In Buffalo, where I was raised, the show came on at 10:30 p.m. on Sunday nights, right after "Candid Camera." That was pretty late for an elementary kid on a school night. If I was lucky, I could cajole my mother into letting me see "Camera," but "What's My Line?" was out of the question. Invariably, the sneak that I was, I'd carefully creep down and sit on the stairs out of harm's way (meaning my mother) and catch my favorite show.
Three of the four panelists of "What's My Line?" were regulars. They were joined by one "special guest" each week (after regular Fred Allen died in 1956). Many of the guests were painfully out of their element here and couldn't hold a candle to the pros. But sometimes a big "film star" like John Payne, Jane Powell, or even Frank Sinatra would grace the panel, making for a special evening. Normally, however, it was a well-known entertainer or personality (Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Tony Randall, Gore Vidal, Zsa Zsa Gabor) who was there to promote a book or upcoming appearance.
For some reason, one of my favorite parts was the introduction of the panelists and moderator ("Let's meet our What's My Line" panel!"). The ladies with their sweeping gowns and gents with their penguin tuxedos just seemed to make gloriously stylish entrances that always seemed to get the evening off to a grand start.
The parlor game was quite simple. The four panelists had to guess the occupation (normally unusual -- i.e., cow dentist) of a contestant by asking yes-or-no questions. The only hint given was if the contestant was salaried and dealt in a service or with a product. A total of ten "no" answers and the game was over. The contestant would win a HUGE pot of $50.00. Such questions asked were: "Does your work take you outdoors?" or "Is your product a liquid as opposed to a solid?" Steve Allen, a one-time regular, is credited with introducing into the American vernacular, "Is it bigger than a bread box?" Each evening after two or three occupations were played out, the panel would be blindfolded and a "mystery guest" (usually in the entertainment field, but not always) would try to be identified using the same yes-or-no questioning. The mystery guests were no slouches either. Major stars (Barbra Streisand, Joe DiMaggio, The Supremes, Dustin Hoffman) would appear for added thrills. Sometimes I would cover my own eyes to see if I could guess who it was.
The elite panel of New York-based personalities were a major contributing factor to the success of "What's My Line." Dorothy Kilgallen, the razor-tongued syndicated columnist of "The Voice of Broadway," was on the panel from its inception and was easily the show's most fervent game player -- prone to anxiety, I understand, when she was on a losing streak. I remember her at times even challenging the moderator and being slightly perturbed if she "unfairly" got a "no" answer. But Dorothy always gave it her all and those of us who were major game enthusiasts related to the competitive spirit in her. Arlene Francis was a stylish actress of stage, screen and TV and easily provided the show with its warmth and witty one-liners, not to mention slightly off-color double-entendres. Her formal gowns were quite extreme for a game show but always an attention-getter. Droll Bennett Cerf was the stocky, avuncular publisher from Random House whose relaxed, ingratiating style was a special treat -- known best for inundating the audience and panelists with groan-producing jokes.
The glue, however, that held it all together was the erudite moderator John Charles Daly, a respected journalist and newscaster on his own and remarkably eloquent when put on the spot. Marvelously witty and a master of the English language, he was quite astounding (and artfully verbose) at times when having to give an explanation to a "yes" or "no" answer. Daly, along with "To Tell the Truth" host Bud Collyer, were the last of a quickly dying breed -- they were amiable but cultivated gentleman who knew how to have sophisticated fun. Gentlemen you wanted to emulate. They succeeded in giving a simple little parlor game show some poise and dignity. "The Price Is Right" host Bob Barker certainly possesses a classy style but the contestants and game show set-up lends itself to total trailer park mentality.
"What's My Line?" suffered an insurmountable loss when Dorothy Kilgallen died suddenly and mysteriously from an overdose of barbiturates in 1965 (probably a suicide). She was terribly missed, considering she was part of the "family" from the very first telecast. The show finally went off the air in 1967, and though it quickly returned in syndication with panelist Arlene Francis, it had lost all its charm and elegance. With regular team members like Soupy Sales, what could one expect?
If I could turn back the hands of time, I'm sure I would set it for 10:30 p.m. on Sunday evening. That was a magic half-hour for me, whether my mother knew it or not. It was worth being dead tired on Monday morning.