I mentioned in a posting
the other day that I’d been using my fancy new cable box to record episodes of an old black-and-white game show called What’s My Line? For the past few years, the Game Show Network has been airing WML reruns at 4:30 every morning. (To see a schedule, click here.)
I watched What’s My Line? as a child, and its return to the small screen inspired me shortly after 9/11 to write a piece for the New York Times of which I’m particularly fond. I didn’t include it in A Terry Teachout Reader because it didn’t seem to fit, so in the interest of boosting the show’s audience, I’d like to make this first-hand reminiscence of the Age of the Middlebrow available to the readers of “About Last Night.” Here are some excerpts:
The basic premise of “What’s My Line?,” which made its debut in 1950, was elegantly simple. The first two guests each week were ordinary people with odd jobs: professional egg-breakers, dynamite manufacturers, makers of square manhole covers. John Charles Daly, the avuncular host, invited them to “sign in, please,” whereupon they would scrawl their names on a blackboard, take a seat, and submit to yes-or-no questioning by four panelists who tried to guess what they did for a living, with each “no” answer winning them five dollars. After the middle commercial, the panelists put on blindfolds and sought to identify the Mystery Guest, a celebrity who disguised his voice in an attempt, usually but not always unsuccessful, to fox his inquisitors.
The fun came partly from the contestants, who were chosen whenever possible for their intrinsic incongruity–the dynamite maker, for example, was a distinguished-looking woman of a certain age–but mostly from the droll byplay of the panel and guests. Of the three longest-serving regular panelists, Arlene Francis, a stage actress turned small-screen personality, exuded unfeigned warmth, while Dorothy Kilgallen, a bite-the-jugular newspaper reporter and columnist, and Bennett Cerf, the gentleman president of Random House, played the game to win. The wild-card fourth panelist was sometimes a nimble-witted comedian (Fred Allen and Steve Allen both had long runs on the show), sometimes a celebrity of another sort (Van Cliburn, Moss Hart, John Lindsay, and Gore Vidal were among the more surprising occupants of the fourth chair).
As for the Mystery Guest, “What’s My Line?” was so hot in its heyday that it was able to book pretty much anybody it wanted: Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, even Eleanor Roosevelt. Stars with ultra-familiar voices would struggle mightily but vainly to disguise them (Louis Armstrong never had a chance), invariably reducing the studio audience to a puddle of laughter. Trickery was encouraged–Jack Paar lisped his answers through a bullhorn, Paul Muni played his on a violin–and on one never-to-be-forgotten Sunday evening, Bob Hope succeeded in persuading the panel that he was really Bing Crosby….
Much of the charm of “What’s My Line?” arises from the fact that it is so palpably of another era. The pace was slowish and agreeable, the repartee good-humored but unabashedly urbane. The host and panel all wore formal evening dress; John Daly addressed his female colleagues as “Miss Arlene” and “Miss Dorothy.” The set was penny-plain, the guests signed in on a dimestore blackboard, and Daly kept score by flipping cards. The contestants, who were treated with the utmost courtesy, were clearly content to earn a mere $50 for stumping the panel. Even though all 876 episodes were originally broadcast live, it never occurs to you for a moment that anyone on stage would have dreamed of saying anything naughty.
Perhaps most strikingly, the collegial bonhomie of the participants leaves you with the distinct impression that the show is taking place in a parallel universe of famous people who all know and like one another and probably stroll over to the Algonquin for a drink afterward. Or so, at least, it seemed to myself when young, sitting in front of a black-and-white TV in the living room of a small house in a small town in southeast Missouri….
To read the whole thing, go here.
After this piece ran in the Times, I received a letter from a Hollywood agent who collects old TV shows, and who through means too complicated to recount here acquired a complete set of videocassettes of every surviving kinescope of What’s My Line? From time to time he hears from aging former WML guests (or their children), and whenever possible he sends them a copy of the episode on which they appeared. He’s also dubbed more than a few WML reels for me. The world is full of lovely people who like nothing better than sharing their pleasures, and this kind gentleman (who now reads “About Last Night” regularly) ranks high among them.