Longtime readers of this blog have probably picked up on the fact that we’re suckers for What’s My Line?—for any game show of the 1950s, really, but especially those programs that featured elegantly dressed, urbane and witty panelists. We’re thinking here of shows such as To Tell the Truth and I’ve Got a Secret.
The best of them all, for our money, was What’s My Line?, in which the point of the game was for the panelists to ask yes-or-no questions to ascertain what each of an ongoing series of guests did for a living. What’s My Line? featured three regular panelists for the majority of its 17 years on the air: journalist/gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, publisher and raconteur Bennett Cerf and actress and television personality Arlene Francis. The fourth seat was filled for three years by buffoonish (in our estimation) comedy writer Hal Block, then Steve Allen (our favorite fourth-seater) and finally by Fred Allen. When Allen passed away on St. Patrick’s Day, 1956, a revolving series of guest panelists filled the fourth seat. Never again would the recurring trio of Arlene, Bennett and Dorothy be a quartet.
The network edition of What’s My Line? came to an end in 1967 (a very different syndicated version would continue for eight more years), but it lives on in the hearts of fans across the country and around the world. There is a What’s My Line?YouTube channel that hosts virtually all of the extant episodes, where they are watched by thousands (the kinescopes of WML? were never copyrighted, so they are in the public domain), and also a very large, very active WML? fan group on Facebook.
It was on FB that a fan recently pointed out that a previously unseen (well, not seen since it first aired) kinescope of a 1950 episode of WML? was up for auction on eBay. The moderator of the YouTube channel sprang into action, with expertise and funding provided by an experienced and avid film collector who is a WML? fan, and the auction was won by the good guys. The collector will retain ownership of the film, but he digitized it so that it could be added to the YouTube channel for fans everywhere to enjoy (collectors are not always inclined to be so generous; they tend to want to keep such rarities to themselves).
And so it is with pleasure that we share this very early episode of What’s My Line? with the Cladrite community. You won’t see Bennett in this episode—he hadn’t yet joined the show—but Dorothy and Arlene are on hand, as is Hal Block and moderator extraordinaire John Charles Daly. Again, this show hasn’t been seen since it first aired on October 1, 1950, so you’ve got quite the rare treat in store. And if you do enjoy it (how could you not?), you’ll want to pop over to the WML?YouTube channel, where literally hundreds more episodes await you.
It could be argued that Arlene Francis falls just outside our purview here at Cladrite Radio. After all, she is best remembered for her post-1950 work, especially on the always very popular panel show What’s My Line? But Arlene had a solid career before 1950, too, in theatre, radio and, to a lesser degree, pictures, so we’re pleased to celebrate her 108th birthday with you.
WML? still has a very large and devoted following online (you can watch virtually all the extant episodes of the series via the What’s My Line channel on YouTube), and though all the regulars on that show—Bennett Cerf, Dorothy Kilgallen and host John Charles Daly—are held in high esteem among fans, for most aficionados, our Arlene is the belle of the ball, the queen of the quiz, a charming, delightful and lovely gift to us all.
Happy birthday, Arlene, wherever you may be. We miss you dearly!
Here at Cladrite Radio, our focus is primarily on the first five decades of the twentieth century, but we do from time to time dip our toes into the 1950s (and even the ’60s, occasionally).
We can think of no better excuse to bend our “rules” than the chances to share this audio interview with publisher, author and What’s My Line? panel mainstay Bennett Cerf, recorded in January 1968, just months after What’s My Line? came to an end.
When the Game Show Network was airing What’s My Line in the wee hours of the morning on a daily basis, we watched the show religiously, thanks to the wonders of Tivo. (Thankfully, Ms. Cladrite is also a devoted fan, so much so that we even gave her signed editions of one of Cerf’s joke collections and Arlene Francis‘s 1960 memoir/self-help tome, That Certain Something: The Magic of Charm, one Christmas.)
If you’re a fan of What’s My Line?, you’ll enjoy Cerf’s reminiscences immensely. If you don’t know the show, you’ll find plenty of episodes on YouTube. But we warn you—it’s habit-forming.
The audio interview shared below is in three parts, totaling around 25 minutes; you’ll want to listen to all three.
If you grew up in NYC or your parents or grandparents did, you’ll have fun tracking them down, but even if, like us, you have no connection to NYC that dates back seventy-plus years or, heck, no family connection whatsoever to the Big Apple, this is still a resource you can enjoy, if only for the joy of perusing the telephone exchanges.
We’ll compose a post one day about our affection for these magical words, but today suffice it to say that telephone numbers that begin not with mere digits but with melodic vocables such as Trafalgar, Whitehall, Butterfield, and Bogardus evoke bygone eras like few other verbal artifacts can.
Then there are the advertisements. We don’t know whether there were yellow pages-style business directories for New York City in those days, but these white pages include plenty of ads: Tyson Sullivan theatrical ticket service, Underwood Typewriters, American Pencil Company, Elfinbein’s Baking Corporation: Bakers of Cakes, Pastries and Pies Since 1918.
Then there’s the celebrity spotting. You might have known that artist Edward Hopper lived and worked at 3 Washington Square—that info’s relatively common knowledge—but did you know his phone number was SPring 7-0949?
We’re tempted to punch in those seven digits; we’re willing to bet the current holder has no idea that America’s greatest painter (in our humble opinion) once took calls at that number.
Then there’s What’s My Line? doyenne Arlene Francis. In 1940, she was a working actress, having appeared in eight Broadway shows and a movie or two. She was married to one Neil Agnew, who worked in the sales department for Paramount Pictures, and they lived at 320 Park Avenue. Their phone number was WIckersham 2-9486. They had separate listings in the phone book, which was probably a good thing, as they were to be divorced just five years later.
Arlene lived just a short stroll away from Bennett Cerf, who would be her fellow What’s My Line? panelist and in 1940 was already the publisher behind Random House. Cerf’s phone number was PLaza 3-0230, and he lived at 20 East 57th Street, just six blocks away from Francis. One wonders if they were yet acquainted in 1940.