WHAT’S MY LINE?
My thoughts about ‘What’s My Line?,’ the television game show are not very deep. I have been bingeing on this show for the last few evenings. Many of you know that this game show aired in the United States from 1950-1975. I have been watching only the episodes which aired from the beginning and into 1967. From this series, you might recognize these faces:
From left to right are seen regular panelists Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Davis, and Bennett Cerf. John Daly was the moderator for the show from 1950 through 1967. All of them were famous in their own right and those who watched the show know that they were introduced either by a narrator or by each other. Dorothy Kilgallen is introduced as the writer of “Voice of Broadway, which is published coast to coast.” Arlene Francis is a “star of television and the stage” while Mr. Cerf is introduced as the famous publisher of Random House, which he founded. John Daly was a well-known news writer and journalist and for the show, he was introduced as a word wizard. There was also a guest panelist and, from time to time, a replacement panelist.
Challengers to the illustrious panel were from all around the world and their occupations were revealed for the television and theatre viewers. It was the job of the panelists to discern what the occupations are by way of asking questions whose answers should be either yes or no. If a contestant passes through 10 no answers, he or she wins the game and fifty dollars. That sounds like a measly prize by today’s standard, but the fifty dollars then would have a purchase power of $588.62 today according to http://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1950?amount=50.
Besides ‘regular folk,’ each episode included a mystery guest for whom the panelists would have to be blindfolded before he or she would enter and ‘sign in.’ Perhaps, you recognize some of them?
Here’s a link to the entire cast of regular, guest and mystery panelists: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042168/fullcredits/
For me, it is fun to watch these episodes even though I would be cognizant of a few of the episodes from perhaps the last couple of years, 1966 and 1967. The show aired on Sunday nights and since this series ran well before satellite tv, I likely would have seen it on CBS, the only network affiliated with the show’s production.
Here are a few things that I noticed about the early shows that would not be seen or heard on today’s game programs.
- Guests and panelists all dressed impeccably in suits, gowns and dresses.
- Language was always polite, never foul. Everyone was referred to as Miss, Mr., Mrs., except the mystery guests who were called by their stage names. Language use was also grammatically correct.
- The best-looking female challengers were usually greeted with cat calls. Pity the less-beautiful woman who signed-in to no whistles! In fact, Bennett Cerf seemed always to comment on a female guest’s ‘physique,’ as he called it. Sometimes, a male physique was commented upon, especially in the questions when ‘fat’ was often used to describe a heavy person.
- The geographical expanse of the country was emphasized with welcoming words such as, “We are always pleased to have someone from the other coast of our country.” or “It is not often we have someone from Iowa.” In one episode a female chiropractor was welcomed from Alaska before it was even a state so her visit seemed almost like that of someone from Europe.
- There seemed to be an obsession with making sure that home viewers knew where the panelists travelled during the week, explaining sometimes why they were not panelists for a particular episode. Audiences were informed, for example, that Bennett Cerf was on vacation in Miami at the Fontainebleau Hotel or that Mr. Daly was on assignment in Tokyo.
- Aside from whistling, the audience was polite and contained. They laughed a lot, which often signaled clues to the panelists, but there was no boisterous, screeching screams as one might hear today. In fact, I have yet to see an episode where the viewer sees the audience.
- The programs were live productions in most cases. I remember a few episodes where references were made to snowy weather and the audience and guests were thanked for coming to the studio in inclement weather.
Like I said, these are not or meant tobe deep thoughts, but just comments that made me reflect on cultural changes in the United States. If you’ve seen these episodes when they aired or by way of Youtube and other networks, you will likely understand my comments and that you are able to draw your own conclusions.
2 thoughts on “Thursday, 21 April 2022”
It’s a window into another time. A pleasant time on the surface of things. Which, to me seems better than present day. Right now it feels like television or in home entertainment (since we now have smart TVs and can design our own programming) is like being trapped at a week long ‘rave’ without food or water or clothes for that matter. It seems our world is upside down and humanity is openly debased and wretched next to these lovely clothes polite people with impeccable coiffures.
I started watching this series on YouTube on a whim at the beginning of lockdown. I made up through the early 1960s, and then I went back and started watching again. I’ve heard others describe the show as “erudite,” “genteel,” and “witty.” And as you say, the “Language was always polite, never foul.” This is true – but you’re missing something critical. There is an undercurrent of WASP privilege on What’s My Line that is cemented by the mid-1950s. These people – Daly, Cerf, Kilgallen – truly, in their hearts, believe they are superior beings. No matter how “genteel” it is phrased, the racism and antisemitism on display are so blatant, it felt like I was being physically slapped the first time I heard it. Like his father-in-law, Daly was an unapologetic supporter of Japanese-American internment camps during WWII. Kilgallen gleefully used her column to help her buddy Sen. Joe McCarthy round up the, in her words, “k*kes and Reds.” Cerf, in an interview with Columbia University, was also unapologetic when referring to Jewish panelists or contestants as not being in his “class.” This belief was as much a part of his being as his accent. He believed it to be the natural order of things and, even if it was a widely-held belief, it was just as wrong then as it is now. Kilgallen was an alcoholic and prescription drug addict who was coddled by those around her, but it doesn’t excuse the terrible things she did and said. If someone back then would’ve had the guts to intervene instead of enable, maybe she wouldn’t have died when she did. It’s easy to romanticize this time period and this tv show, but try watching it critically and objectively. What’s My Line may have come in a pretty, genteel package — but it was still toxic.