- 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.”
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.
First I called the Museum of Television & Radio in New York. They couldn’t help but did suggest calling the Game Show Network. The Game Show Network couldn’t help but referred me to a company called Pearson Television in California, which owns the rights to “What’s My Line?” I left several unreturned messages, then got through to a person who said that it cost $300 up front even to begin looking. Plus, they would need the exact date of the show. My mother could get no more precise than sometime between 1951 and 1954. My aunt remembered watching it while she was at summer camp at the age of 16, which meant the summer of 1952. Getting close, but not close enough.
Enter the World Wide Web. If the Internet serves any great purpose as a communications tool, beyond selling books and cars and plane tickets, it is to help people like me find other people like me who have access to things like this. If quantum theory and the interconnectedness of all things are represented anywhere, it’s here. This tool of the modern age has made time travel possible.
I found many Web sites devoted to “What’s My Line?” There are a lot of fans out there willing to put time, money, and effort into spreading the love of “WML?” On one site, I found a message board; it held a notice from a woman named Sandy looking for the episode her ailing aunt had appeared on, around the same time as my father’s spot. I e-mailed her to ask if she’d had any luck. She had run into the same obstacles as I had. “Two months almost have passed and still nothing,” she wrote. I gave up. Weeks passed. My brothers and I still had no ideas for our dad’s seventieth. Clearly we were Bad Sons.
Then, out of the ether (or, more accurately, the Ethernet), came an e-mail:
Dear Mr. Levine:
I was referred to you by Sandy whom you contacted via the “WML?” Web page. I just helped Sandy obtain the show she was looking for and perhaps I might be able to help you find what you are looking for.
I have the complete show logs and every “WML?” program aired on Game Show Network since 1994.1 understand all but a hundred or so shows exist on tape.
If you can give me some specifics as to the date your dad was on along with what his occupation was, I might be able to help. And if you can recall the celeb. Mystery Guest, that would help too. Be aware that practically no “WML?” shows exist from its inception in 1950 through mid-1952. However, all but 19 exist between mid-1952 and September of '67. Let’s hope your dad appeared during that time.
Please let me know, and I’ll see what I can do for you.
I hit Reply instantly and told him my father’s name, his occupation, and that our best guess was that he had appeared in the summer of 1952. Send.
The next day:
OK, Chief, we’re set. Your dad was on a year later than you thought: 6/21/53 Show #160. He was put in the fourth slot (usually the one they never had much time for) after the Mystery Guests, Olsen &c Johnson. Well, ever staying consistent, they didn’t have too much time for his appearance that night—meaning simply the show was about over and time was short. However, you’ll be interested to hear what the panel had to say about him.
Some background first: From the first telecast of “WML?” in February 1950 through the telecast of April 10, 1955, each member of the panel was allowed a free guess as to the occupation of the contestant. Your dad was given the chance to state where he was from. He did. He then walked past the panel and sat down next to Day. The panel took their guesses, and the best one came from Steve Alien, who said “a radio announcer.” Well, your dad did have a very pleasant, deep tone to his voice. I wish they had given him more time to speak given that gift.
Where may I send it? I’ll try to dub it tonight, and if you give me your address, I’ll get it out regular mail to you.
Best to you. K.
There’ my dad,, on TV, standing in the middle of it all, with a big grin on his face.
We had the tape three days later.
K. wishes to remain anonymous. We exchanged more e-mails, and he explained his interest in “WML?”: how he had randomly come across an old kinescope from 1954 and begun collecting. He himself has taped almost every episode of “What’s My Line?” that has been rerun by the Game Show Network. He has gathered additional programs by trading with other collectors.
One day, K. visited the same “WML?” Web site I had. He also surfed over to the message board, found Sandy’s request for her aunt’s show, and contacted her. Fortunately, Sandy had saved my e-mail and passed my address on to K. Once I sent him my dad’s name and occupation, he cross-referenced that information with his show logs and came up with the date of the telecast. He searched his tape archive, found the broadcast, dubbed it, and sent it to me—free of charge.
“I’ve only sent a handful of tapes to folks like yourself, the relatives or friends of those who were contestants,” K. wrote. “The mother lode of my dubbing has been for the families of the show’s panelists, producers, and directors,” most of whom, he says, never received copies of their old shows.
I thanked him, of course, and told him my brothers and I wanted to send him something in return. He would not accept. “I think sharing the honor of having these programs with those who would most enjoy them is just plain good karma,” he wrote me. “I only wish I could offer this sort of beau geste in other areas of my life. My mother and father are long gone, and I’d trade this entire collection of shows to simply have the opportunity to have three minutes of kinescope of them like the one of your dad. This ‘generosity’ on my part is not so much largess as it is a way for me to fill an empty part of my soul through giving to people like yourself.”
“Is that right, sir?” Daly means, did he Say my father’s name properly. Of course he did. A man like Mr. Day would know to ask how to pronounce a name correctly, and he would remember, when my father told him, that it’s with a long i , to rhyme with wine , and not the more common “Leveen.”
“He’s so cute!” Kimberly shouts. And she’s right. He is cute. I recognize him from old pictures. His body is taller and thicker than it is now, the body of the athlete who earned a college scholarship to play football at Butler University. I have vague memories of this body, which got heavier and softer as I got older, then trimmed down to the slim 190 pounds he has maintained for about 25 years. His hair is jet black, parted on the side and thick as steel wool. (He still parts it that way, though it’s now fully silver and only as thick as 70-year-old hair could be expected to be.) He wears a smart suit of undetermined color, a white shirt with rounded collars, clasped by a collar pin, and a simple necktie. And he’s got a megawatt smile; I can see the lady-killer his sister, my aunt, says he was back then.
“ Mr. Levine, would you tell us where you are from. ”
“ Rochester, New York. ”
It’s a young man’s voice, soft-edged but strong, almost musical. It’s several pitches higher than the voice I remember from my youth and completely different from the raspy, breathy voice that now shows the effects of 40 or so years of cigarettes.
“ Would you take a small hike down in front of Manhattan there for a moment ,” Mr. Day commands him. After the sign-in and the brief introduction, contestants must go up and back past the panelists, as if in some kind of weird beauty pageant.
“That’s his walk,” Kimberly says. “Definitely.” He bends slightly forward at the waist as he moves. I’ve never noticed it before.
Next the panelists get a free guess, as if they can somehow glean his profession just from his promenade. They are prompted in rapid fire by Mr. Day:
“ Miss Kilgallen? ”
“ Professional football star. ”
“ Mr. Allen? ”
“ He has a voice like a radio announcer. ”
“ Miss Francis? ”
“ Professional basketball. ”
“ Mr. Cerf? ”
“ Everybody in Rochester works for Eastman Kodak. ”
My father grins a wide, toothy grin. I don’t remember that grin.
They are all wrong. He sits next to Mr. Day, and on the screen his occupation is flashed in front of him, so the Studio audience and those watching at home can be in on the mystery.
Bridal consultant .
The studio audience now erupts into applause. The fact that they also erupted into applause for the lifeguard and the worm breeder means nothing to me. They are cheering my rather, the bridal consultant.
I have no memory of his being a bridal consultant.
In the modern world, he is a stockbroker. He always has been. He founded his own brokerage business and ran it for 30 years, until selling it just last year. But back then, in the old world, fresh out of college and with only a young man’s limited vision of the future, he worked in his mother and aunt’s bridal shop in downtown Rochester. He was one of the few male bridal consultants in the country. That he was big, strong, and handsome only added to the surprise, which was why his girlfriend’s father—his future father-in-law—suggested that he get on the show.
The panelists begin and quickly determine that he is in the garment business. (They are very good, the panelists. They figured out the lifeguard, the worm breeder, and the goofy comedians with uncanny speed.) My father does little more than answer yes several times and no three times, bringing his tally on the flip cards to a whopping $15. It should have been $20, though. Mr. Day, “with your permission,” steps in on one question and changes a no answer to a yes. In a flash, I see the argumentative side of my father, the businessman side, the fatherly side; he seems, for an instant, ready to tell this Mr. Day just where to get off. But he relents and nods disappointedly in agreement. His smile disappears for a moment.
The panel is closing in, and I fear they will out him at any moment. But time is fleeing on the winds. Mr. Day announces that because the show must end, my father will take home the entire $50 prize. Then Mr. Day announces that my father’s occupation is bridal consultant. The panelists sit in awe at my father’s story. (I see it as awe, anyway. It’s more likely that they were just hot and eager to go home.) My father stands, shakes Mr. Daly’s hand, and walks, bent at the waist, offstage.
The show winds down with a few more plugs for the sponsor, a plug for the CBS radio version of “What’s My Line?,” and some polite good-nights from Mr. Daly to Miss Kilgallen to Mr. Allen to Miss Francis to Mr. Cerf and back to Mr. Daly. But I am not really watching. I am thinking about where my father is walking off to. As he passes behind Mr. Daly and exits stage left, he’s really walking off to marry his 17-year-old girlfriend. He’s off to the Army. He’s off to stumble accidentally onto the game of ice hockey, which will become the central focus of his young family’s life, a family he will begin four years from then with me. He will buy his first house. He will leave the bridal business to become a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch. He will have two more sons and buy his second and last house. He will start a company. He will stay married to his 17-year-old girlfriend for 46 years and counting. He will pass on to his children and grandchildren his love of sports and puzzles and Great Danes and tropical fish. He will endure prostate surgery. Twelve days before his seventieth birthday, he will be in a distant Midwestern hospital to have large chunks of his smoke-pickled lungs removed so he can breathe again. On his actual birthday, he will be recovering nicely, but far from his children and grandchildren, unable to celebrate in the way we planned. And then, when he is well and back again, we will mark his age, and he will watch this tape. I think that by our getting him the tape, the 70-year-old man will somehow reconnect with the 23-year-old boy. I think about how he got from there to here. And I think about how wondrous strange it is that we live in an age in which time can circle back on itself and how two versions of my father, the then and the now, can say hello to each other, face to face.
But that’s what I’m thinking. What he’s probably thinking, as he walks off the stage, is what to do with the 50 bucks, which was a lot of money back then.