I’m up to the summer of 1952 in my stroll through “What’s My Line?”. The panel has settled into a regular foursome: Dorothy, Bennett, Arlene and comedy writer Hal Block, who would remain with the show for one more year before being unceremoniously dumped. He replaced Louis Untermeyer, who lasted through all of 1951, though his other original castmates were gone very quickly. I am looking forward to Block’s replacement, the radio comedian Fred Allen. Fred Allen was one of the few radio comedy stars not to make a successful transition to television with his own show, and died prematurely in 1954. But that’s all for later.
Television is still pretty new in 1952, but the show is definitely more professional looking and feeling from a production standpoint than the 1950 episodes. They’ve worked out camera placements and cutting from one to another smoothly, moved the host to the opposite side of the stage from the panelists, and have given up on some things like a little intro where they would have live actors pretend to be people on the street who look at the camera and ask “What’s MY line?”
But 1952 is a foreign world to us now. Even though I consider myself to be reasonably knowledgeable about American cultural history, I find myself having to resort to Wikipedia to figure out who some of the celebrities are, or at least why they were so popular at the time. Last night, for example, there was Charlie Dressen, who was the manager of the Brookyln Dodgers that year and on another episode Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian dress designer who was a competitor to Coco Chanel in the world of high couture. There have also been some baseball and football players who are lost to obscurity today, Senator Estes Kefauver (who was Adlai Stevenson’s running mate that year), and one Miss America who would have a television career herself (Lee Meriwether), but one who did not. It’s also fascinating (but occasionally jarring ) to see historical figures from earlier times show up as celebrity guests, sometimes even just weeks or months before they passed away. because it’s hard to think of them co-existing with the television age.
Hal Block is an interesting figure. He was a writer who wrote for a number of comedians, but not really a performer himself, so its hard to know how he was picked to be on the show (but, hey, Louis Untermeyer, so go figure). He’s sort of an “everyman” to the more high-class New York elite types of Cerf, Francis and Kilgallen, and much is made of the fact that he is from Chicago. His stock in trade is asking salacious or double-entendre questions, especially when the contestants are young, attractive women. Surely he was scandalous for network TV in 1952, which is what ultimately cost him his gig on the show, but he is also funny. There’s a lot of back-and-forth between him and John Charles Daly about his habits with women, drinking, gambling, and so on. As his behavior was ultimately too much for 1952, it would similarly raise eyebrows in 2018 for its leering sexism, but there was a time in the 1960s and 70s where it would have been commonplace on TV.
I have to say I have a huge crush on the 1952 version of Arlene Francis. She’s 45 years old in 1952, but could pass for 35 (at least on camera). She’s vivacious and charming, where Dorothy Kilgallen is more serious and reserved. The difference between an actress and a journalist, I suppose, but it’s easy to imagine her being dazzling at a cocktail party or something. By the time I was old enough to watch WML in the early 1970s, she was more of a stately lady of Olde Broadway. She eventually suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and passed away in 2001 at the age of 95 (!).
I’ve fallen into a routine of watching a couple of episodes every night before bedtime, so there’s been progress but there are still a LOT of episodes to go. I’ll post again as I continue to move through the 1950s.