I’m sure you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole on YouTube at least once. You watch a video and then the algorithm “helpfully” suggests every other video just like it that the site has, so you just keep watching. It’s a little different than “binge-watching” on Netflix, but only slightly. And even if you don’t watch all of them in one session, it will continue to suggest them to you until you watch something different, and so on ad nauseam.
A few nights ago, I went looking for something to watch, and one of the suggestions was an episode of “What’s My Line” from 1953 featuring Eleanor Roosevelt as the mystery guest. Well, in one of my previous incarnations, I used to be a serious scholar of broadcasting history, and I love to watch old kinescopes and videotapes of early live era television shows, but YouTube didn’t know that, it just knew that I had recently watched a compilation video of old commercials. Nevertheless, it was right in my wheelhouse, so, of course, I watched it.
If you are under the age of fifty, you probably have no idea about “What’s My Line”. It started in the very dawn of the television age, February 1950, and ran as a weekly show on CBS until 1967, whereupon it went into syndication and continued to run with new episodes until 1975. Once in a while the Game Show Network on cable even runs the original shows in the middle of the night. I am not old enough to remember the original series, but I did watch the syndicated version as a kid. The idea of the show is that a panel of celebrities try to guess the occupation of the contestants through yes-or-no questions. Every episode also featured a mystery guest who was usually a celebrity; the panelists would don masks for the guest, who would have been recognizable on sight. If the panel could not guess the occupation after ten “No” answers, the contestant won a very modest cash prize.
Though there would be hundreds of game shows on television, “What’s My Line” was pretty much the first and created a style for many of them with a panel of celebrities being witty and charming and glamorous in the fashion of the 1950s (evening gowns for the female panelists, dinner jackets and bowties for the men). After the first year of the show, it settled into three regular panelists: journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, actress Arlene Francis, and publisher Bennett Cerf, plus a rotating collection of other celebrities in the fourth slot. The editor-in-chief of ABC News, John Charles Daly, hosted the show for its entire network run.
It wasn’t the first time I had watched an episode of WML on YouTube, I had just never really gotten into it, but something clicked with me and I watched two or three more that evening, and then a few more a couple of nights later, and one or two more the next night, and now I am hooked. And I am unlikely to run out of episodes anytime soon. There are literally HUNDREDS of episodes on You Tube. I will probably get bored of the whole thing long before I run out of episodes to watch.
Yesterday, while I was roasting tomatoes to make tomato sauce, I went all the way back to the very beginning and watched the first two episodes of the show. These shows are nearly 70 years old now, and it’s like watching history. You can see that they barely knew what they were doing in these first couple of episodes both from the standpoint of the game and from the aspect of producing a live television show. The panel was also considerably different in the beginning. Dorothy Kilgallen appears in the first program and Arlene Francis in the second, but the other three panelists are somewhat odd ducks: former New Jersey governor Harold Hoffman, writer Louis Untermeyer, and psychiatrist Richard Hoffmann. They are stodgy and stiff and totally unlike the charming and graceful celebrities that would come to dominate the genre. Also, unusually, John Daly and Arlene Francis can both be seen smoking on-camera during the show.
I may write more about this as I plunge headlong into the episodes. There was scarcely a popular figure from the 1950s and 60s who didn’t turn up on WML at some point. Plus there’s the mystery surrounding the sudden death of Dorothy Kilgallen in 1965 to talk about. Don’t touch that dial!