- Historic Sites
Who Wants To Be A Mid-two-figures-aire?
How luck, television, and a saintly lurker on the Internet combined to let the author visit 1953 for half an hour.
July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
“And now let’s see what the panel can do with another challenger. Would you sign in please, sir?”
A grainy black-and-white kinescope flickers on our television screen. A close-up on a chalkboard. A hand—the right—holds a thick piece of white chalk. It begins to write in a sure, round style that I have never seen before. A voice off-screen reads:
“ Marshall . . .”
The hand drops down a line and continues to write.
”. . . Levine .”
And then, a cut to a two-shot, and there he is: my father.
In my living room, where I am watching this, it is May 13, 2000, and my rather has just turned 70. But on my television screen, it is June 21, 1953, and my father has just turned 23. He is a contestant on “What’s My Line?”
No one I know has seen this since that Sunday night, 47 years ago, when my father’s family, his friends, and the family of his 17-year-old girlfriend watched it broadcast live on CBS. My father, because he was in it, has never seen it. My entire family (except my father, who knows nothing about it yet) has been waiting to hear if I have found it and what it looks like. What he looks like. I’ve been waiting for it to arrive for days. When it finally comes in the Saturday mail, my wife, Kimberly, and I stop everything, tear open the package, pop the cassette into the VCR, and hit Play.
I am instantly sucked back in time, to four years before I was born. What is happening there, on the screen? Who is this man? How did he get from then to now? Is this all some eerie manifestation of the space-time continuum, of quantum mechanics and relativity and how time is illusory or multidimensional or whatever theorists think it is? How can the past return so easily to the present?
“What are we gonna do for Dad’s seventieth?” Every one of my father’s birthdays is tough for us. He has everything he needs. He has few wants. His hobbies are limited to jigsaw puzzles (he does the really hard ones, all in a single color or with all the pieces nearly in shape, but he gets one of those just about every year), golfing, and watching sports on television. My two brothers, Bill and Rob, and I muddled over this. A man’s seventieth, after all, is a big deal. We wanted to be Good Sons. Bill had an idea.
“You know, we should try to get a tape of his thing on ‘What’s My Line?’” We knew that he had been a contestant on the show long ago. No one could remember exactly when, sometime in the early fifties, before he was drafted into the Army in 1954. There is no physical record of it, as far as we know, but only stories of his driving old Routes 20, 11, and 17 to New York City from upstate in those slow, pre-thruway days and of his having stumped the panel, an ephemeral blip in his early life. We agreed that locating a tape of his appearance would probably give him a big kick, but how? My brothers decided they would investigate other possible presents, and they volunteered me to begin the search.
“What’s My Line?” was the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” of its time, immensely popular, running on a weekly basis from 1950 until 1967 and five days a week as a syndicated show from 1968 to 1975. It was for years the longest-running game show in television history and is arguably still the most famous. In its early days, it aired live on Sunday nights at ten-thirty on CBS. It won the Emmy award for outstanding Audience Participation, Quiz or Panel Program, in 1952, 1953, and 1958. It introduced the American public, especially the baby boomers, to such TV icons as Goodson-Todman Productions, the announcer Johnny Olson, and Steve Alien’s famous query “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”
Though it hardly needs explaining, the game went like this: Ordinary people with supposedly extraordinary occupations played something like Twenty Questions with celebrity panelists. The panelists, asking yes-or-no questions, tried to determine a guest’s job. Every question that elicited a “no” was worth $5. Stump the panel with 10 “no” answers, and you’d cash in the top prize of $50, which sounds laughable in an age when everyone wants to be a millionaire, but which, as my father is quick to point out, “was a lot of money back then.”
The set would embarrass a high school drama class, yet the men wear tuxes.
“And now, ‘What’s My Line?’ Brought to you by Stopette Spray Deodorant. The set would I; embarrass a high school drama class, yet the men wear tuxes. Poof! There goes perspiration! Poof Deodorant body Powder, the body powder you spray. Finesse shampoo, the new flowing cream shampoo. . . . All created by Dr. Jules Montenier, the famous cosmetic chemist.”