Monday, May 19, 2014

What's My Line? ( 1950 -1967 )

"Mystery challenger, will you enter and sign in please!"

These familiar words, spoken by moderator John Daly, announced the approach of the "mystery challenger", the closing highlight of the weekly CBS program What's My Line?. Every Sunday thousands of viewers across America would gather in front of their television sets at 10:30 pm to watch their favorite panelists try to guess the occupations of three random guests. 

During its peek years, this panel consisted of the dapper pun-lovin' Bennett Cerf, co-founder and publisher of Random House books, the lovely actress and radio personality Arlene Francis, the delightful journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, and a guest panelist, such as David Niven, Tony Randall, Danny Kaye, or Martin Gabel ( Arlene Francis' husband ). Often it was a male guest star so that the panel was always neatly composed of two men and two women. 

Host John Charles Daly, a veteran radio and television newsman, was as appealing as any of the panelists and greatly contributed to the show's formula and its success. When a potentially confusing question was posed, Daly, who was always on the side of the guest challenger, enjoyed clarifying the question with a befuddling response. Often, in his attempt to stump the panel, guests with particularly unusual occupations were selected. These ranged from the slightly unorthodox ( hog caller, goat shepherdess, bed pan manufacturer ), to the incredible ( manhole designer, cow washer, tea kettle whistle tester ).

"Is it bigger than a breadbox?"

What's My Line? was fun and addictive viewing and it quickly gained a large audience following its February 2, 1950 debut, which originally featured Dorothy Kilgallen, Louis Untermeyer, Hal Block, and Arlene Francis. The show's premise was simple and yet engaging : a guest would be introduced by Mr. Daly, sign his or her name on a chalkboard and then approach the panel, who would be given a random guess as to what their occupation may be. For the audiences benefit, the real occupation was revealed on screen, while the panel began asking questions to determine what their job really was. The panel was permitted to ask only questions which could be answered with a "yes" or "no" and for every "no" answer Daly would flip a $5 card over. Ten negative answers and the panel was declared stumped. 

"Ten flips and they are a flop!"

In order to obtain a "yes" the panel often worded their questions in the negative ( "Am I right in assuming you do not sell a product?" ). The $50 prize was inconsequential to the real point of the game - the enjoyment of watching the panel quiz the contestant. In reality, all guests were paid $750 for appearing on the show, regardless of whether they stumped the panel or not. 

From the early 1950s until the show's cancellation in 1967, a formal dress code was adopted which elevated the program from an amusing game show to sophisticated adult entertainment. Its immense appeal and high stature drew in many top-billed personalities who seldom made television appearances, some of which included : Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, John Wayne, Walter Pidgeon, Irene Dunne, Maureen O'Hara, Alfred Hitchcock, Walt Disney Maurice Chevalier, and Claudette Colbert. 

What's My Line? won three Emmy award for Best Quiz or Audience Participation Show during its 25 season run, and a Golden Globe for Best TV Show in 1962. The series was so successful in the States, that it spawned several international versions ( the panelists on the German program, Was bin Ich?, sported jazzy wing-tipped masks ), a radio version and a live stage version. 

To this day, What's My Line? has a large fan of followers who watch its reruns on the Game Show Network and on Youtube. Its popularity is a testament to the engaging personalities of the three main panelists, who would have made the show entertaining regardless of what the game was about.  

The Panel 

Bennett Cerf - was born on May 25, 1898 and is chiefly known for being one of the founders of the publishing firm Random House. After Cerf graduated from college he briefly worked as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune before becoming vice-president of the publishing firm, Boni and Liveright. In 1925 he formed a partnership with Donald S. Klopfer to purchase the rights to the Modern Library from B&L and they went into business for themselves, increasing the popularity of the library and selecting trade books at "random" for publishing. Cerf's great talent for forming friendships soon brought in contracts from Eugene O'Neill, William Faulkner, James Michener and Truman Copote. In 1935, he married actress Slyvia Sidney, but the union lasted less than a year. In 1940, he wed again, this time to a cousin of Ginger Rogers, Phyllis Fraser. He was an occasional panelist on Who Said That? which led to him being invited to What's My Line? and ultimately staying with the syndicated show until his death in 1975. Onscreen and off, Cerf was known for his wit and humor and wrote over 11 riddle and joke books. 

Arlene Francis - was born on October 20, 1907, the daughter of an Armenian portrait photographer. Francis got her start doing stage acting in 1928. In the mid 1930s she married Neil Agnew, who worked in the sales department of Paramount Pictures. His job required frequent time spent away from home and this eventually led to them divorcing. In 1946 she wed actor and producer Martin Gabel, with whom she was married until his death in 1986. Francis wore a heart-shaped diamond pennant, which Gabel had given her as a gift, almost continuously on What's My Line?. Aside from her many stage appearances, she hosted numerous radio programs ( What's My Name, Blind Date, Monitor ) as well as hosting a midday chat show on WOR-AM for over 24 years. She was also host and editor-in-chief of the daytime show, Home from 1954-57. During the 1960s Francis appeared in several films ( The Thrill of it All ), and penned a couple of books, including a cookbook. Arlene Francis passed away in 2001. 

Dorothy Kilgallen - was born July 3, 1913 in Chicago, Illinois. She was the daughter of a Hearst newspaperman and became a newswoman/journalist herself. In 1936, she dropped out of college at the age of 23 and took a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Journal. That same year she competed with two other news reporters in a race around the world, placing second and writing about her experience in a book, Girl Around the World which was turned into a film starring Glenda Farrell. In the late 1930s she married actor Richard Kollmar and started work on a column, The Voice of Broadway, which was syndicated to 146 different newspapers until her death in 1965. This column, which stated celebrity news in brief, often dished out a scoop of gossip for its readers, which many celebrities disliked. A true investigative reporter, Kilgallen often put her nose where it wasn't wanted. In the mid-1950s she covered the Dr. Sam Shepard trial, UFO sightings, and President John F. Kennedy's death. A history of government criticism and her claims to "bust open the JFK murder" leads many to believe that she was bumped off by the CIA. 

After Dorothy Kilgallen's death in November, 1965, her seat on What's My Line? was filled by various guest stars. The show continued on for two more seasons ( one in color ) before getting cancelled in 1967. Francis and Cerf enjoyed being panelists so much that they returned in 1968 when producers Mark Goodson and Bill Rodman decided to bring back the show as videotaped telecasts syndicated for afternoon and early evening schedules. Wally Bruner became the new host and Soupy Sales was added as a regular on the panel. This series continued on until 1975, when Bennett Cerf passed away. 

Favorite Mystery Challengers 

The highlight of the quiz show, for audience members, was the appearance of the mystery challenger, often a movie star. What's My Line? featured some of the best guest stars seen on any series, and below we have highlighted some of our favorite mystery challengers for those who wish to hunt for these episodes online. Enjoy! 

  • Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds, Groucho Marx, Ernie Kovacs ( Kovacs also appeared on the panel many time ), Buddy Hackett, Irene Dunne, Danny Kaye, the panelists spouses, Bobby Darin, Bette Davis, Andy Devine, Jose Ferrer, Julie Andrews, Doris Day. 


  1. Great article. I only know the UK version of this show. Wish I could have seen all the American celebrities. Will get onto to YouTube.

    1. Now that's interesting, I haven't been able to see any of the UK shows. Eamonn Andrews appeared several times on the American version as a guest host and also as a panelist. I'd really like to see the Australian version! I wonder what kind of unusual occupations some of their guests had.

  2. Started to catch this from it's inception. You are right about it being a classy show. You tuned in to see what Arlene and Dorothy were wearing. Arlene's diamond pendent necklace was fancied by many ladies well into the 70s. It had a great amount of levity but never slap-stick.

    1. We've been watching so many episodes lately, it got to the point where we can guess the year of the episode by the style of Dorothy's dresses. She always wore the most current fashion.

  3. I love the formality of "Miss Kilgallen" and "Mr. Cerf". Manners! What a concept!

    It's fun when the mystery guest is someone like Eddie Anderson. How will he disguise such a distinctive voice?

    1. Sometimes they don't speak at all! George Burns and Gracie Allen "knocked" their answers on the desk ( one rap for yes, two raps for no ) and Walter Brennan spoke very low so as not to be recognizable. But speaking of Eddie Anderson, I'll have to check out that episode!