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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Games People Played

Nothing on 60’s TV spelled entertainment to me more than a Mark Goodson-Bill Todman production. I was very fond of the celebrity panel game show format. On To Tell the Truth, the celebrities were introduced, and there was nothing more contrasting than Peggy Cass and Kitty Carlisle. Peggy Cass would waddle out wearing what looked like a homemade shift, Miss Gooch glasses, a lesbian haircut and flats. She would smile, nod and take her seat. Then after Orson Bean (who always made art out of his paper vote), Kitty Carlisle would blow out wearing some flowing chiffon evening gown and over-curtsy. Her brunette hair was always perfect, sprayed stiff and looked like a mannequin wig. Her Kabuki makeup was applied with the backside of a tablespoon, and you just know she was over-saturated in some pungent eau de toilette. The panel would try to weed out the two lying impostors from the person whose life was too, too interesting. Sometimes all four panelists hit it right, and the trio of guests would go home with no cash to divide among themselves. Sometimes they were dead wrong, and the real person who, say, saw everything upside down and backwards (and proved it by writing in cursive that way) would go home and question her identity and start psychotherapy not much later.

I’ve Got a Secret was also a big hit in my book. It wasn’t so much the panel that made the show, but the freaks that they brought on with some kind of “secret” that the panelists would try their damnedest to figure out. They would flash the secret on the screen so that folks at home could see it or close their eyes until the caption disappeared. That was always the highlight of the show for me. I always kept my eyes open, because I couldn’t wait for secrets like: Raised By Pygmies, Bastard Child of Bill Cullen and Betsy Palmer, and Born with Displaced Olfactory Nerve; Can Only Smell Through Her Right Knee, Yeah, guess that secret in fifteen seconds, journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. I dare ya.
On What’s My Line, a celebrity panel tried to guess the bizarre occupation of the contestants. In the last segment, the panel was blindfolded, and a celebrity Mystery Guest came out to thunderous applause, signed in and disguised his/her voice during the panel interrogation. 

If there was extra time left over at the end of the show, written questions from people out there in TV land and “our studio audience” were read to the panel in a segment called “Honest Answers”.
In one episode, a viewer claimed to have seen Arlene Francis (with her ever-present diamond-encrusted heart pendant dangling from her neck) peeking out from underneath the bottom of her pearly blindfold at the mystery guest. You have never in your life seen such a sweet, mild-mannered panelist turn from Eve White to Eve Black so quickly. And then she got into a fight with Soupy Sales, because he was laughing. She went from tame former radio hostess to Leona Helmsley before you could say, “cheater.” Sadly, there is no YouTube documentation of this, but here is a similar incident: Arlene Controls Herself.

All game show contestants received a copy of the Home Game. All Home Games came with this subtitle: Warning: Don’t buy this because it is more fun just to Watch it on TV. Someone once gave me the home game of Concentration. It took an hour and a half just to set it up. You had to stick sixty miniscule pieces of paper into thirty slots on the board. And then for the next week you would have to pull the slot number paper out to reveal something that said “Dishwasher” or “Range” and try to remember where else on the board you’d seen that appliance. When the time came for you to guess what the once-hidden pictogram said, it was too late, because you already had thrown the whole thing at your sister and were made to vacuum up 60 paper bits, while your mother backed the station wagon over the plastic game board and made you vacuum up those shattered slivers as well.
Even if you did win the Home Game of Concentration, you didn’t really feel any sense of accomplishment. You didn’t go home with the washer-dryer, Steamset rollers or the trash compactor. First of all, you were already home. Secondly, all you got was a piece of paper that said “Blender”, “Garbage Disposal” or “Trash Compactor.” How is that fun? Take that to school for Show and Tell and see what happens.

A lot of those game shows were presented live before a studio audience, and there was always someone behind the board who had the task of turning a tile or pulling out a cardboard Jeopardy! card to reveal the question. Since everything was manual and nothing electronic, inevitably something would go wrong. You sometimes got to see the hand of the Concentration tile turner (or even his very embarrassed face if you were lucky), or the card puller’s finger probing through the grid trying to capture the torn piece of cardboard.

The remakes that cable channels produce these days always stink. The remake of I’ve Got a Secret on the Game Show Network in 2006 lasted for seven episodes before it was axed. It had a B-list panel of gay people barely in the closet. (Get it? Secret? Nudge, nudge; wink, wink.) Some shows, like The Match Game were just insipid from the very beginning. The original Match Game had two teams of three, each team led by a celebrity. When Liza Minnelli was on, the teams were asked to “Name a song that Judy Garland made famous.” I only remember this because I am a gay man. So how many contestants do you think wrote down “Easter Parade”? Even Judy’s daughter, in the ultimate sellout, wrote down, “Over the Rainbow” instead of the homosexual favorite, “Clang, Clang, Clang went the Trolley.” And if anyone knows her homosexuals, it’s Liza with a Q. The newer, bawdy version of the game, which starred Charles Nelson Reilly and Bret Somers (who the hell was she, anyway, other than Jack Klugman’s wife and Match Game employee?) was totally unwatchable, because every other word was “Boobs.” 

Goodman-Todman shows were usually funny and upbeat, (except when Arlene started snarling). But none of their shows could touch the pathos of Queen for a Day. Originally broadcast as a radio show, Queen for a Day dragged out three run-down old women and in front of everyone had them describe their suffering and tales of woe. These were miserably unhappy ladies, usually widows, their husbands dead from black lung from working in the mines, and they were left without a dime but with twelve children. They always were unable to work because they were fat diabetics confined to wheelchairs and bought saltines and lard from the money they got for the ironing they took in and pressed at a neighbor’s house because they had electricity. And they all had bills piled up and worried that their other 11 kids would come down with small pox just like the youngest one.

After all three women were paraded out and blubbering to the best of their ability, the audience voted, based on the highest volume of clapping reported by the Applause-O-Meter. The winner was given a velvet robe and rhinestone tiara and wheeled up to the throne while the host read out her list of prizes, all of them useless, like a fur coat and a new washing machine, but no extension cord to plug in to the ironing hangout. The other slightly less desperate women went home with, I don’t know, the Home Game I guess. Probably a photograph of the winner’s mink stole as well.

I’d give one of my left digits if they would bring this back as a reality show in the American Idol format. It would take weeks until the most desperate of all the down-and-out would win the season. I would love to see Jennifer Lopez say to a contestant, “Well, you sound pretty destitute and you’re a professional weeper. And I saw your brood of children backstage, and certainly all of them could be introduced to soap, warm water and a good delousing, but I also saw you with a genuine Louis Vuitton handbag, and that was no knockoff, sistah!”

The golden years of television I loved so much are dead, as are most of those contestants and celebrities, with the possible exception of Orson Bean. According to Wikipedia, Arlene Frances had her diamond heart yanked off her neck by a mugger as she got out of a taxi in 1988. Talk about the end of an era. She died in 2001 from cancer and Alzheimer’s. Chronic crankiness could also have been a contributor.

But I secretly wonder that near the end, in a semi-lucid moment of clarity she might have thought, “Maybe I did cheat.”

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