The experts missed it).
3. Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written In a Country Churchyard." ("The curfew tolls the knell of parting day. The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea. The plowman homeward plods his weary way.") (b) “Only a bird in a Gilded Cage.”
4. (a) Ives, (b) Connally, (c) Moran.
5. The experts got a little kittenish on this one. Fred Allen suggested two of them: "I pass by your window." (The two-dollar window) and "Mademoiselle From Armentieres, Parley-vous?" Mr. Fadiman suggested "Life is full of Epsom Downs."
6. (a) Don Quixote, whose reading about chivalry set him to tilting windmills. (b) The heroine in the play "Born Yesterday" who read "The New Republic" and became a new woman.

As for the other Crosby columns of the week, on October 7th he looked at Paul Whiteman’s live music show on ABC. Before the end of the ‘40s, the band disappeared and Whiteman played records. Crosby also complains about the repetitiveness of Jack Benny’s show.

On October 9th, he runs through the highlights of a live-to-tape broadcast of a union meeting aired on the Mutual flagship, WOR. It’s actually not “tape.” It’s from a wire recorder, a portable pack that vanished when tape machines became practical to use on the beat. He also takes about the precursor of a clap on/clap off machine that works (based on guesswork) on radios, as well as a new programme in Britain.

The October 10th column gives some Hot-cha-cha! cheers for the Durante-Moore season premiere. We transcribed that review in this post.

Finally, CBS shows starring Dinah Shore and Hildegarde are reviewed on October 11th. Dinah has Peter Lind Hayes as her comic assistant this season and is sponsored by your Ford-Mercury dealers. Crosby gets a little shot in about the Confederacy. He also looks at Hildegarde’s new show for Campbell Soup and wonders when someone will give Tallulah Bankhead her own show. All in good time, Mr. Crosby. She didn’t just get her own show. She got the Big Show. Click on them to enlarge them.

1 comment:

  1. From the "Is That Really the Most Productive Thing You Can Find to Do at Work?" Dept.:

    A reference book I've got identifies INFORMATION, PLEASE sponsors as Canada Dry (1938-40), Lucky Strike (1940-43), Heinz (1943-45), Mobil (1945-46), and Parker Pens (1946-47). Thereafter sustaining. (Which is something about radio that has always fascinated me, That a series could occupy a half-hour of expensive network air time with no trace of sponsorship anywhere. The network itself picked up the tab, Some shows ran as sustainers for years. You certainly don't see those on television.)

    Maybe Texaco butted heads with INFORMATION, PLEASE creator-producer Dan Golenpaul and bowed out early. Golenpaul had a reputation for being very intolerant of sponsor interference, demanding that they pay the bills but otherwise keep their nose out of his show.

    I like INFORMATION, PLEASE. It amuses me. It's also the only show I know of where you were going to hear Jimmy Durante, whose comic persona was of a man barely literate, reciting Shakespeare from memory. INFORMATION, PLEASE could surprise listeners that way. It must have thrown a few to hear someone like Gracie Allen on IP, stepping away from the her "Dumb Dora" persona and proving herself a rather knowledgeable woman.