Regular readers of this blog know I’m addicted to What’s My Line?, the prime-time TV game show that ran on CBS from 1950 to 1967 and can now be seen early each morning on the Game Show Network. The final episode of What’s My Line? aired two weeks ago, and there’d been some talk that the show would be dropped from the schedule thereafter. Instead, GSN is now replaying the very first episodes, originally seen at the dawn of network television, back in the impossibly distant days when Harry Truman was president and Milton Berle was TV’s brightest star. My interest in these ancient kinescopes can’t properly be described as nostalgic–they predate me by six years–but I still find them endlessly fascinating, not merely for their entertainment value but as time capsules crammed full of fading souvenirs of a long-lost era.
On the same day I watched the first episode of What’s My Line?, I received a small package from my brother in Smalltown, U.S.A. He hadn’t told me what was in it, but I knew without peeking that it would contain a box of vanilla taffy purchased at the SEMO District Fair. (Back where I come from, “SEMO” stands for “southeast Missouri.”) My family has been bringing taffy home from the SEMO District Fair ever since I was a small boy. Four decades later, it still comes in the same red-and-white cardboard boxes whose lids inform the happy buyer that he’s eating Malone’s State Fair Taffy Candy, manufactured by the Malone’s Candy Co. of Marion, Illinois, and sold exclusively at seven fairs: “Du Quoin, Ill. Tulsa, Okla. Little Rock, Ark. Indianapolis, Ind. Jackson, Miss. Shreveport, La. Cape Girardeau, Mo.” Each chunk is wrapped in wax paper, is as sticky as flypaper in August, and tastes like…well, like what it felt like for a wide-eyed child to go to the fair on a September night, ride on the double Ferris wheel, eat corn dogs, and cart home a box of State Fair Taffy and a helium-filled balloon.
The last time I went to the fair was three years ago, a couple of days after 9/11. I was stranded in Smalltown, U.S.A., waiting for the planes to start flying again so that I could make my way back to Manhattan. Though all of us in Smalltown were stunned by the horrors that had just played out on our TV screens, we knew we needed a break from reality, so I drove up to the fair with my mother, my brother, and his family, and we bought taffy and rode the rides. Alas, the double Ferris wheel was long gone–no doubt it had proved too tame for a generation of thrill-seeking youngsters raised on modern-day theme-park roller coasters–but the taffy hadn’t changed a bit. Though I suppose it isn’t the very best taffy in the world (that honor belongs to Smoky Mountain Taffy Logs, made and sold in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the resort town where the Teachout family spent some of its most memorable summer vacations), it was still pretty darn good. Since then my brother has made a point of sending a box to me every year. I always swear that I’ll dole it out to myself one piece at a time, making it last until October or November, and I always end up polishing off the whole box in two days flat, the same way I did when I was eight years old. When it comes to taffy, I’ve never been very good at deferred gratification.
It occurred to me this year that I could go on line and buy my own taffy, but no sooner did I get the idea than I realized how wrong it would be to do so. Malone’s State Fair Taffy Candy is meant to be eaten only once a year, at the short-lived moment when summer starts to give way to fall and the night air shows the first signs of growing crisp and clear. To eat it at any other time would be an unforgivable affront to the spirit of nostalgia. Nevertheless, I Googled “Malone’s State Fair Taffy Candy” earlier today–just to see what I could find out about its history, you understand–and do you know what I learned? Nothing whatsoever. It seems the Malone’s Candy Co. of Marion, Illinois has yet to make its way into the information age.
I’m strangely grateful that this should be so, though I’m no less grateful that the Game Show Network and my trusty digital video recorder have made it possible for me to watch What’s My Line? as often as I want, and call my mother on my cellphone to tell her who yesterday’s Mystery Guest was. (I saw Artie Shaw on the program the other day, and marveled at the scarcely believable fact that he’s still alive, the last surviving bandleader of the Swing Era.) One of the underappreciated pleasures of modern technology is the power it has to bring us closer to our memories. Yet it also pleases me that the Malone’s Candy Co. prefers to remain shrouded in mystery, and that its stalwart employees continue to set up their old-fashioned candy stands in Du Quoin, Little Rock, and Cape Girardeau, where they make a ton or two of taffy, wrap each sticky piece in a slick square of wax paper, scoop it into cardboard boxes, and sell it to fairgoers, one of whom brings a box home and sends it to his hungry brother on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
By such unearned acts of familial grace do middle-aged wanderers who have strayed far from home and its ways recapture the past, if only for two tasty days at a time.