Sunday, February 2, 2020

The 70th Anniversary of What's My Line?

It was seventy years ago today, on February 2 1950, that long running panel game show, What's My Line?, debuted on CBS. The premise of What's My Line? was simple. Each week a panel of celebrities would try to guess the occupations of guests on the show. One of the rounds (sometimes two) would be dedicated to a "mystery guest," a celebrity guest star whose identity the panel had to guess. What's My Line? proved to be very successful, so much so that it would become the longest running American primetime game show. It originally ran from 1950 to 1967 on CBS. It would be revived in syndication in 1968. The syndicated version ran until 1975.

What's My Line? was one of the early successes of Mark Goodman-Bill Todman Productions. They had already seen success with the game show Winner Take All in 1948 and Stop the Music in 1949. It was Bob Bach, a producer on the Mark Goodman-Bill Todman radio quiz show Spin to Win, who came up with the concept behind What's My Line?. While on the subway or in bars, Mr. Bach would try to guess the occupations of various people. It was then in 1949, after some hesitation on the part of the network, that Mark Goodman and Bill Todman sold CBS on a panel game show titled Occupation Unknown. Before it debuted the show would be renamed What's My Line?, the new title being taken from the question individuals would often ask each other when discussing their occupations in the mid-20 Century, "What's your line?."

Gameplay on What's My Life? was very simple, with the show being a guessing game.The game would begin by the contestant or guest entering and signing in by writing his or her name on a chalkboard. The guest would then take a seat beside the host or "moderator." The audience at home would then be shown the guest's occupation or "line." The moderator would then tell the panel if the guest was salaried or self-employed, and after 1960 if the guest offered a service or sold a product. The first panellist would then begin asking the guest questions. If he or she received a "Yes" answer, he or she would continue questioning the guest. If he or she received a "No" answer, questioning would then pass to the next panellist. If the panel received ten "no" answers or the allotted time ran out, the guest  won the game. A panellist had the option of passing to the next panellist for whatever reason. The panel could also hold a conference in which they could discuss things.

The "mystery guest" rounds, featuring a celebrity guest, would proceed a little differently from the standard rounds. The entire panel would put on blindfolds so that they could not see the mystery guest. The mystery guest would then sign in and gameplay would begin. Rather than guessing the mystery guest's occupation, the goal was to guess the mystery guest's identity. Over the years many mystery guests appeared on What's My Line?, from such entertainment figures as Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope, and Angela Lansbury to such sports figures as Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Jack Dempsey to yet other famous people from other fields.

For the entirety of its run on CBS, the moderator of What's My Line? was John Daly. John Daly was a respected newsman who had begun his career at NBC Radio before switching to CBS Radio. He served as CBS's White House correspondent and later as a war correspondent during World War II. Mr. Daly would be the first national news reporter to break the news of the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7 1941. He was also the first to break the news of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death. Throughout the run of What's My Line? John Daly only missed four episodes of the show.

The celebrity panel would change over time. Newspaper columnist Dorothy Kilgallen was with the show from its very beginning. She would be joined on the second episode of What's My Line by another long-running panellist, actress Arlene Francis. It was in 1951 that another long running panellist, publisher Bennett Cerf, replaced poet Louis Untermeyer on the panel. It was in 1953 that comedian Steve Allen replaced comedy writer Hal Block on the panel. Steve Allen would leave the show in 1954 to host The Tonight Show on NBC, but he would make one lasting contribution to the show (and popular culture, for that matter)  by way of its most memorable catchphrase. It was on the January 18 1953 episode that he first asked the question, "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" The question would become a mainstay of the show for the rest of its run. Eventually there was a guest whose occupation actually was making breadboxes. When Steve Allen left, he would be replaced by comedian Fred Allen. Fred Allen would remain on What's My Line? until his death in 1956. Afterwards a guest panellist would fill Fred Allen's spot on the panel until the show ended its run. After Dorothy Killgallen died in 1965, her spot would also be filled by a guest panellist.

The appeal of What's My Line? was not in its various guests, but instead in the interaction among the panellists and the many witty lines they would come up with while attempting to guess a guest's occupation. The panellists' often used double entendre, so much so that John Daly had a signal to them to warn them not to go too far. Mr. Daly would tug his right ear lobe as a warning to the panellists to back away from any further innuendoes. In particular, Bennett Cerf was known for making puns on his name, something which John Daly would sometimes try to one up him on.

While What's My Line? could be an outrageously funny show, it was also one with an air of formality. In the early days the gentleman would wear business suits. After 1953 they wore black suits with bow ties. The ladies wore evening gowns and often gloves. John Daly would usually address the panellists by the suitable honorific and their surname. For instance, he would refer to Dorothy Killgallen as "Miss Killgallen." 

For a brief time there was also a radio version of What's My Line?. It ran on NBC Radio May 20, 1952 to August 27 1952. Afterwards it aired on CBS Radio until July 1 1953. The television version would see a major change at the start of the 1966-1967 season. Having always been broadcast in black and white, it was now broadcast in colour.

What's My Line? proved to be popular from the very beginning. Unfortunately, as seasons passed its ratings would decline and its audience would grow older. It was then in 1967 that CBS cancelled What's My Line?, along with fellow panel game show I've Got a Secret and the Western Gunsmoke, because its audience was too old and it was drawing too few viewers in television's key demographic (18 to 49 year olds). While Gunsmoke would receive a reprieve, both What's My Line? and I've Got a Secret ended their network runs.

What's My Line? would not remain off the air for long, as it returned in syndication in 1968. The syndicated version was initially hosted by Wally Bruner and, after its fourth season, actor Larry Blyden. Arlene Francis returned as a panellist and would be joined by Soupy Sales as a regular panellist on the show. The revival ultimately lasted until 1975.

Over the years there have been attempts to revive What's My Line?, although none of them ever made it to the air. A live version of What's My Line? was staged from November 2004 to July 2006 by Jim Newman and J. Keith van Straaten at the ACME Comedy Theatre in Los Angeles, California. It moved to New York City in 2008 and ran for six shows.

Fortunately, for the most part What's My Line? would not befall the fate of many early television shows. In the late Forties well into the Sixties, it was not unusual for the networks to wipe game shows, soap operas, and other programming. What's My Line? was recorded through kinescope onto film. As with other programming, in the early days CBS wiped the kinescopes of What's My Line?. This stopped in July 1952 after Mark Goodman and Bill Todman found out about it. The producers then told CBS that they would pay them for the film of each episode. It is for that reason that while only ten episodes from 1950 to 1952 survive, the rest of the run of What's My Line? is mostly intact.

The surviving episodes of What's My Line? have aired on the Game Show Network and are now widely available on YouTube. As a result What's My Line? has developed a following of individuals who were not even born yet when the show was originally run. The appeal of the show for young people is manifold. First, the show stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood number among the many mystery guests on the show, so that it appeals to young fans of classic film. Second, and perhaps more importantly, young fans of What's My Line? appreciate the many bon mots thrown about by John Daly and the panellists. If What's My Line? was successful in its original run and is now being rediscovered by new generations, it is perhaps because it was a very intelligent show. Today a game show featuring a panel consisting of a respected columnist, a publisher, and a well-known actress would be unthinkable. That having been said, that is exactly what made What's My Line? a success.


Steve Bailey said...

Good column, but I'm surprised you didn't mention Groucho Marx, whose many appearances as a panelist often stole the show. YouTube has a huge selection of his guest appearances.

Caftan Woman said...

The hubby has been spending a lot of time watching What's My Line? on YouTube lately.

I first caught it on syndicated television in the late 1960s and became an immediate fan. It is easy to see why it would garner new fans over the years.

Evil Woman Blues said...

The operative word when describing the allure of this show is urbane. Each contestant was witty, sophisticated and well informed. The female wardrobes were emblematic of the Mad Men culture that defined the era. And beneath this layer of civility lay a sense of seriousness. The panelists seemed to put a lot of effort into the endeavor, unlike later game shows of the '70s, did not use their appearance as a platform to advance their careers or tell stupid jokes. I think specifically of Match Game. In any event, interesting post.

sus453 said...

And also, don't forget the poet Louis Untermeyer, an original panelist, who was forced off the show by McCarthyism and the Knights of Columbus for signing a petition about nuclear war. I think Bennett Cerf (who was great) was his replacement.