Sorry, Jay and Conan. Too bad, Dave and Craig. Adios, Jimmy Kimmel. Late-night television viewing for this sleepless geek has been hijacked...
Sorry, Jay and Conan. Too bad, Dave and Craig. Adios, Jimmy Kimmel.
Late-night television viewing for this sleepless geek has been hijacked by a South African-born newsman, a U.S. book publisher who fought government censorship of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” a journalist who linked the CIA and Mafia in a planned assassination of Fidel Castro and a Broadway actress who worked with Orson Welles before he made “Citizen Kane.”
All four of these unlikely stars are featured, at midnight seven nights a week, on an irresistible game show from the age of black-and-white TV: a phenomenon called “What’s My Line?” that ended nearly 40 years ago. Part of a library of old game shows on cable channel GSN, “What’s My Line?” recently completed an entire cycle of every available episode from its 17-year history (1950-67) of original, Sunday prime-time broadcasts.
GSN began the series again last month, showing episodes in chronological order. Right now, programs from 1952 are on the air nightly, but soon will come 1953 and beyond. Viewers can easily get hooked on the time-travel whiplash of burning through the Truman years to the Johnson administration.
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A plugged-in panel
At the moment, the host of “What’s My Line?,” elegant CBS newsman and Johannesburg native John Charles Daly, and his permanent panelists are fairly abuzz about the new administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House.
Along with Daly on nearly every show are Dorothy Kilgallen, a newspaper columnist who wrote about links between organized crime and American intelligence; Random House publisher, author and wit Bennett Cerf, who won the milestone case against U.S. censorship of “Ulysses” in 1933; and actress Arlene Francis, a busy stage performer directed by Welles in Mercury Theatre’s “Danton’s Death” as well as his legendary short film “Too Much Johnson.”
Television legend Steve Allen briefly held the panel’s fourth seat (1953-54), where he came up with the nonsensical and now-famous query, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” After he left, the chair was taken up by a succession of male guests, including Jack Lemmon, Groucho Marx and a pre-“The Tonight Show” Johnny Carson.
The show, broadcast from Manhattan — a nerve center for cocktail-party culture and mingling between the arts, publishing, sports and politics — still feels alive with chatter about everything from New York’s mayor to Mickey Mantle to what author or songwriting team just got back in town. Daly, Kilgallen, Cerf and Francis clearly know everything going on in their neighborhood, and often discover the weekly mystery celebrity (typically a public figure identified by a blindfolded panel only from the sound of his or her voice) is someone with whom one of them had dinner the night before.
“What’s My Line?” panelists deduce the occupations or identities of challengers, and there is a great deal to glean both from the selection of guests and discussions that swirl around them. Watching “What’s My Line?” every night opens an often-thrilling window onto America’s mid-20th-century preoccupations with the Cold War, popular culture, fashion, politics and science.
Most of the guests are regular folks with unique if not illustrious careers: people who count eggs or make wigs or test ice-cream flavors. But the parade of challengers also includes people whose jobs now remind us of the country’s various moods in the face of an atomic threat, the assassination of a president and protracted racial injustice. Missile developers, NASA officials, journalists freshly returning from Vietnam and Laos: One can see the aspirations and identity of America changing through “What’s My Line?”
So timely, at the time
In the dawn of the Kennedy administration in 1961, Daly and company’s excitement over anything to do with Jack, Jackie, young Caroline and baby John Jr. reflects the youthful tone of the country. The First Lady’s dressmaker, a nanny, the president’s pilot and others are all guests.
When newly elected President Johnson announces, in January 1964, the hiring of Jerri Whittington as his White House secretary — the first African-American in the role — he does so by asking “What’s My Line?” to have her on. When the Beatles invade New York a month later, the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, appears as a guest.
There are significant touchstones in “What’s My Line?” history. On Nov. 8, 1965, Kilgallen died in her apartment under what some conspiracy believers consider suspicious circumstances. An outspoken critic of the Warren Commission report on JFK’s murder, Kilgallen (the target of an FBI file) claimed to have held a private interview with Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, Jack Ruby, and was writing a book she claimed would blow open the truth behind Kennedy’s assassination.
Ironically, Cerf was going to publish the book, and Daly was the son-in-law of Chief Justice Earl Warren.
The final (and 876th) episode of “What’s My Line?” was broadcast on Sept. 3, 1967, with Daly himself as the surprise, mystery guest. It was the end of an era, a rare instance in which a game show was much more than a game show, and television captured our life and times in a most entertaining way.
Tom Keogh: email@example.com