Every Sunday night at 10:30 PM, for as long as I can remember, my family watched. What's My Line? With one TV in our small apartment, there weren't many options. When my father wasn't at work, he chose the show our family would watch. What's My Line? premiered before I was born. Its first airing was on February 2, 1950, and finally was canceled, after 17 seasons, on September 2, 1967. In the early years, it was on after my bedtime anyway, so I didn't really care what was on TV. When I had the opportunity to join my parents when they watched, it seemed to be too adult for me anyway. I'm sure I said things like, "Can't we watch something that's not so boring?" Later, I had a portable TV in my bedroom, and I could choose my own shows. My choice was never What's My Line? however, with the perspective that adulthood brings, I wish I had the opportunity to replay those scenes in my life. Regardless, I wasn't their audience. Little did I know, but I would be the audience for a more exciting type of game show format of the future; it had just not been developed yet.
Originally produced by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman for CBS, the show was the longest-running prime time game show in the history of network TV. It was also (to date) the sixth longest-running game show of all time (following It's Academic, The Price Is Right, Wheel of Fortune, Hollywood Squares, Concentration, and Jeopardy!)
The show was simple. Host John (Charles) Daly, who was a well-known and successful radio personality who transitioned well to television, and four sophisticated panelists, dressed in tuxedos and gowns - some women even wore dress gloves - each getting a formal introduction, stepped onto the stage to play what I thought was a stodgy game of twenty questions. The goal was to guess the "line" or job of the contestants/guests as quickly as possible. By today's standards, quickly was very slow and no-tech. The celebrities asked a series of questions that required a yes or a no answer, and Daly flipped over cards if the question received a negative reply. If the answer was affirmative, the questioner continued his or her questioning until the "line" was identified or until the answer was no. Daly was the host, moderator, and often the judge when there was a problem with the questioning process. Each question was worth $5 with a maximum prize of $50. At the end of the show's long run, John Daly stated that the $50 maximum insured that What's My Line? was purely for enjoyment and nothing else. This also insured that What's My Line? remained unscathed during the height of the television quiz show scandals of the 1950s.
The show attempted to give an air of class and sophistication to itself. The guessing game was formal and the host, panel, and guests were polite and presented themselves with intelligence and restraint. The guests had to write their names on a small sign-in board. Daly would then introduce the guest using Miss, Mrs., or Mr.
The panelists had an air of sophistication as well. The first show's panel included former New Jersey governor Harold G. Hoffman, psychiatrist Dr. Richard Hoffman, columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, and poet Louis Untermeyer. Originally, actress Arlene Francis was scheduled for the first show, but she did not begin her long run with What's My Line? until the second show. Later panelists included comedy writer Hal Block and Random House publisher and humorist Bennett Cerf. When I watched the show, I didn't have a clue who these people were or why they were famous. They seemed like boring people who were on their way to a formal ball. Cerf, Kilgallen, and Francis remained as regular panelists through most of the show's existence. Block was replaced by writer, humorist, and entertainer Steve Allen in 1953, supposedly because of Block's embarrassing on-air behavior. (Allen's wife, Jayne Meadows, often sat in for Kilgallen and Francis when they had to miss an appearance.) Untemeyer was dismissed, supposedly because of his alleged affiliation with suspected socialist and communist organizations during the time of McCarthyism. In 1954, Steve Allen was replaced by Fred Allen, until Fred Allen died in 1956. Kilgallen died in 1965. After these deaths, the seats were not permanently filled, but guest panelists filled the spots. During the very long run of the show, John Daly only missed four appearances. His substitutes were Eamonn Andrews, who was the host of the British version of the show, Clifton Fadiman, and Bennett Cerf.
While primarily a game show, What's My Line? was also an opportunity for celebrities and people in the limelight to get their "fifteen minutes of fame" and to promote themselves, though it was done with the utmost of taste. On many occasions, the panelists would wear tasteful and attractive blindfolds during the regular contestant round to prevent the panel from getting clues from the contestant's costume. On other occasions, the guest would sign in as Mr. or Miss X to prevent the panel from recognizing a name that had been in the news.
Each airing had a Mystery Guest round. Initially Mystery Guests were referred to as Mystery Challengers, and with eighteen years of history, the list of these guests is quite extensive. Actors, comedians, politicians, writers, singers, athletes, wives of people on the panel, and people in the public eye appeared with the goal of getting a little bit of publicity. The panelists wore their blindfolds and the famous or nearly famous guests would alter their voices. A comprehensive list of celebrity contestants by date of appearance can be found at http://www.kinescopes.com/WML_cbs.html.
It is worth a look. Being a Mystery Guest was a highly sought after venture for celebrities at that time. Unknown to the public, mystery guests were paid $500 per appearance regardless of the outcome of the questioning This was in addition to their maximum $50 winnings. Guests often gave their winnings to charity. Guest panelists were originally paid $750 per appearance, and the regular panelists were under contract and received considerably more, according to the producer Gil Fates' 1978 book about the show.
On September 3, 1967, the original show aired for the last time. It was the 876th episode. The show was highlighted by clips from early telecasts, visits from the first contestants, and a final Mystery Guest: John Daly! From 1968 until 1975, What's My Line? returned in a daily syndicated format with different hosts and panel members. The show has had many renditions mimicking it since then including versions in Brazil, Korea, Venezuela, Germany, and Great Britain. It has had the basic format copied in more trendy formats with more technology added to the set, but none have matched the success or popularity of the original. It was even spoofed by Sesame Street in What's My Part? hosted by Guy Smiley. His Mystery Guests were a nose and a foot.
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