April 20, 2022

"The Wacky Show That Shook a Nation"

The infamous Lando Gegoli (right) with host Mike Bongiorno

Sometimes you wind up doing the wrong thing for the right reason. (And other times you just wind up being wrong.) In this case, I meant to say something on Saturday about the headline across the top of this week's TV Guide cover: "The Wacky Show That Shook a Nation." Anticipating questions about a provocative headline like that, I was going to explain that it was about an Italian show that had gone off the air in 1959, and that we needn't concern ourselves with it any further. I forgot, though, and so I wound up answering questions about it anyway. And it was a good thing as it turned out, because Nino Lo Bello's story makes for far more interesting reading than anything I'd been planning to say today anyway.

The show in question is Lascia o Raddoppia, which roughly translates as "Leave It or Double It," and it's described as Italy's version of The $64,000 Question. And in answer to one of those questions I received, it didn't, unlike its American counterpart, have any scandals; and yet, as Lo Bello says, "nothing in history will ever quite compare with the absurd sequence of events related to that show." Since we're all about absurdity around here, I saw this as a promising start. Indeed, when a newspaper recently suggested bringing back the show, a Government spokesman responded, "Isn't it enough we fought that pestilence once? Wouldn't it be easier to bring back the bubonic plague instead?"

To understand all this, it's necessary to look at the case of Lando Degoli, who taught high school math, and presented himself as an expert on opera. (And at the outset I want to note that there is no guarantee American audiences would have responded to the following the same way Italians did to this story.) He'd announced to viewers that he was intending to "go all the way" for the top prize of $5 million lire, which amounts to a little over $8,000 US, because he and his wife wanted to adopt a baby. 

So far, so good—until he got to the $4,000 question, which was: "In what opera did Verdi first use the double bassoon?" Stunned and on the verge of tears, Degoli had to respond, "I just don't know." According to Lo Bello, the fallout divided all of Italy into pro- and anti-double bassoonists. From the floor of Parliament, legislators insisted that it was unfair to ask amateurs such hard questions. (I told you we might not react in the same way.)

Finally, RAI, the State-owned network, decided to invite Degoli back onto the show as if he'd answered the question correctly, and give him the chance to win the grand prize. Degoli then produced a monkey wrench of his own. "These questions, if they were easy, I'd refuse to answer on the basis of my dignity," he said admirably. "I'm leaving this most cruel of all games." He then added, however, that he was going to take the money after all, even though he'd committed himself to going "all the way." Viewers, who had invested so much emotion in Degoli's quest, felt betrayed. So betrayed, in fact, that the government had to provide Degoli with security for two months until things died down. That's how big Lascia o Raddoppia was.

You can't overestimate the popularity of the show. Contestants received as many as 2,000 letters a week. Those who were down and out were deluged with offers of help. Attractive young ladies were swamped with proposals of marriage. And this leads us to the story of Maria Luisa Garoppo, the Tobacco Girl of Casale. For two months, she'd thrilled viewers with her knowledge of Greek drama, which was ample, and her 45-inch bust, which was also ample. (Not to mention that she had a 19-inch waist, which simply accentuated the positive.) 

Wearing a tight red dress, the Tobacco Girl set off all kinds of alarms of scandal, with half the county outraged by her appearance (this is the 1950s, after all), and the other half drooling. The network, sensing trouble on the horizon, decided to pay her off to leave the show (they told viewers she was leaving due to "emotional shock"). Conservatives praised the decision; one pointed out that Pope Pius XII was a big fan of the show, and applauded a return to modesty. Communists accused the Church of getting involved in matters that didn't concern it; said one, "The Vatican is evidently discontented with God, for it seeks to change His creations." The controversy continued for a week.

Paola Bolognani and her mother
There was Marisa Zocchi (Miss Tuscany of 1954), going for the $8 grand so she could hire a full-time nurse for her ailing mother; it was another story that enchanted the country. When push came to shove, however, she tearfully announced she couldn't risk losing the $4,000 she'd already won—she had to take it "for Mom's sake." There was no backlash, as the poor Degoli had experienced; in fact, this one had a happy ending, as King Farouk (another loyal viewer) was so moved that he sent her a money order for the additional $4,000 she might have won if she'd gone for the last question. Then there was Paola Bolognani, the attractive 18-year-old contestant who became famous enough (22 magazine covers, over 20,000 letters, and 3,500 offers of marriage) that a newspaper tried to cash in on her fame by publishing a (true) story disclosing that she was an illegitimate child, with an entire family of step siblings she didn't even know about. An outraged public rioted outside the newspaper's headquarters, stoning their windows; while RAI received more letters than ever before. Streets were deserted the night she tried—and succeeded—at winning the grand prize, a three-part question on soccer.

Stories like this led to Lascia o Raddoppia's eventual downfall. While American networks would kill for this kind of publicity (and there's no such thing as bad publicity), the Government resented all the attention it was receiving. They'd created a monster; everyone was talking about Lascia and not about them. In fact, the Christian Democratic Party and the Italian Communist Party combined forces to, as Lo Bello put it, "assassinate" the show. I admit to not quite understanding this; after all, Roman politicians had once promised the people bread and circuses, but I guess even Caesar might have felt that this went too far. One politician called Lascia o Raddoppia a "Trojan horse," presumably comparing it to the evils wrought by wine, women and song. "If Mussolini had been around when it started, he would have booted that cursed quiz to Dante's inferno. It did Italy more harm than all her enemies put together." Heaven forbid that American politicians (cough—TipperGore—cough—DanQuayle) would have accused pop culture of being so detrimental.

And so the legend of "The Wacky Show That Shook a Nation" comes to an end. Incredibly, the show does make a comeback—three of them, in fact, as you can read here. (You'll also learn that the show's most famous contestant was American composer John Cage.) And I'm glad I didn't dismiss it with one line on Saturday. It has to be one of the more colorful stories in television's often-colorful history, and I just feel better knowing about it. Don't you? TV  

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