February 20, 2016

This week in TV Guide: February 23, 1957

I mentioned the Van Doren family briefly last week, and here we are with Charles, the poster boy for the rise and fall of the 1950s quiz show. I don't say that disparagingly; I actually have a great deal of respect for Charles Van Doren. I thought the movie Quiz Show, while very good as entertainment, didn't particularly present an accurate portrayal of Van Doren. But it is true that for many, discussion of the Quiz Show Scandal begins and ends with Van Doren.

As opposed to the vapid, "mistakes were made" non-apologies that pollute today's celebrity landscape, Van Doren took his punishment with dignity. He had no choice but to resign his position at Columbia and he was sacked from Today by NBC, but he went further than that, virtually disappearing from the public eye. That doesn't mean he quit living, though: he became an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and continued to write books, the best-known of which were A History of Knowledge (which resides in the Hadley library) and How to Read a Book. But as the years went by he never attempted to reenter public life (as so many do after the appropriate penitential period), never tried to tell his side of the story, never alluded to what had happened, didn't even return to Columbia for twenty-three years, when his son graduated. There were only two exceptions to this: an appearance on Today in 1985 to promote A History of Knowledge, where he spoke briefly of the scandal's aftermath, and a fascinating 2008 article he wrote for The New Yorker, in which he discussed not only the scandal, but the attempts by the makers of Quiz Show to enlist him as a consultant, an offer he eventually declined. Other than that, though his words have been read by many, he has not been seen (except as a teacher), not been heard. Would that others would follow his example, one worthy of admiration.

I know you might suggest he could have done nothing else, particularly given the time and mores, but many others have been busted for more egregious crimes than cheating on a quiz show (assault, drug use, embezzlement). True, his wrongdoing was, in a way, quite different: he, along with the producers, sponsors and other contestants, was guilty of taking advantage of the good will and trust (some might say "gullibility") of the American people, and that's nothing to be laughed at, even though it might or might not get you a second glance today. One can come up with all the justifications, the rationalizations, that one wants - and yet, in the end, it doesn't change a thing. Van Doren pleaded guilty to the criminal charges against him, as did all those involved, and accepted the public verdict casting him out of the square.

All this is in the future, however. The focus of this 1957 article is on Van Doren's experience on 21. He is, in the words of writer Bob Stahl, "a 9 o'clock scholar," a college instructor making $4,400 a year at Columbia. "How does he feel," he's asked, "to win $122,000 on a TV quiz show like Twenty-one?" "In a word," Van Doren replies, "incredible."  What is he going to do with all that money? "For one thing, there are so many things I won't have to worry about now. You know, the little things." Instead of worrying about his 1948 Studebaker, and putting leather patches over the elbows of his suit, "I can get that Mercedes-Benz sports car I've wanted so long, and I can buy any suit that I choose." He'll probably invest the rest of the money.

Juxtaposing this article with Van Doren's New Yorker story makes for some interesting moments. For example, Van Doren has received hundreds of women, some sending their pictures while others just their measurements. When Stahl asks him about marriage plans, he says, "I'm not talking," then adds, "my accountant tells me that under the tax setup, a wife will be worth about $17,000 to me this year. That almost makes getting married worth while." In fact, of course, he has a special young woman, Geraldine, whom he will marry six months later, and to whom he remains married today, and it is Gerry to whom he turns whenever he needs to discuss his growing doubts about the whole thing.

He's become a hero to his students at Columbia; "When I came to class this Tuesday morning after I won $99,000, I couldn't quiet them down for 15 minutes." When he returns to the show this week, he'll have a big decision to make: whether to quit, or to risk his $122,000 (none of which he's seen yet; that won't happen until he leaves the show) and continue on. His biggest concern right now seems to be his tax status; since he started winning on the show in 1956 but hasn't yet received it, will the government consider his winnings to be for 1957 only, in which case their cut will be bigger, or will they divide the income proportionately between the two years? Yes, life is good for Charles Van Doren.

We know how the fairy tale ends; the hero loses it all - his jobs, his money, his social standing. But it seems to me that he feels a sense of relief that the truth has come out, perhaps he has wanted it to happen all along. His father had wondered if his new life, his fame and fortune had really made him happy, and I think Charles wondered that himself. He knew there would be a price to pay for what he had done, and he pays it without complaint. As the years pass, as times change and standards loosen, he remains silent, continuing his career writing and teaching, with his wife Gerry supporting him when the temptation to return arose. His life has been productive, content, happy. What happened to Charles Van Doren might have brought others down, but he has shown it does not have to be the end of life; it can be a beginning as well. However politically incorrect it may be to say so, Charles Van Doren has taken his punishment like a man, and has lived his life like one as well.

***

Following Bob Stahl's article, Frank DeBlois takes a look at the other side of quiz show success, with the story of Al Einfrank. DeBlois catches up with him the day after Einfrank's spectacular flame-out on The $64,000 Question, where he loses his $32,000 in winnings due to a question on geography.

Einfrank's specialty is geography, he explains. He's been "gone" on it since he was a kid, spending hours reading maps, studying history, using his time in the Navy to travel the world and see everything he's read about. When he finds himself answering watching The Big Surprise on TV and doing better than the contestants, his wife suggests "you ought to go on that show." He writes to The $64,000 Question and tells them his story - a truck driver for Douglas Aircraft who's also an expert on geography,m zoology and U.S. history. It's the human interest story that producers love. A week later he receives a phone call, and before he knows it he's on the show. His winnings accumulate, week after week, until he's at the $32,000 level, facing the $64,000 question. He asks his wife whether he should take his winnings or go for it all, and she tells him, "you know what you're doing. Go ahead and do it your way, Al."

He does, and the question he receives from emcee Hal March is "a question Einstein couldn't answer." It consists of "seven outline maps, each showing a country, its capital and an important river. Al was asked to name each country and the river identified on each map." All he could do was gulp and tell March, "Hal, you got me." He tells DeBlois, "I should have had a college professor go down with me. It would have softened the loss." I wonder who he might have been talking about?

Einfrank insists he's not bitter, doesn't regret his experience, even though all he receives as a consolation prize is Cadillac convertible, to which he remarks, "What am I going to do with a Cadillac? I'm going home more broke than when I came here." The producers tell him he might be invited back on Question's companion show, The $64,000 Challenge, as soon as they can find a geography expert to challenge him. He's met plenty of friendly people in New York, from the jeweler who have him a money clip with an emerald, one of only three like it in the world. "Ike's got one of them and MacArthur's got the other," to the stranger who came to him the morning after his defeat and gave him $50, saying he was sorry Al had lost, and that he should "Go buy a nice breakfast."

The story doesn't end with the TV Guide article; later stories in the newspapers tell how he sold the Caddy for a cheaper car and headed back home, but suffered a nervous breakdown in Tucson and spent six days in the hospital. His wife, so supportive in the article, leaves him, saying "Why didn't you stop at 32?" to which he replied, "We've been married 32 years; Is money everything?"

Our last report on Al Einfrank comes in Paul Coates' Los Angeles Times column of January 26, 1960. Coates has kept in touch with Einfrank since the initial Question appearance. True to the producers' words, they bring him back on Challenge, where he wins $16,000 and retires. In a second appearance he gets to the $16,000 level and loses, netting him a consolation price of $1,000. He and his wife eventually reconcile - after all, you can't throw away over 30 years just like that. Coates keeps in touch with Al ("He was the kind of man whom it's a pleasure to keep in touch with."), and when the scandal breaks he asks Al if his appearance was rigged. No, Einfrank replies "supported by the circumstantial fact that he lost the big question." His last contact with Coates comes when Al stops in to the paper to say hi; he's been laid off from his job and the money from the shows is long gone, but "I got unemployment and my Navy pension." He's a bit bored, but still has a sunny outlook on life - one much brighter than it appeared in that TV Guide interview - and says what he's said throughout it all, that he has no regrets about any of it.

***

Sometimes these TV Guide pieces just write themselves. I mentioned how Al Einfrank's big adventure had started by watching The Big Surprise, and now we get the biggest surprise of all. For our next article is about the "innocuous emcee" of The Big Surprise, who happens to be none other than:

Mike Wallace. Yes, that Mike Wallace.

And the question running through the New York television world right now is, "When is Mike Wallace going to get his face punched in?"

To explain how Mike Wallace's past and future seem to have converged in one page requires a bit of explanation. It starts with Wallace's TV work, which not only includes The Big Surprise but a pair of talk shows done with his former wife Buff Cobb, as well as acting roles in series like Stand By for Crime, which he did under his real name, Myron Wallace, and as an occasional panelist on To Tell the Truth. He also did commercials, as did so many actors of the time.

And then Mike Wallace decides he wants to do something serious. The result is Night Beat, which appears on New York's WABD, which is described as "part Person to Person and part Spanish Inquisition."  The difference between Wallace the game show host and Wallace the interviewer is as stark as the set on which Night Beat is shot, a set with just two chairs and a spotlight, which shines on an increasingly nervous guest as Wallace pumps him or her with blunt questions. For example, the article contrasts Wallace's Big Surprise contestant, 11-year-old Leonard Ross ("Hello, there, you little rascal!") with his recent grilling of the author of a "best-selling and highly erotic novel," asking her if the book was autobiographical. And then there's the time he asks Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen, this one: "Psychiatrists say that a man who risks his life many times is not a brave man but one who doubts his own manhood. Does this apply to you?" So successful has the series been, Mike's now headed to ABC for what would turn out to be The Mike Wallace Interview.

For those of us who grew up with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, none of this would have come as a particular surprise. In fact, we might thing some of these questions were rather soft, given the spectacular ambush interviews we've seen him spring on unsuspecting victims. But in 1957, nobody had any clue that this "Mr. Hyde" side of Wallace existed. And even having seen Wallace asking "rude questions" on Night Beat, would those people have been prepared for the fame and accomplishment of 60 Minutes? It's not just the crossover between entertainment and news that was common back in the day*, but the stark difference between the two aspects of Wallace. I'm not sure what you'd compare this transformation to today; not John Stewart or Steven Cobert and their faux-journalism, but someone with real chops.

*For example, it's not odd that avuncular Hugh Downs could make the transition from sidekick to Jack Paar and Arlene Francis to host of Concentration to lead on The Today Show. Perhaps you could cite John Daly's double-duty on the ABC evening news and as moderator on What's My Line? (on two different networks, yet!), or Ron Cochran hosting Armstrong Circle Theatre (which always had a docudrama edge to it) before anchoring the ABC news. Try imagining Merv Griffin, let's say, going from band singer to game show emcee to talk show host to, what? Anchor of ABC's World News Tonight?

One could only imagine what it would have been like if Wallace had sunk his teeth into Charles Van Doren around this time.

***

Rarely have I seen a piece that wrote itself the way this one has. We haven't even had a chance to dip into the week's programs, but I think we've been able to fully capture a particular era in time: the late '50s, the time of the quiz show scandal, the so-called "end of television innocence," and the beginning of the transition into the '60s and the first glimpse of the future of television journalism.

What did you think of it? In some ways, it's a throwback to how I saw this feature when I first conceived It's About TV. In looking to TV Guide to illustrate the impact television has had on American culture, I thought we might only occasionally have to dip into the programs themselves to illustrate it. Given the way one story flowed into another this week, I thought it was a good idea to just stick with it and see what happened, and I think this piece is long enough that we don't have to add more to it. We've got Monday, after all, when we'll look at a day's programming. Perhaps I'll take Wednesday to share some of the program highlights of the week - there are a few, you know, enough to have filled a page most weeks.

4 comments:

  1. On - or off - topic?
    You decide.

    When Quiz Show, the movie, was released, nearly all the rave reviews set great store by the idea that the film " ... named all the names ..." of the various participants in the Twenty-One scandal.

    And so it did ...
    ... with one curious exception:

    You may remember "The Sponsor", played by Martin Scorsese.
    This is supposed to represent two real-life men who were the runners of Pharmaceuticals Inc., the manufacturer of Geritol.
    Scorsese's character is named 'Martin Rittenholm', and his speech near the end is sort of the moral that Robert Redford is preaching here (what Jack Webb used to call "the Jesus speech" when he did it on Dragnet).
    One of the men that 'Rittenholm' is based on was Matthew Rosenhaus, the real-life head man of Pharmaceuticals Inc., which later evolved into the J.B. Williams Co.
    In showbiz annals, Matty Rosenhaus (as everybody called him) is known for two things:
    - As the underwriter of Lawrence Welk's TV comeback in syndication, after ABC cancelled the Welk show in 1971;
    - As the major stockholder in Columbia pictures who singlehandedly tried to save David Begelman's job as studio head, after that gentleman was caught forging checks and pocketing the cash.

    Ever since I saw Quiz Show, I've been trying to figure out why, out of all the real people who were portrayed in the movie, Rosenhaus was the only one whose real name wasn't used.
    It wasn't because Redford and his studio feared legal blowback, because Rosenhaus had died several years the movie was made.
    Besides, nearly all the other real people involved were still alive (Jack Barry was the only other important decedent), so that wasn't it.
    As I said, it's a mystery ... and normally, I like mysteries.
    Still, this one is a head-scratcher.

    The above is excerpted from a much longer takedown of Quiz Show that I wrote to Roger Ebert's Journal a few years back, to which he did not respond.

    I just wanted to get this puzzling part of it on the record here.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Matthew Rosenhaus' company (which made Geritol, Seratan, Aqua-Velva, etc.) actually sponsored or co-sponsored Welk's TV show for much of it's network run.

    Even as far back as 1971, "barter" was being used for some first-run TV syndication (in this case, a TV station would get a show free of charge if it ran the two or three minutes per show of commercials the sponsor put in the program; the station could sell the rest of the spots to local sponsors).

    When ABC dumped Welk, Rosenhaus supposedly told the maestro and his producers "We can continue producing the show for syndication under this 'barter' arrangement. I'm sure lots of stations will want to pick the show up".

    And they did. The Welk show finally ended in 1982, not because of bad ratings, but think because Welk's had decided to retire.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Actually, "barter" goes back even further, to old-time radio days.

    Some syndicated shows were sent out on transcription disks, which looked like records, but were half again as wide and silver in color.
    Barter shows carried the spots for the advertiser who was footing the bill, and left musical "beds" which the local station would dial down to insert the local ad spots.

    Later, when film syndication came to TV, producers like Frederick Ziv would make deals with sponsors, who would take half the commercial time in a show; ad agencies would go from city to city and sell the shows to individual stations. Kellogg's cereals (and their Chicago-based agency, Leo Burnett) sold the George Reeves Superman series in just this way.
    So when Matty Rosenhaus brought it back in service of Lawrence Welk, there were enough older station managers who remembered the old system to form a receptive market.
    The rest you know.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Myron Wallace also appeared on Broadway, in the 1954 comedy RECLINING FIGURE, set in the art world. And it was the tragic death of his college age son in 1962 that convinced him to give up the entertainment side of his life (at the time he was being offered the hosting job on THE MATCH GAME)

    ReplyDelete

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