September 17, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #5: What's My Line?

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.

Felix culpa. Happy fault, in the Latin. An accident, something that wasn’t supposed to happen and probably shouldn’t have happened but did, and something very good comes from it.

You never like the phone call in the middle of the night, because it can only mean one of two things: bad news, or a wrong number. In the case of the later, you often wind up angrier than if it had been the former, partly from frustration, partly from relief. On this particular night, which I suppose was ten or so years ago, it was indeed the later. I answered the phone, exercising one of my few natural gifts, that of sounding wide awake even when I’ve been roused from a deep sleep. The voice at the other end was female, not pleasant sounding. I can’t remember now if she asked for a man or a woman – a man, I think – but it was obviously not me she was looking for, and I told her she had the wrong number. She didn’t seem to like this idea, and insisted that I put this person on. I hung up, since she sounded as if she might have had one-too-many and wasn’t open to reason.

A moment later she called again, reiterating her demand that I put this person on. I repeated my assertion that no such person existed, at least in our home, and to leave us alone. By the time of the third call (for she was nothing if not persistent), I resorted to threatening to call the police. “Go right ahead,” she assured me. There was something both nasty and determined about her, suggesting that if this was a prank it was a malicious one, and if not then whoever she was after was in big trouble.

Well, after three calls it was starting to get a little disturbing, frankly, so I unplugged the phone. Little good it did, though, for now I was wide awake, and at a quarter after two in the morning the better part of the night’s sleep was already gone. And then an idea: I had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon, and I had to fast 12 hours for it. I still had time – why not go to the kitchen and get something to eat? And while I was at it I might as well turn on the TV and see what was going on. After all, what would a snack be without TV, especially when you didn’t have to worry about waking the rest of the house?

My wife wasn’t particularly hungry but was just as awake, so we trooped out to the living room, where I sat in my recliner with a bowl of instant oatmeal and the TV remote. It was hard to find anything but informercials until I stopped on a black-and-white videotape image. I’d run into the Game Show Network, which I’d seen a couple of times but not often enough to remember what channel number it was, and the image I was seeing was an early 60s broadcast of Password. I’d always enjoyed Password, had had the home version when I was a kid. It was a kick seeing the old fashions, the formality, the celebrity guests. We watched the end of the game (“Gee, that was fun!”), and I checked the programming guide to see what was next. What’s My Line?, I was told. I had no idea these shows were on, so I figured that another half-hour without sleep wasn’t going to make any difference.

Felix culpa.

Suddenly I was taken back to another time and place – another world, really. A genteel, sophisticated world where men wore tuxedos and women evening gowns, where everyone were erudite and humorous and well-read. It was love at first sight.

A typical line
I remembered watching What’s My Line?, which had premiered in 1950 and ran until 1967, when I was a kid. I didn’t remember that much about it, although I knew my mother hadn’t liked Bennett Cerf, head of Random House and a regular panelist – she thought he was a political liberal, and quite possibly a Communist. I knew the name Dorothy Kilgallen; she was a newspaper columnist, and had died from an overdose in the early 60s. Arlene Francis I recognized from her appearances on game shows throughout the time, though I didn’t know then that she was also a serious actress. And John Daly, the host, was always described with words like "urbane", and had been the Mystery Guest on the show’s last episode.*

*Fun fact: John Daly's second wife was the daughter of Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States.

I wasn’t about to repeat the experience of getting up at 2:30 to watch What’s My Line?, which is why God made it possible for the VCR to be invented. And as the episodes flew by, and the years*, I came to view the WML team as old friends, joining a legion of fans (such as Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout) who relished the reruns on GSN and discussed their cultural significance.

*There were a lot of episodes in those seventeen years, even though many of the early ones no longer exist. The show was often done live and never did reruns, meaning that if you multiply 17 ½ seasons by 52 weeks and eliminate the less-than-three-dozen times it was preempted, you’ll come up with the nearly 900 episodes that were made.

It was an innocent time back then, or at least one much different from our own.  It was a time when viewers could be amused by the idea that a woman might be a men's barber or a district attorney, that a man with a charming British accent might be a high school history teacher on loan from England, that a young college student could earn extra money by raising worms or catching mosquitoes for research purposes.  It was, in short, a time when people did things, made things, used their hands, and that's one reason why the show probably wouldn't catch on today - nobody makes anything anymore.  We all have computers to do the jobs that we haven't already outsourced to India.

Clockwise, from top: Bennett,
Dorothy, John, Arlene
Bennett might in fact have been a Commie, though he most certainly was a liberal, but he was also literate and witty, a connoisseur of puns and an appreciator of female beauty*, a man who read both the front page and the sports page and knew what was going on. Arlene was elegant and charming, aristocratic at times, but always seeking to form a bond with the contestant. Dorothy, who many viewed as the “heavy,” could be a shrew and sometimes seemed to be a little tipsy as well, but was incredibly shrewd and intelligent, as was her wont as a Broadway columnist and crime reporter, and her death – even though it occurred almost 50 years ago – is still affecting. And the guest panelists – from Steve Allen, who only left the show because of his duties as host of Tonight (and who also coined the question “is it bigger than a breadbox” on WML) to Robert Q. Lewis’ smoothness to the cultured, dignified tones of Arlene’s husband, stage actor Martin Gabel

*It was also a time when men in the audience whistled whenever a pretty girl signed in, and she was flattered by it.

And there was the man who held it all together - John Daly, who was the most urbane man on television, with his South Africa cum East Coast accent and a habit for circumlocutions that often required a road map to follow.* For over half the show's history, John also managed the neat trick of hosting What's My Line? Sunday nights on CBS while remaining an ABC News executive and host of the network's Monday through Friday nightly news broadcast (he left ABC in 1960).  What I particularly liked about him was that he was not neutral, but most definitely on the side of the contestant, taking every opportunity to try and mislead the panel as to the occupation under discussion. “We got ‘em!” he would say after a contestant had stumped the panel.

*A trait that, for better or worse, I’ve noticed popping up in my own discourse over the years.

So familiar was the panel after so many years together - John was always there, Dorothy was on the very first show,Arlene the second show on, and Bennett by the show's second year - that they became like family friends, stopping over for a Sunday nightcap and some witty conversation before bedtime.  And so it was a distinct shock to everyone when Dorothy died in 1965 of an apparent accidental drug overdose.  That first broadcast after her death was a somber one, John and Bennett, along with old friend Steve Allen, eschewing their tuxedos in favor of straight ties and dark suits, while Arlene and Kitty Carlisle, a Goodson-Todman mainstay, wearing simple dresses rather than evening wear.  The show, in the best entertainment tradition, would go on, but it was never really the same after that; Dorothy's place was filled by guest panelists, and the end for What's My Line? would come two years later.*

*Fred Allen, the well-known radio star who had replaced no-relation-Steve as a regular panelist in 1954, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1956, and was similarly mourned.  Like Dorothy, his seat was never permanently filled; Martin Gabel would be the most frequent guest panelist.

The appearance of the celebrity “Mystery Guest” was always a highlight of each program, with John introducing the segment with words that would seldom change from episode to episode, year to year. It seems as if everyone was on at one time or another, and if they were there mostly to shill for their latest book, movie or television show, it was still fun to see them trying to disguise their voice in order to escape detection.  One of the most famous Mystery Guest segments of them all was the last one, on the series finale of September 3, 1967, when John himself was the mystery guest, shuttling back and forth between his chair and the guest's.  It was a glorious end to the show's 17-year run.

The syndicated WML, which debuted in 1968, had some of the charm but little of the class of the original; John’s references to “Miss Francis” and “Mr. Cerf” being replaced by Wally Bruner (and later Larry Blyden) introducing Soupy Sales. No, there’s no doubt that the world of What’s My Line? is long gone, but there are few television shows that can better reflect that world through its words and images. As long as I have a top 10 list, What’s My Line? will be part of it. And to think it came about totally by accident – Felix culpa, indeed.

The countdown is off again next week but returns in two weeks to reveal the first of the final four series, featuring a man who'd rather not be a number

Last week: Perry Mason


  1. Some What's My Line lore:

    - In 1952, both major political conventions were held in Chicago, about two weeks apart.
    John Daly had just become ABC's principal anchorman, incharge of all convention coverage for those two weeks.
    CBS, in deference to Daly (and Dorothy Kilgallen, who was covering the conventions for her column), aired its live Sunday night broadcasts of What's My Line? from Chicago for both those convention weeks.
    Imagine something like that happening today.

    After everybody plays the imbedded clip, you'll notice that a whole bunch of others come up in the screen to choose from.
    One of my faves is the time that the panelists's spouses are the Mystery Guests (check the look on Tony Randall's face at the reveal; his wife was notoriously press-shy).

    On YouTube, you can find some other dandies, including Erle Stanley Gardner's Mystery Guest appearance from 1957 (watch the clip to se how I can date it that precisely).
    Also some highlight from Fred Allen's days on the show, in cluding a Mystery Guest face-off with Red Skelton that you have to see to believe.

    By the way, did you notice how dark that clip from the last show looks?
    That's because the broadcast was in color, but for some reason only a B&W kinescope was saved.
    In 1967? Why? Who knows ...

    More to come (maybe) ...

    1. Yes, for some reason the color videotape wasn't preserved (expense, probably) which is such a shame. I would have loved to have seen WML in color.

      I'm glad you share my appreciation for the show - great clip suggestions!

    2. It's long out of print by now, but if you can find producer Gil Fates's book What's My Line?, covering his whole history wirth the show (as well as I've Got A Secret and To Tell The Truth and other Goodson-Todman shows, you ought to get it.

      There was one other Fred Allen clip I wanted to mention.
      The Mystery Guest was Jayne Mansfield, who was starring on Broadway at the time in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
      Fred Allen is very sharp in his questioning (belying his oft-stated quip that his function on WML was to never get anything right), but the real surprise is Mansfield, who shows flashes of a genuine talent that she never really got to demonstrate much, because the whole sex-symbol business got in the way.
      By the way, that same show features a semi-Mystery guest spot by a man named Dr. Jules Monteniere, who had a special relationship to What's My Line? (No spoilers- watch and find out for yourself.)

    3. I did manage to lay my hands on Fates's book a few years ago - at a library book sale, if you can believe it. This was when the WML renaissance (thanks to GSN) was at its peak, and the book was going for over $100 on ebay. I think we got it for $2.50. Great stuff.

      I'll have to rewatch the Mansfield clip - I know I've seen that episode before, some time ago. Good excuse to see it again. And I won't give it away, but I know how Dr. Jules Monteniere was!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!