- 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
The ghostly images of a kinescope—not to mention the startlingly unexpected appearance of Dr. Jules Montenier, the famous cosmetic chemist, himself—can’t help but add a sense of distance. Even if this tape were in four-color digital format, everything about what we are watching would seem otherworldly. If this truly was the “Who Wants to Be. . .” of its time, then its time was shockingly simple. The graphics, of course, are primitive. (A chalkboard?) The set would be embarrassing to a high school drama class. The host keeps score on flip cards. No moody millennial electronic music here; it’s all orchestral. And there is but a single sponsor, not the chainlink fence of cars, soft drinks, dot-corns, and direct-to-consumer pharmaceuticals that punctuates today’s shows. The sponsor (I have never before heard of this Stopette) is considerate enough to interrupt the show only once, not counting the opening introduction, and to pitch its products in a slow-paced set piece featuring a warm, trustworthy spokeswoman. True, the sponsor’s name is prominently featured on the front of the panelists’ box, like a sign on the outfield wall at a baseball stadium. Still, the commercial aspect of this commercial program seems awfully understated.
However, the style of the show is more disorienting than its accoutrements. Regis may deck himself out in flashy dark suits with synthetic Nouveau ties, but here everyone is dressed for a ball. The gentlemen wear tuxedos; the ladies, gowns, jewels, and movie-star hairdos. The modern game-show contestant will appear in any old schmatte ; for my father’s show, a young female guest has put on white kid gloves. And forget any “Hiya, Reege!” familiarity. The panelists and host refer to one another, and to the contestants, as miss or mister.
“Now let’s meet our award-winning “What’s My Line?’ panel.”
Panelists changed periodically, but they always embodied Manhattan wit and sophistication. From 1953 to 1954, the panelists were usually, as they introduced one another on my father’s show, “the popular columnist for the New York Journal-American Miss Dorothy Kilgallen"; “the charming young humorist Mr. Steve Allen”; “one of the lovely ladies of radio and television, Miss Arlene Francis"; and “a gentleman who is still beaming over his article on Marilyn Monroe in the current Esquire , Mr. Bennett Cerf.”
The Regis of the moment was “our distinguished panel moderator, Mr. John Charles Day.” And what a distinguished moderator he appears to have been. On the show, Day is a man of style, erudition, and poetry. He refers to “this black and steaming hot night” on which the show was broadcast. (It was in the high nineties in Manhattan that day.) He explains that “the rules are simplicity itself” to the first guest (the young woman in gown and gloves, who fails miserably to stump the panel with her occupation as lifeguard, winning only $10, which would at least have covered cab fare back to her home in Brooklyn.) When the next contestant, a Canadian worm breeder, signs in as Nick, Day, all polite presumption, says, “Which is short, I am sure, for Nicholas.” He suffers courteously the antics of the Mystery Guests (each show featured a celebrity guest, during whose appearance the panelists donned blindfolds), who tonight are the comedy team Olsen and Johnson, whose mugging, polka-dot ties, and frequent pants-hitching are clearly artifacts of an earlier entertainment era. And when my father steps up as the last contestant, Day hurries the show to its conclusion by announcing that “time is fleeing on the winds.” Day even rolls his r’s once or twice, and whenever he says the word again he pronounces it “a-gain.”
With all this temporal dislocation, I can’t help thinking about the world in which my father was living on that hot June night in 1953. No one outside Memphis, Tennessee, has ever heard of a gawky wannabe singer named Elvis Presley. No white person has ever heard the phrase rock ’n’ roll . The all-time home-run king is Babe Ruth, and he died just a few years ago. The next all-time home-run king, Henry Aaron, is as unknown as Presley, a minor-leaguer months away from hitting major-league home run number one. It won’t be until next year, 1954, that Elvis instantly changes the world forever and Aaron begins his long-term assault on the past. That’s also the year my parents get married.
This, then, right here, on my TV, is the cusp, the transition between the old pre-war and wartime America and modern America. It’s also the cusp between my father’s old life and his new one. The media age is an infant; television is new and rare. Music and culture and social norms are still in the 1940s. Olsen and Johnson are dinosaurs, still roaming the earth but at the end of their reign. The new world can not yet even be imagined. I can not yet be imagined. My parents are young and single. And there’s my dad, on TV, standing in the middle of it all, with a big grin on his face.