While in the UK the celebrity panel show has for years been reaching unprecedented heights with shows such as Have I got News for You, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, QI and Mock the Week, in the US the format is pretty much dead. Which is a shame, as American television has produced some shining examples, especially in the 1950’s and 60’s. It is in these decades that probably the classiest of all panel shows, What’s My Line?, was broadcast.
What’s My Line? started its 17 year run in 1950 and was hosted on all but four occasions by newsman John Charles Daly. The four panellists, usually comprising columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, publisher Bennett Cerf, actress Arlene Francis and a weekly-changing fourth panellist, tried to guess a guest’s occupation by asking yes or no questions. The highlight of each show was often the appearance of the celebrity guest, which could be an actor, musician, athlete and at one time even a First Lady. To avoid easy recognition, the panellists were blindfolded and the guest tried to disguise his or her voice. Throughout the long run of the show, everybody was well-dressed, polite and respectful, and at the same time utterly hilarious. So why did it end? For a large part it was because of the changing demographics and viewing habits of the younger audience. It was finally in 1967, during the Summer of Love, that the show was cancelled. Damn hippies. So let’s give some proper respect and celebrate a few of the best guest appearances on the show.
Many of the celebrity guests on the show were young actresses, much to the delight of the male audience. You can distinctly hear their appreciation as the young woman enters the stage. Debbie Reynolds received a few wolf whistles as well, but that did not deter her from coming on the show twice. It’s hard to choose between her first appearance in 1954 and her second one five years later where she Gabors her way around the questions. The first one has the edge, though, as she confuses the panellists with her adorable baby-talk.
During the height of her I Love Lucy days, Lucille Ball made an appearance on the show. As one of the most recognizable people and voices, she had to work hard not to give herself away too easily. She did so by improvising her own language. Apparently there are half a dozen ways to say “yes” in Martian.
Many others struggled with their voices. Speaking normally would give them way immediately, so Doris Day squeaked her way through the questioning, Jerry Lewis grunted and moaned through his, and Elizabeth Taylor tried her hand at a nasally English accent. Sammy Davis Jr. meanwhile just brought along his raw talent and employed an array of accents. Louis Armstrong, though, could simply not hide who he was. Even the softest “uh-huh” was brought with his distinctive yet indescribable voice.
Duke Ellington seemed to have a ball on the show, playing around, whispering and deceiving the panellists with his answers. Of course, they did not take it lying down and gave as good as they took.
Talking about deceiving, it doesn’t get much weirder than Salvador Dalí, who just says “yes” to every question. Should we have expected different from perhaps the most famous surrealist in the world? Actually, yes, we should. However, the simple way in which Dalí undermines the whole premise of the show, combined with the way in which host John Daly “helps” the panellists, makes for a brilliant appearance.
Though he was known for his voice, he had no trouble baffling the panellists. All he had to do was to speak normally, for Clarence Nash was for many years the voice of Donald Duck. Watch as the panellists get increasingly confused and frustrated.
This is Ronald Reagan as you’ve never seen him before. Of course Reagan had a sense of humour, but goofing around like this is quite a thing to behold. Would you vote for this man? Well, perhaps. Speaking of politics…
Paul Butler and Meade Alcorn
Who, you say? Well, they were the chairmen of respectively the Democratic and Republican parties at that time. The reactions to questions like “are you in entertainment?” show that not too much has changed in our view of politics. On the other hand, can you imagine Reince Priebus and Debbie Wasserman Schultz squeezed amicably next to each other like that? I thought not.
If anything is proof of the class of this show, it would be that former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt agreed to be a celebrity guest. As she would not have been able to disguise her voice, John Daly answered the questions for her. And as the venerable old lady sits there dourly for most of the time, it is nice to see her break out in smiles at the end.
It had to happen. On the last show host John Daly was the mystery guest. Of course, having known him for many years, the panellists were quickly on to him. It may not have played out as long as they had hoped, but it’s a fitting end to the show.