Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Sunday Memory Drawer - Miss Francis' Gown by Bonwit Teller

Via Time Warner Cable, I find myself suddenly having access to this retro cable network called Buzzr.   It's jam packed with reruns of old game shows and catnip to this kitty.  If you want to get a sense of television history, you need to indoctrinate yourself with this genre now long gone from the screen.

All the fun is here.   The wonderfully funny "Match Game 72-73-74-75-76-77-78-79-PM" with the criminally brilliant Charles Nelson Reilly as one of the panelists.   "Tattletales" with the hair spray-coiffed host Bert Convy and three feuding celebrity couples.   "Super Password" with Allen Ludden as host only to be replaced when he died by...wait for it...the aforementioned Convy.

But it's the late night offerings that intrigue me the most.   Black-and-white stuff from the 50s and 60s.  "To Tell The Truth" hosted by Bud Collyer and usually sponsored by Anacin.  "I've Got a Secret" with host Garry Moore and regular panelists Bill Cullen, Betsy Palmer, Henry Morgan, and Bess Myerson.

But there is one that I'm especially drawn to and I am revisiting one more time. Indeed, it actually came in at #20 of My Top 25 Favorite TV Shows of All Time.

"What's My Line?"   Sponsored back in the 50s by something called Stopette.   "Poof, there goes perspiration!"

Thanks to the Game Show Network a few years ago, the wonderfully infectious game show is still running just like it was when I was staying up late on Sunday nights to see it back when. It used to be situated right after "Candid Camera" and both those shows made me feel like I was part of the adult world. The adult world that was around the age of 7 or 8, but the adult world nonetheless. 

It was inexplicable that I was DVRing a show that featured episodes from over 60 years ago.   And even more inexplicable that I am watching them again thanks to Buzzr.   But, it is the greatest time capsule we can ever have of the entertainment world as it existed in the 50s and 60s. 

It also transports me back to summers of old. When that huge kitchen electric fan was blowing beautiful breezes through the house. And I was allowed for two months to stay up and watch "What's My Line?"

"What's My Line?" was like a big party game at somebody's house. The panelists could have been some configuration of my parents, aunts, and uncles who used to attack some kind of board game after one too many Schaefer beers. Except the WML panelists were usually in formal attire with gowns by Bonwit Teller, while my family was decked out in EJ Korvette's finest. The TV folks looked like they were having such fun guessing the occupation of a couple of nobodys. 

So were the folks at home. In what was perhaps the simplest form of TV games, we watched this as a family unit. My parents and grandparents gearing up for a week of work. I was prepping for another summer week of horseplay. And "What's My Line?" provided the best way to get that all started.

Beyond the odd occupations which frequently ranged from a lady umpire to a false teeth polisher, the best part of the show for me was when they would truck out a mystery guest for which the panel was blindfolded. Whoever was in NY showed up live on Sunday night to stump the panel. They were usually in town to promote some movie or their week-long upcoming engagement at the Copacabana. When you watch these damn things forty or fifty years later, it is like unopening some cigar box of junk you buried in your yard ages ago. Watch here as Lucy and Desi try to stump the panel at the very height of their "I Love Lucy" popularity.

 You never knew what to expect. Danny Kaye pops in to talk about kids getting those little orange boxes to trick or treat for UNICEF. Beyond those stupid blindfolds, you can actually see the mental wheels turning on each of the regular panelists, Bennett Cerf, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Arlene Francis, who was so cool I wanted her to be my mother. They're all trying to figure out who's in town or who is opening in a play. One of the contestants had a job sorting out Minnesota Twins tickets for the 1965 World Series that was starting later in the week.

Since the show was live, host John Charles Daly often references something that happened that day. A blizzard. A heat wave. The Pope's visit. The New York Football Giants' winning field goal. It's such a great timeline of life that the show should run on The History Channel.

Of course, "What's My Line?" had to endure almost on-screen deaths of two regular panelists. On some March night in 1956, Fred Allen dropped dead on the sidewalks of New York, while walking his dog. The very next night, he was supposed to be on WML, and, of course, with much grief, the show did go on. The same thing happened in 1965 when Dorothy Kilgallen went home from the program one Sunday night and promptly went buns up in bed. They reran these shows in sequence on the Game Show Network and it is very eerie to watch someone on "live" TV who you know will be dead in less than 12 hours. They still don't know whether it was a combo of booze and pills that did her in. Or, reportedly, she had some inside dope on President Kennedy's murder and got offed by the mob. Nevertheless, the following week's show was a study in how people deal with heartbreak over the loss of a friend. And it is all there in black and white fuzzy tape.

Whoever at producer Goodson-Todman had the foresight of taping all these live broadcasts was a genius. Because we can still enjoy this weekly cocktail party of life to this day. The darn thing ran for almost 18 years on CBS, and they amazingly have almost 98% of all the shows. There was always a guest male panelist. And when it was the quintessential Groucho Marx, watch out.


Gee, why couldn't my parents be that funny at their parties?

Dinner last night:  French dip panini at the Arclight.

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