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"What's My Line?" is hailed as the longest running PRIME TIME quiz show in
TV history. And for very good reason. It was, and is, unparalleled in
style, wit, and sophistication. I recently saw this series again on "Game
Show Network" and madly taped many of these classic episodes that instantly
brought back fond memories of a time when something as minor as a silly
little game show aimed for class.
In Buffalo, where I was raised, the show came on at 10:30 p.m. on Sunday nights, right after "Candid Camera." That was pretty late for an elementary kid on a school night. If I was lucky, I could cajole my mother into letting me see "Camera," but "What's My Line?" was out of the question. Invariably, the sneak that I was, I'd carefully creep down and sit on the stairs out of harm's way (meaning my mother) and catch my favorite show.
Three of the four panelists of "What's My Line?" were regulars. They were joined by one "special guest" each week (after regular Fred Allen died in 1956). Many of the guests were painfully out of their element here and couldn't hold a candle to the pros. But sometimes a big "film star" like John Payne, Jane Powell, or even Frank Sinatra would grace the panel, making for a special evening. Normally, however, it was a well-known entertainer or personality (Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Tony Randall, Gore Vidal, Zsa Zsa Gabor) who was there to promote a book or upcoming appearance.
For some reason, one of my favorite parts was the introduction of the panelists and moderator ("Let's meet our What's My Line" panel!"). The ladies with their sweeping gowns and gents with their penguin tuxedos just seemed to make gloriously stylish entrances that always seemed to get the evening off to a grand start.
The parlor game was quite simple. The four panelists had to guess the occupation (normally unusual -- i.e., cow dentist) of a contestant by asking yes-or-no questions. The only hint given was if the contestant was salaried and dealt in a service or with a product. A total of ten "no" answers and the game was over. The contestant would win a HUGE pot of $50.00. Such questions asked were: "Does your work take you outdoors?" or "Is your product a liquid as opposed to a solid?" Steve Allen, a one-time regular, is credited with introducing into the American vernacular, "Is it bigger than a bread box?" Each evening after two or three occupations were played out, the panel would be blindfolded and a "mystery guest" (usually in the entertainment field, but not always) would try to be identified using the same yes-or-no questioning. The mystery guests were no slouches either. Major stars (Barbra Streisand, Joe DiMaggio, The Supremes, Dustin Hoffman) would appear for added thrills. Sometimes I would cover my own eyes to see if I could guess who it was.
The elite panel of New York-based personalities were a major contributing factor to the success of "What's My Line." Dorothy Kilgallen, the razor-tongued syndicated columnist of "The Voice of Broadway," was on the panel from its inception and was easily the show's most fervent game player -- prone to anxiety, I understand, when she was on a losing streak. I remember her at times even challenging the moderator and being slightly perturbed if she "unfairly" got a "no" answer. But Dorothy always gave it her all and those of us who were major game enthusiasts related to the competitive spirit in her. Arlene Francis was a stylish actress of stage, screen and TV and easily provided the show with its warmth and witty one-liners, not to mention slightly off-color double-entendres. Her formal gowns were quite extreme for a game show but always an attention-getter. Droll Bennett Cerf was the stocky, avuncular publisher from Random House whose relaxed, ingratiating style was a special treat -- known best for inundating the audience and panelists with groan-producing jokes.
The glue, however, that held it all together was the erudite moderator John Charles Daly, a respected journalist and newscaster on his own and remarkably eloquent when put on the spot. Marvelously witty and a master of the English language, he was quite astounding (and artfully verbose) at times when having to give an explanation to a "yes" or "no" answer. Daly, along with "To Tell the Truth" host Bud Collyer, were the last of a quickly dying breed -- they were amiable but cultivated gentleman who knew how to have sophisticated fun. Gentlemen you wanted to emulate. They succeeded in giving a simple little parlor game show some poise and dignity. "The Price Is Right" host Bob Barker certainly possesses a classy style but the contestants and game show set-up lends itself to total trailer park mentality.
"What's My Line?" suffered an insurmountable loss when Dorothy Kilgallen died suddenly and mysteriously from an overdose of barbiturates in 1965 (probably a suicide). She was terribly missed, considering she was part of the "family" from the very first telecast. The show finally went off the air in 1967, and though it quickly returned in syndication with panelist Arlene Francis, it had lost all its charm and elegance. With regular team members like Soupy Sales, what could one expect?
If I could turn back the hands of time, I'm sure I would set it for 10:30 p.m. on Sunday evening. That was a magic half-hour for me, whether my mother knew it or not. It was worth being dead tired on Monday morning.
The best "What My Lines" to me are the ones from the 1950's I tape 7 days
week from the Game Show Network.
There is so much history. I have seen many notable people/celebrities from the 50's--Conrad Hilton (Hilton Hotels), Rodgers & Hammerstein, Jo Stafford, Walt Disney, Jane Powell, Lucy & Desi, just to name a few.
Also, as stated here, there's a class and sophistication that is evident from the very beginning of the shows.
Arlene and Dorothy would be introduced and would gracefully appear in the most glamourous/classy dresses and evening gowns.
I loved Bennett Ceif. He was so intelligent and funny. He was publisher and was well versed on so many subjects.
I am taping every one I can because I know in another 10 to 20 years these may never be available again. I also enjoy watching them every evening--it's just as fresh as when they first aired.
I don't think there are words in the English vocabulary that can fully
capture the deep love I have for this game show and the admiration I feel
for its panel. A highly sophisticated and glamorous show, "What's My Line?"
keeps you on the edge of your seat for an hour and a half as you watch the
celebrity panel try to guess the occupation of a guest or the identity of
the mystery guest. Truly, this show fully encompasses what the fifties and
sixties were all about. First on the panel, you have tart-tongued
syndicated columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. Quick and smart, Dorothy always
took the game seriously but never failed to through in a joke or two each
telecast. Then there was Random House's very own Bennett Cerf, a remarkable
publisher whose calm, cool demeanor and relaxed sense of humor perfectly
complimented the show. My favorite regular panelist, however, was the
beautiful actress of stage and screen, Miss Arlene Francis. Glamorous,
warm, erudite, and fantastically witty, she was such an asset to the show.
There was always a fourth panelist -- usually someone along the lines of
Steve Allen, Fred Allen, Tony Randall, Martin Gabel (Arlene's husband), etc.
And then, there was the man who was head of it all: journalist John Charles Daly. One of the most fabulously linguistic and learned men I have ever seen in action, he was the perfect host as he brought laughter and sophistication to every episode. I prefer "What's My Line?" in its first incarnation, when John Daly was host and Dorothy Kilgallen still alive. It's a marvelous show, and I cannot thank Game Show Network enough for showing it in reruns, even if they do only air at 4:30 in the morning. Many thanks to the wonderful panel and host -- I've always felt they were like old friends in my home.
"What's My Line" is one of my favorite programs. The host, John Daly,
was an excellent host. He was erudite, respectful, and professional,
unlike succeeding game show hosts, who, for the most part, try to be
comedians. The panel was also insightful, witty, and humorous without
being crude and trying to be funny. They were truly classy people. Even
more important to me is to see the civility that existed on that
program compared to current programming. It certainly was a different
time in terms of respect, manners, and sophistication. As an earlier
reviewer, game show formats now appeal to the lowest denominator.
Noteworthy is the conduct of the audience. No loud cheering, yelling,
and other obnoxious behavior on " What's My line".
How I miss the golden age of television...It was certainly heads and shoulders above most of today's programs which try to pass for entertainment. As we have progressed in so many areas in the past forty years. we have certainly declined in the quality, civility, and humaneness of that earlier era.
A true classic of TV. When people complain about what is missing in TV these days, they should look at WML and see: sophistication, wit and charm. The moderator - John Daly - was a respected journalist, not some failed standup comic. And the panel, made up of a publisher, a newspaper columnist, and a multi-talented stage actress/tv-radio hostess, were successful and entertaining people. Its like a parlor game that you've been invited to sit in on with people who always had something interesting to say. Great fun.
I have recently begun watching this show late at night on the Game Show network and I was surprised at how straight it was compared to the more comedic syndicated version hosted by Larry Blyden. John Daly pretty much treated this show as if it were Face the Nation or Meet the Press or other shows of that ilk. However, the big intangible that made this show as great as it was, was the chemistry between the panelists, especially between Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf and Dorothy Kilgallen. Sure the Allens, Steve and Fred, were also on the panel, but everyone remembers the "big three" of Arlene, Bennett and Dolly Mae. Also, special kudos must go to Phyllis Newman and Aileen "Suzy Knickerbocker" Mehle. Phyllis and Suzy did admirably filling in for Dorothy in the days after her tragic death. Also, Tony Randall and Martin Gabel were great in their roles as the two of them were pretty much permanent guest panelists on the show. This show will always be a perfect example of style, sophistication and downright fun.
Suffering an obsession with the JFK Assassination, I discovered a Ms. Dorothy Kilgallon entangled in the mess. After researching this incredible woman, I started watching 'What's My Line'; having always disagreed with gameshows, I maintained a wearying distance for, ahhhhh 5 seconds :D Within the first few moments I was hooked; the original panelists and Jon Daly exhibit erudition, reason, and humour. Fully exemplary of the class, intelligence, communication, and confidence that America has lacked for entirely too long, I feel as if 'What's My Line?' should be required watching in school, lol! So! My third episode is tonight. I CAN'T WAIT!
Watching reruns of the original What's My Line on the Game Show Network (which has just cancelled its "Black & White Sunday Night," much to my dismay) reminds me of what is missing in today's entertainment: Genuine wit and intelligence. The celebrity participants in this and other "early TV" panel shows simply sparkle in a natural way that is rarely if ever seen in today's world of airbrushed, stage-managed "images." There's an innocence, too, that could never be duplicated 40+ years beyond the heyday of these shows. It's really sad these programs can't find appreciation among a new audience, but perhaps the very qualities that seem so appealing are what hinder that. I hope some day this version of this show gets another chance to captivate audiences the way it captivates me.
I agree with all previous comments about "What's My Line?" (urbane,
witty, erudite, sophisticated and intelligent), and I would add this
thought: All these appellations are true because this show respected
its audience. It did not pander. The panelists were never afraid to use
a multisyllabic word. No doubt, some "creative consultant" would stop
such behavior today.
Additionally, the show is a time capsule of New York in the '50s. You always knew who was "in town," and often why. Sure, maybe the appearance promoted a Broadway show or a book, but it always seemed more "newsy" than "promotional," unlike today when a talk show host holds up the book or shows an outtake from a movie.
A trivia note: Actress Jayne Meadows appeared as the Mystery Guest on 1 August 1954, the day after her marriage to Steve Allen,who was regular panelist that night. She disguised her voice (as the Mystery Guest often did), prompting Allen to comment that he thought the Mystery Guest might be Minnie Mouse. Panelist Arlene Francis correctly identified Meadows.
I watched "What's My Line" as a child and am grateful for the chance to see the series again as part of the Game Show Network's current lineup (as of January 2003). This particular show is wonderful in all it's incarnations, though I really enjoy the "early years" from 1951 thru 1967. Besides the fun of guessing the contestants' occupations, it's a joy to listen to the humorous banter of the 4 panelists and the host John Charles Daily. The special guests add an entertaining and historical aspect to the show, as so many of the guests have long since passed away. Though I like many game shows, "What's My Line" will long remain my favorite...and one of the reasons I enjoy the late night hours lately! Check it out before the Game Show Networks revamps their lineup!
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