What’s My Line?: Capturing an Epoch

“What’s My Line?” won three Emmy awards in the 50s. The show featured regular panelists Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf, and a guest — in this case Steve Allen. The show was moderated by John Charles Daly, right.

By David D. Robbins Jr.

At the time, “What’s My Line?” may have simply seemed like a voyeuristic glimpse into celebrity culture, brought to you by Stopette, Kellogg’s or Geritol. But in retrospect, the popular CBS guessing-game show, that lasted 17 years (1950-1967), comes off as more than that. I can’t remember the first time I’d seen the show, or even why I bumped into it — especially considering its last episode ended well before I was even born. But if you’re anything like me, once you watch it, you’ll become addicted to the show’s charm, the wit of the guests, the fun premise, the stars of yesteryear, the light-hearted camaraderie between the panel and its marvelous host, John Charles Daly, and the chance to bask in the nostalgia of history filtered through the dress, talk, and current events of the people on the show, who have nearly all passed on. It’s a look into the past as it happened. To this date, there is sadly no official release of the show in any for-sale viewing format, but you can go to YouTube and watch hundreds of the half-hour episodes, thanks to a “What’s My Line?” channel that’s uploading them, minus the commercial interruptions, at a two-a-day clip. (The most recent two episodes were uploaded today, from the second and third weeks of November 1961, featuring mystery guests comedian Bob Hope and French actress Simone Signoret, known for films such as “Les Diaboliques”, “Casque d’or” and “Room at the Top”.)

The concept of the show was simple: A four-team panel consisting of New York Evening journalist and Broadway writer Dorothy Kilgallen, actress and radio host Arlene Francis, Random House founder Bennett Cerf and a random celebrity, try to guess the occupation of guests. The guests were usually people who held unique jobs that seemed contrary to what it may look like they do. In the case of a famous “mystery guest,” the panel was blindfolded. Panelists could ask only questions which could be answered “yes” or “no”, and had to figure out the occupation or mystery identity before getting 10 wrong answers. A typical episode featured two standard rounds, sometimes a third or fourth, plus one celebrity mystery guest. The guests, who all signed their names on a chalkboard when arriving onstage, were as varied as dukes, an airline stewardess, a secretary for the Yankees, a female boxing promoter, or a gum tester — while the mystery guests were people like actress Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, Bette Davis, comedian Bob Hope, Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and even politicos like Eleanor Roosevelt. The mystery guests read like a who’s-who of talented athletes, entertainers, comedians, artists, and directors that spanned from Jesse Owens to Andre Previn, Margaret Sullavan, Danny Kaye, Gloria Swanson, Liv Ullmann, Frank Lloyd Wright, James Stewart, Joan Blondell, Joan Bennett, Alfred Hitchcock, Muhammad Ali, Joan Crawford, Jack Benny, Lena Horne and more.

Salvador Dali and John Daly.

“What’s My Line?” showcased two ageless qualities that seem long gone from modern television, namely charm and wit, from the panel and some of the most talented entertainers of all time. There are some fun, brilliantly unscripted moments of live television, like when an audience member in 1959 runs onto the set, shakes hands with celebrity guest Milton Berle and mumbles something nonsensical, before running off stage. Berle, barely skipping a beat, turns to Daly and the audience and says, “That was my agent”, to uproarious laughter. Painter Salvador Dali appeared on the show in 1957, and was, perhaps inadvertently, absurd and hilarious. He answers every question in the affirmative, taking each literally. When asked if he has ever been on the stage (meaning Broadway), he replies, “Yes”. He says yes to being a writer, a television personality, and even suggests he is a “leading man” and a “sports figure”, before Daly stops him, and takes a conference (show’s lexicon for whispering in each other’s ear), to explain that his answers, though truthful, are a bit misleading. The audience loved it.

Arlene Francis and Groucho Marx.

Or try watching the Sept. 20, 1959 episode with Groucho Marx, of “Duck Soup” fame, as the guest panelist, without laughing aloud. His gift for sharp humor, endless punning and sexual double entendres are in full form. When the first guest, a jail warden comes out, Marx cuts to the chase with the marvelous line, “What do you do for a living?” Later, when Daly leans into the guest to whisper into his ear to clarify one of the questions, Marx says, “We’ll talk too …” and leans in faux-romantically to talk into panelist Francis’ ear (see image at above). But it’s when a gorgeous blonde lady named Ms. Grable (a professional wrestler by profession) is presented that Marx takes over the show. He knowingly breaks all the rules by asking the guest a question that can’t be answered with a yes or no. He asks, “This product you manufacture, would you be apt to find it in the living room, dining room or the kitchen?” Before Daly can tell him he’s asking questions incorrectly, Marx adds, “Well, she must make something. A woman can’t make a living just being a blonde … although I’ve heard of a few that have.” (Cue uncontrollable audience laughter.) It’s the beginning of an episode full of Marx’s glorious improvisation. Some of the greatest moments are the most humorous. The stoic-voiced Ed Sullivan, seemingly out of character, had the audience in stitches in 1958 when he began answering the panel’s questions while wearing a Neanderthal Man mask. Or just as funny, is when Bob Hope stepped onto the set, and signed his name in cursive as “Bing Crosby”. If that got a few laughs, the audience erupted when, later in the show, Francis actually guessed incorrectly that the mystery guest was indeed Bing Crosby.

Actress Debbie Reynolds.

Actress Debbie Reynolds.

There are also moments that shed light on what made certain celebrities major stars. I’d always enjoyed Debbie Reynolds in films like 1952’s “Singing In the Rain”, and even some minor fluff like 1954’s “Susan Slept Here”, but even more than her films, it was her vivaciousness and inventiveness on “What’s My Line?” that really gave me a clue to her charm. Her mutterings and comedic timing on her second appearance on the show in 1959 is all you need to understand what made her so irresistible. She toys with the panel, altering her voice, as many of the celebrity guests had to do during the game, but here she takes on a kind of pidgin Zsa Zsa Gabor accent, stammering and meandering into lengthy non-answers. It was all wonderfully balanced girlish coyness and youthful confidence. It’s Cerf who finally figures her out, cheekily guessing the guest’s identity by mentioning something he’d seen recently in the newspapers: “There have been a lot of pictures of a wonderful girl … These pictures showed a very beautiful girl smooching around with Eddie Fisher.” (He was indeed dating Reynolds at the time.) She jokingly asks him for his definition of “smooching”. He says, “It’s an old Oklahoma word … it means cuddlin’ up a little bit.” In a husky, adorable voice, purring out the last sentence, Reynolds says, “Oh, is that what it means? (Pause.) I like it.” It’s wonderful. The same could be said for Lucille Ball, who answered questions in the voice of a martian, inflecting her sentences with tones that suggested yes or no in order not to reveal her real voice.

Watching the shows now, as opposed to when they originally aired, provides such a rich historical foundation for the times. If you watch the Sept. 17, 1961 show for example, you’ll see the panel try and guess aging actor Dick Powell, who died of cancer only two years later. The panel also makes mention of baseball player, Roger Maris, reaching a historic No. 61 in a 1961 episode — the year he broke the major league record for home runs. There are also countless episodes that feature guests talking about events of the time. It’s difficult not to get a bit teary-eyed when one of the mystery guests is Jacqueline Kennedy’s hairdresser, Kenneth Battelle, known for creating her famous bouffant in 1961 — watching and knowing JFK is assassinated only a couple of years later. But there are also small historical pleasures, like hearing guest Rear Admiral George Price Koch talk about leading the Navy’s ocean recovery team to pick up the capsule containing astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., after his suborbital flight of Mercury Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. It took the Navy eight seconds to pick him up, and you can tell by Daly’s words that the country was very proud of that efficiency. I heard recently on an episode, the moment where Daly reveals that Cerf’s company, Random House, had just joined the New York Stock Exchange. Many of the shows are also a valuable look at beautiful movie stars of the past, and trying to decide which ones most matched their cinematic personas, stars like screwball comedy queen Irene Dunne, the stunning Deborah Kerr, the raspy-voiced Lauren Bacall, bombshell Ava Gardner, and the troubled and meek Gene Tierney. It’s also interesting to note the kind of jobs that are now gone, like dance teacher of “The Twist”. (Or maybe that’s still around.) But there are many labor-related jobs, and door-to-door jobs that appear on the show that most-likely don’t exist anymore. There are also interesting comments about products that were new at the time. Cerf jests after Francis tells an electric-toothbrush salesman that she can’t wait to buy one: “Have people in the United States become so weak they can’t do that little motion of using a toothbrush …?”

Ernie Kovacs and wife Edie Adams as the mystery guests.

Ernie Kovacs and wife Edie Adams as the mystery guests.

Watching “What’s My Line?” is a good way to reacquaint with the long-forgotten gems of the past, such as the comedic talents of Ernie Kovacs, who appeared as a panelist once when his wife Edie Adams was the mystery guest. They also appeared together as mystery guests. (Thankfully, over the past few years, the video distribution company, Shout! Factory, has done a good job with bringing back a kind of Kovacs renaissance with its releases of his 50s TV shows on NBC and specials from ABC.) There were also a number of other celebrities featured as mystery guests, who remain virtually unknown today, like Joe E. Lewis, a longstanding nightclub comedian who once joked that “Dean Martin drinks all my best material.” Also forgotten are talents like ballet dancer Edward Villella, operatic singer Anna Maria Alberghetti (won a Tony Award in 1962 for “Carnival!”), singer Tony Martin (husband to Cyd Charisse), composer Harold Arlen and American humorist Abe Burrows, whose baldness became the focus of a great episode when he was the first to ask a question of a guest who was a female stylist for men’s hair. (Another wonderful audience reaction ensued.) The extra guest panel spot was filled by a range of talents, from Kovacs and Marx, to Peter Lawford, Eamonn Andrews, Art Linkletter (of ” Kids Say the Darndest Things” fame), funnymen Steve Allen and Buddy Hackett, and Martin Gabel (husband to panelist Francis and sometime actor in bit parts in films like “Marnie” and “The Power and the Glory”.)

But it was the temperament, charm and style of Daly, the ringman of the show, who really set the tone. He was a vice president in charge of ABC news, special events, public affairs, religious programs, and sports. (He was one of the rare people who worked on two different networks simultaneously.) He was also at one time a White House correspondent and even a war reporter. He resigned from the news part of his network gig after ABC, to his dismay, cut away from the ongoing nighttime 1961 Kennedy-Nixon election results program, in order to show episodes of “Bugs Bunny” and “The Rifleman”, while the other two major networks continued on with the politics. It was a move that showed integrity, just like the classy show he helped make successful for CBS. It’s also the manners and customs of the show too that are enjoyable. After a theme-show ditty and an advertisement, the show would introduce one of the regular panelists, like Kilgallen, who would then make the introduction for the next panelist, and so forth, until the last panelist (usually Cerf) would eloquently and humorously introduce the host with a quip like, “Walking though yonder portal our polysyllabic paladin … John Daly.” All the people on the show dressed in formal dinner wear, often in high-end dresses, ties and tuxedos. There were usual occurrences to look forward to, like Kilgallen asking a seemingly off-the-wall question like, “Have I ever met you at dancing class?” — like she did of New York restaurateur Toots Shor in a 1962 episode. It’s also fun to wait and hear Cerf’s drooling but kind comments about how beautiful one of the guests looked, like the lady rancher in 1959 and when he paid a compliment to a guest named Jackie Frankel, whose occupation was selling airplanes, by calling her one of the most pretty contestants to ever appear on the program. All the episodes ended just as pleasantly, with an almost Waltons-esque goodnight from each panel member to the next, the reverse of how they opened the shows. There was a beautiful symmetry to it all.

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2 thoughts on “What’s My Line?: Capturing an Epoch

  1. Your review is spot on. This show was in its heyday when I was about 7 years old. Even then it seemed that this was television worth watching. The other piece of the puzzle that speaks to the timeless-ness of this show is how it transcended generations given its run. Furthermore, this show was the last bastion of intelligent TV programs/programming. By the end of this show’s run, network executives were well-entrenched in pandering to the lowest common denominator in search of the almighty ratings race. Television as a whole was in a downward slide of ever-increasing mire and muck. THIS was intelligent TV in every aspect and yet was highly entertaining.

    The haute couture and sophistication also was an intriguing element, with Dorothy and Arlene many times dressed in gowns that they had picked up while in Europe or teasers from the Coronation (this I am guessing but who in America was really still designing garments of this style and flair when Harmony House was getting a stranglehold on consumers, I aks (sic) you?) I fear that many aspects of the dry and the wry humor, which was such an integral part of the show, would now be largely lost on viewers.

    Although in later years Dorothy Kilgallen was rightfully earning the mistrust* and antipathy* of her panel-mates, her reporter mind was like no other I have ever heard before or since. Even after having viewed several season, she never ceases to amaze. (If there was a scandal that she was about to break on the Kennedy-Oswald-Ruby mystery, I firmly believe that of any other reporter in America she would have indeed been in possession of known and well-researched facts.)

    So what was the mistrust and antipathy? If journalistic resources are accurate there seems to be a reason for each. Mistrust – comments that had been heard as other panel members were in make-up were not regarded by Dorothy as confidential within that circle. These comments were seen in print more and more frequently in her columns. The others learned that they must be guarded in their casual sharing before show time. And the antipathy? The other panel members felt that she posed questions in a way which would get her more air/on-camera time than any of the others. In my viewing of shows I have looked for this trait in Dorothy. I just don’t see the evidence. There may have been some unacknowledged jealousy of her. I regard her more and more as one of the most intelligent reporters in America at the very least, before her time or since.

    Well, there I’ve shared my insignificant piece of the puzzle about which I have been ruminating for several months and sending high praise for this web site. Thank you again.

    • Keith, I have noticed a decided trend, starting in the late 50’s, where it seemed that when Dorothy had a very clear idea of the occupation, she asked peripheral questions that didn’t really confirm or narrow down her approach. Mostly it just seemed to buy her more screen-time.
      I don’t really object to this, because I think she was a helluva gal, but I do see it.

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