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Quiz Show

June 2024
6min read

What I’m about to record is true, including the parts I’ve forgotten. Seeing the movie Quiz Show disinterred a memory almost half a century old. On the way back there, though, I must pause first at 1958, when Charles Van Doren was holding forth on the tube and piling up all that money on the “Twenty-One” show. Being something of a snob at the time, I hadn’t acquired the habit of watching television. Besides, I was a book editor, and my evenings were spent reading manuscripts.

But I did watch Charlie. His sister Ann lived two doors down Bleecker Street from me, and he and I were nodding acquaintances. Also, I myself had won some money as a contestant on a quiz show back in the dark ages of radio. So week after week I watched— with empathy, with a degree of jealousy (radio quiz winners won hundreds, not hundreds of thousands), and with growing skepticism; those long, agonizing pauses as the contestants searched their souls in the isolation booths began to seem awfully studied. Their depiction in Quiz Show was certainly among the movie’s best effects and vividly recalled for me my own brief moment of stand-up glory and my early basic training in how broadcasters control who wins quiz shows and why.

I had once been on a radio quiz show, so I watched Van Doren’s agonized pauses with growing skepticism.

In the 1940s, radio shows were produced by advertising agencies. Four days after my discharge from the Army late in December 1945 my godfather, Pete Barnum, a Madison Avenue advertising executive, arranged to get me on a quiz show, of which there seemed to be dozens on the air. This one was so sparsely produced, and its emcee so uncelebrated and free of charisma, that I have forgotten its name, and his.

As instructed, I turned up an hour and a quarter before the broadcast at the production office in the Times Square district. Two men in suits were huddled with two young soldiers in the back of the big room, and another functionary was talking with a girl (as a woman was then called) over in a far corner. These, I gathered, were the other contestants.

A shirtsleeved man, maybe forty years old, who turned out to be the announcer/emcee, approached and greeted me by name. “You must be Max,” he said. “Close,” I said.

The contestants would be assigned different categories of questions, he told me. Mine was to be the dates on which notable events of the year just past had occurred. He would name an event, and I was to guess, within thirty days, when it had taken place. It wouldn’t be fitting for him to lay it all out for me, he said stuffily, but for starters it might be a good idea if I brushed up on V-E Day, and on just when Charlie Chaplin’s paternity suit was brought or settled or hit the headlines.

I told him I had been overseas for the entire year and was rusty on domestic news events. But I was already planning to make a beeline to a back-issue magazine store on Sixth Avenue, and I recall my flush of annoyance when he made the suggestion I visit such a store to catch up on the year’s happenings. Thinking back, I suppose each of us carried some shoulder chips as baggage into our colloquy. He probably resented my being sponsored, as it were, by an advertising honcho, and I resented his obvious relish at being able to dispense or withhold information of value to me.

As the announcer and I talked, I could not help noticing that the two soldiers seemed to be getting walked through their routine more exhaustively than I, an observation I was not shy about mentioning to the announcer.

“I may as well tell you,” he said, “one of the soldiers is going to be the winner.”

I don’t know why he told me. and I don’t expect he was supposed to. Perhaps it was because he thought I, a known nepot, ought to be sophisticated enough to understand the logic of the decision. Perhaps he just wanted to rub my nose in this foregone conclusion.

“How come?” I asked him.

“They’re in uniform . It’s as simple as that. The audience will be rooting for them.”

I, feeling the natural contempt of a twenty-three-year-old overseas veteran toward teenage stateside recruits, pointed out that their tunics were unadorned by any mark of rank or length or theater of service, and they in fact gave every evidence of having been in the Army approximately long enough to get their teeth fixed at Fort Dix, whereas the uniform I had taken off four days earlier had borne sergeant’s stripes, a YANK patch on the shoulder signifying my status as a combat correspondent on the Army weekly, plus ribbons signifying Pacific Theater, Air Medal, and, yes, the Good Conduct Medal over the left breast pocket.

“If I’d worn it, would I have had a shot at being the winner?”

“We couldn’t have three soldiers,” he replied, all sweet reason. “Also, if you’re a veteran, how come you’re not wearing the ruptured duck?” This was the universal nickname for the gold-colored lapel pin issued to all discharged servicemen.

I shrugged. “I’m just not.” I wasn’t about to articulate to this patronizing oaf my feeling that the ruptured duck was uncool—or corny, as I probably thought of it then.

“By the way,” he said, “how do you want to be billed? How do we introduce you?”

I told him I was goofing off while awaiting word of acceptance to Harvard graduate school. It was true enough, but it sounded a bit stuffy and elitist to us both. He suggested “college student.”

If the audience was into soldiers, I wanted whatever piece of that action I could get. “How about ‘recently discharged veteran’?”

So we decided he’d combine the two designations.

I was making a move toward the door when one of the men who’d been talking to the soldiers detached himself and walked over to say something to the announcer, who immediately raised his hand to summon me back. The other man called me by name, my right name, and introduced himself as the show’s producer. He made affectionate mention of Pete Barnum and indicated the announcer had accidentally neglected to remind me of one matter that could come up on the program on which they wanted to brief me: They wanted me to remember the date of April 12. “It’s the date of FDR’s death,” he said, “and it’s a date we think every American should know. The audience will want you to hit it right on the head—no thirty-day leeway. Listen, you do well, there’s no reason you couldn’t win second-prize money, O.K.? See you back here no later than quarter to eight.”

I was not too proud to thank him, and as I left for the back-issue store, I thought over what I’d been told. The same dynamic that sealed the fate of Herb Stempel on “Twenty-One” was, of course, at work even in 1945. The producers would have been crazy not to have tilted the decision to one of the GIs. The uniforms wouldn’t be visible to people listening on their radios, but radio shows drew their energy from the enthusiasm and applause of the studio audience, and back then soldier was a synonym for winner . A guy in a suit meant nothing.

Notwithstanding, I schemed for a way to upstage the two rookies as I speed-read my way through a stack of old Newsweeks .

When I returned to the office where I’d been briefed, I passed the main entrance to the theater. Then, as now, it didn’t take much to attract a crowd in New York. It was a cold night, but there was a big gang out front, waiting for the doors to open so they could file in and watch our little gavotte.

Inside there was a podium. There were bright lights and a standing mike. The contestants took turns at the mike, and the audience was obediently enthusiastic as questions were asked and answered. I looked over at the deadpan faces of four or five men behind the glass of the control booth, and one of them gave me a perfunctory high-sign wave. It was the producer.

I have no recollection of how the girl did or of just how things were arranged so that one of the soldiers did indeed wind up with the most points. I answered all my questions correctly enough, and I did win second-prize money. The other questions are long forgotten, but I got Chaplin right. The memory I still carry with me is of my final exchange with my interlocutor.

“What day did President Franklin D. Roosevelt die?”

I paused, eyes cast upward, as if the answer lay in the flies above the stage. The studio audience’s anxiety for me to get it right was palpable. Finally I spoke, and I was emphatic. “April thirteenth.”

There was a collective groan from the audience. I was within the thirty-day limit, of course, but I’d been given the exact date, the date all Americans were expected to know, and I’d muffed it.

The announcer shot me a scathing look. I’d double-crossed him. “The thirteenth ’ He made the word sound like sacrilege.

“No? Not the thirteenth? I could have sworn— oh-h-h .” I said, and I raised my hand dramatically. “I know. Out where I was, in the Pacific, I was on the other side of the International Date Line. Back here in the States [I don’t believe I added “for you civilians,” but it was surely there in my tone] it was the twelfth, of course. But at the 73rd Very Heavy Bombardment Wing on Saipan it was definitely the thirteenth.”

Immodesty compels me to admit the crowd went wild. I looked over and saw that even the producer and his cohorts in the control booth were laughing and clapping.

The emcee pulled me away from the mike and put his hand over it. “Pretty cute, Harvard,” he whispered. “Pretty damn cute.”

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