I like to watch videos on YouTube, and lately I’ve been viewing a lot of clips from two of my favorite TV game shows when I was a kid, “What’s My Line?” and “I’ve Got a Secret.”
Both shows originally ran on CBS from the early 1950s to 1967. I remember watching the weekly half-hour programs in glorious black-and-white as a child, and the videos I like to view now are also “colorless.”
Colorless, but not dull. In fact, they are still hilarious, fascinating and loads of fun!
Both shows featured a four-member panel of celebrities whose job was to guess each contestant’s occupation (in the case of “What’s My Line?”) or “secret” — something unusual, amazing or humorous about the challenger (on “I’ve Got a Secret”) by asking questions that could be answered by “yes” or “no.”
The contestants won small (by today’s standards) amounts of money when the panelists got “no” answers or ran out of time for questioning.
“I’ve Got a Secret” had an early weeknight time slot, but “What’s My Line?” appeared for most of its run at 9:30 on Sunday night. And my folks let me stay up to watch it! How cool was that?
The panelists were so engaging that they seemed almost like members of the family. On “I’ve Got a Secret,” I admired Bill Cullen’s intelligence, Henry Morgan’s acerbic wit, Betsy Palmer’s warmth and Bess Myerson’s — uh, well ... see, Bess was a former Miss America and I was a 12-year-old boy and ...
“What’s My Line?” had three regular panelists, Broadway columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, actress Arlene Francis and Random House publisher and humorist Bennett Cerf. They were joined each week by a well-known guest panelist.
The ringmasters were the programs’ “hosts,” or moderators, who welcomed the contestants, kept track of the money they won and told the panelists when it was their turn to ask questions.
“What’s My Line?’s” moderator was John Charles Daly, a longtime network newsman. The host of “I’ve Got a Secret” was Garry Moore, a man who seemingly did a little bit of everything during his television career, including starring in his own variety show where Carol Burnett got her start.
My favorite part of “What’s My Line?” was the appearance of the week’s “mystery guest,” a well-known figure in the arts, sports or politics. Because the mystery guest was so recognizable, the panelists would be blindfolded when the guest walked on stage to “sign in.” Then the panel would have to determine the celebrity’s name instead of his occupation.
Mystery guests I’ve seen on YouTube from that bygone era include Walt Disney, Jack Benny, Ronald Reagan (before his political career began), poet Carl Sandburg and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
The mystery guest would disguise his or her familiar voice in the effort to fool the panel. In one of the zaniest spots, comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen answered the panelists’ questions with knocks on John Daly’s desk (two knocks for “yes,” one knock for “no”) because the producers thought their voices were so familiar they couldn’t be disguised.
After the questioning had gone on for a while, Daly told the panel the two guests would begin answering by voice and Gracie blurted out, “Don’t answer, George,” thereby giving away their identities. Guest panelist Steve Allen, who was questioning at the time, said, “I know who it is ... Desi and Lucy,” although of course he knew it was really George and Gracie.
Celebrities also appeared on “I’ve Got a Secret” — sometimes before they WERE celebrities. Appearing on one episode was Colonel Harland Sanders, completely unfamiliar to the panel and the audience because it was before he became the symbol of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The white-haired-and-goateed colonel showed up wearing his iconic white suit, black tie and horn-rimmed glasses. Host Moore explained that Sanders had just sold his chain of fried chicken restaurants for $2 million and displayed the colonel’s check.
Then Sanders whispered his “secret” to Moore (as every contestant did). His was that he started his restaurant chain with his first Social Security check ($105).
Imagine two things, if you will: That there was a time when no one would recognize Colonel Sanders, and that the colonel would sell what would become a multi-billion-dollar company for a mere $2 million.
Those were the days, huh?