Friday, August 29, 2014

What's My Line? (Again)

While I enjoy my holiday weekend, here's a post from 2008.WHAT'S MY LINE is the greatest panel game show on TV ever. Sure the two other Goodson-Todman classics were TO TELL THE TRUTH - which had an awesome theme song (and the great Kitty Carlisle) and I'VE GOT A SECRET, which had the future Mrs. Pamela Vorhees (Betsy Palmer) on its panel- but WML?, which ran on CBS in primetime from 1950 through 1967 and in syndication from 1968 to 1975 is the granddaddy of all guessing games. THE MATCH GAME, which I love, is in a different category altogether.
Oddly I only discovered WML? only about 7 years ago when it was airing as part of the Game Show Network's vintage Sunday night line-up. I do kinda recall seeing the syndicated version when I was a kid, but it didn't really leave a great impression on me. Reruns of the B&W classics still air weeknights at 3AM on GSN and have been a fixture on my dvr for the most of the Bush years. I have now seen each episode at least three or times each - and I still cannot stop watching. It's "comfort TV" in a sea of loud, abrasive game shows that populate today's TV landscape.
The original version, for most of its run, aired LIVE weekly on Sunday nights from New York City with filmed playbacks airing a week later on the west coast. Hosted by honored ABC newsman John Charles Daly, the show was low on glitz, but big on smarts.
The game itself was simple - contestants came on and the four panel members tried to determine what they did for a living through a series of "yes" and "no" questions. The big prize of $50 was awarded to players who could stump the panel. A special feature, usually the third round of the evening, was a "mystery guest" who the panel would try to identify while blindfolded. These individuals were usually showbiz folks who had a movie or show to promote, but sometimes were politicians, athletes or newsmakers of the day. Fun!
The panelists changed little over the years. The main players were:
Broadway gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen - an uptight old-school conservative with a vicious determination to win the game. Miss Kilgallen was dubbed "the chinless wonder" by her nemesis Frank Sinatra and also co-hosted a radio chat show with her husband Dick Kollmar while carrying on a torrid affair with bisexual crooner Johnny Ray. Dorothy died suddenly of a drug overdose in 1965 while investigating the JFK assassination. Hmmm... An account of her life and death was published in 1979. A fictional account of her affair with Johnny Ray followed in 2002 and A film based on her story has recently been optioned. The lovely Arlene Francis was a Broadway and film actress and a daytime talk-show hostess. Her honest sweetness and delightful humor were a direct contrast to Dorothy's seemingly constant discomfort and stern, guarded personality. Arlene was also quite a fashionista, often dressed to the nines, while at sixes and sevens was Dorothy. Miss Francis was sheer class - but not a prude. Some of the show's sassiest double entendres came from her lips. Arlene appeared on the syndicated version into the 1970s. Miss Francis' memoirs were published in 1978, she passed away in 2001 at the age of 93."Is it bigger than a bread box?" came from the tirelessly witty and then uber-liberal Steve Allen, who was an early panelist, though he left to pursue other endeavors (like creating THE TONIGHT SHOW). His replacement was sourpuss comedian Fred Allen (no relation) who sat on the panel from 1953 until his death in 1956.
Steve returned on occasion after Fred's death, and rotating celebs filling this spot included the ever-spiffy Tony Randall, smart-guy Robert Q. Lewis and the likable Martin Gabel (Mr. Arlene Francis). Other memorable guest panelists include the brilliantly insane Groucho Marx, the entertaining Ernie Kovas and the exasperating Victor Borge. The final regular panelist was Bennett Cerf, who's day job was running the Random House publishing empire. Bennett was always making corny jokes, awkward remarks and odd non-sequitors. He was like having a charming, but embarrassing "grandpa" on the panel. He died in 1971. His collection of reminiscences, AT RANDOM, was collected in 1977.Part of the fun of WHAT'S MY LINE? is watching these people interact. It's as if there was a weekly cocktail party where five friends played a parlor game and the viewer was invited to watch. While the occupations of contestants are sometimes un-PC ("lady lawyer" ,"lady chiropractor", etc.) or downright offensive ("bullfighter") it's very interesting from a historical perspective to see what REAL men and women were like during the 1950s and 60s. Producer Gil Fates wrote a wonderful account of his 25 years with WML? in 1978.
Some recurring popular "mystery guests" include Jack Lemmon (8 appearances),
Jerry Lewis (7), Lucille Ball (6), Joan Crawford (5) and Bette Davis (5). Other memorable guests include Carol Channing, Judy Garland, Jacqueline Susann, Ethel Merman, Sal Mineo, Doris Day, Phyllis Diller, Barbara Streisand and The Supremes.
The syndicated version was hosted by Wally Bruner and then by Larry Blyden. Just as this edition was coming to a close, a 25th Anniversary Special aired on ABC in 1975. Unfortunately most individuals involved with the show have now passed on, with panelist Martin Gabel passing in 1986. Host John Charles Daly and panelist Robert Q. Lewis both died in 1991. Steve Allen died in 2000, after sadly having become quite conservative in his old age and the ever-classy Tony Randall died in 2004. (Before he died, Tony forbid Bush and Cheney to attend his funeral - gotta love that!)

A live stage version of WML? hosted by J. Keith Van Straaten ran in LA for a few years, and later in NYC. It was tons of fun, and I was in the audience almost every week. Some cool panelists and mystery guests were featured. I suspect that it will be back one day.
Rumors of a new primetime revival on NBC surfaced earlier this year, with David Hasselhoff attached to host. I think I'd prefer to play a home game like this one:or even this one:That's all for now, but there's so much more to the WHAT'S MY LINE story to tell...maybe some day.