Even with hundreds of television channels, HBO and all the rest to watch, and Netflix, Amazon and Hulu to stream, sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be “much” on TV.
So, every once in awhile, Ginny and I like to watch “What’s My Line?” The 1950s and ’60s game show is seen currently in all its glorious black and white-ishness on the Buzzr network.
Many of us watched it originally Sunday nights at 9:30 on CBS as something of a ritual. One last weekend hurrah before another week of school would begin the next morning. Seeing it today reminds me just how much television has changed and how good it once was, even in its simplicity.
The game show was moderated by John Charles Daly. His day job the rest of the week was that of radio and television reporter and anchor. No slouch in that department either, he was the first national correspondent to deliver the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, among many other feathers in his cap.
The panel was anchored by Bennett Cerf, the founder and publisher of Random House, who introduced the world to fine literature by the likes of William Faulkner and works like “Atlas Shrugged.”
Arlene Francis was a New York actress better known perhaps for hosting radio and television programs, at one point becoming “the first lady of television.”
Dorothy Kilgallen was a hugely popular syndicated columnist who wrote about entertainment and politics. Rumors abounded at the time of her untimely death that she had information about the assassination of President John Kennedy. Questions about how she died linger yet today with a recent biography.
A fourth chair was filled with a rotating cast of panelists including Fred Allen, Steve Allen and others.
All of them were smart, urbane and witty. Mostly smart.
“What’s My Line?” was nothing if not classy. It made an effort to be. The men sometimes wore tuxedoes. The women made their “entrances” at the beginning of the show usually wearing evening gowns and often gloves.
Although they were funny, the panel seemed to take the game seriously.
The game itself was simple. After guests would “sign in” at a blackboard, they would whisper their “line” or occupation to Mr. Daly. Then panelists would ask a series of yes or no questions. “Does your work involve a product?” “Would this product be found in most homes?” For each no, guests would get $5.
Occupations were usually off-beat. A female big game hunter. The father of the Fischer quints. A clearly overweight female packager of “reducing” pills. Often the panel would come up with the occupations with just a few questions asked.
For the “mystery guest” segment, blindfolded panelists would try to guess the identities of people the likes of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Jerry Lewis and Colonel Sanders who would try to disguise their famous voices. Often they were movie and television stars “in town” to promote their latest projects. Usually, identifying them wasn’t much of a challenge for the panel, either.
Put all together, “What’s My Line?” was SOMETHING. It had a certain quality that’s hard to define and one that doesn’t exist much in television today. It was popular with people across the board. It was the longest-running game show in prime-time television.
Although several reincarnations of the show were done as late as the mid-1970s, I’d like to see a new version of “What’s My Line?”
My dream panel would include Craig Ferguson, Paula Poundstone (even though she already does the NPR game show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me”) and, maybe, Salmon Rushdie. Somebody like that. My first choice for moderator would be Peter Jennings. Since he is not available, maybe Charlie Rose.
On second thought, “What’s My Line?” might best be remembered as what it was. Something special.