So, I spent the weekend watching snippets of What’s My Line?, the game show that, running on television from 1950 to 1967, involved panelists who attempted to guess the professions of unknown contestants and, blindfolded, to guess the names of celebrity contestants.
Hosted mostly by the radio personality John Charles Daly, it featured, as panelists, such figures as the newspaper personality Dorothy Kilgallen, actress personality Arlene Francis, book personality Bennett Cerf, comic personality Steve Allen, writing personality Gore Vidal, and magazine personality Hugh Hefner.
A something personality. That was really the point of the show. And it’s worth watching today because it was the simulacrum of a unified culture—not that culture itself, but at least the parody and ape of the thing. It was the 1950s, in other words—that time of culture’s parody and simulacrum and apery.
And yet . . .
And yet . . .
You gotta say that, at least, the era, and its show, had an idea of culture. No, an ideal of culture, without the idea. The celebrity guests were the key. Salvador Dali appeared on the show. As did William O. Douglas. And Ford Frick. And Frank Lloyd Wright. And Eleanor Roosevelt.
Oh, and Sugar Ray Robinson, Richard J. Daley, Carl Sandburg, Esther Williams, and Herman Wouk. Clifton Fadiman. Phil Rizzuto. Rosiland Russell. Yves Saint Laurent. The whole sick crew of 1950s middlebrow culture: entertainers, for the most part, but a smattering of recognizable other figures.
In fact, take the episode when the panel are noodling around, trying to guess the identity of Frank Lloyd Wright, and one of the panelists asks another, “Could it be that he’s in design or architecture like Frank Lloyd Wright?” It was, in its way, the perfect question: Frank Lloyd Wright deployed as a type and a figure to try to identify . . . Frank Lloyd Wright.
And types and figures are the raw stuff of culture. The funny thing about What’s My Line? is the old conventions that it uses. Asking if the mystery guest is famous for movies, the panelists will ask: “Are you better known for film rather than, say, legitimate theater?” Often the questions are phrased fulsomely, as in “Are you a famous actor?” or “Are you a leading lady?” And the host, John Charles Daly—who married Chief Justice Earl Warren’s daughter, uniting, um, something or other in American culture. Anyway, the host, John Charles Daly, would always answer for the celebrity: “Our mystery guest is too modest to answer with the proper reply, so I’ll answer for him: Yes, this is a very famous actor.” Or, often enough, the guest would answer no.
Look, these were conventions mostly as pretentions, mostly as apings and the fakings of what it imagined culture demanded. But what the weird, silly, self-important old show did have, that would soon be lost, is an imagination of culture. And a unified culture, at that. Randolph Churchill appeared and was a good sport. Van Cliburn was surprisingly clever and charming. Louis Untermeyer was one of the early panelists. Louis Untermeyer, of all the wonderful old hacks of the middlebrow world. Chuck Yeager. Alfred Hitchcock. Rodgers and Hammerstein.
All it needed was Charles Goren and the head of the Arthur Murray Dance Studios. Oh, wait, Arthur Murray actually was on the show. And Groucho Marx—who signed in as “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith.” And Art Linkletter. And Col. Sanders. And the perpetual panelist Bennett Cerf—did he ever actually publish books? He seemed to know everyone, and constantly asked questions like: “Did you have dinner with me this week?”
But that was kind of the point. The contestants got the celebrities—politicians, writers, but mostly Broadway and movie stars on tour to promote their latest work—an enormous amount of the time. Woody Allen did stump them, but Ronald Reagan and most others did not. They got Bishop Fulton Sheen, and they got Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., and they got Kim Novak, and they got Joe DiMaggio, and they got Yves St. Laurent.
And though the manners were copied, the world they came from was real, in its weak, weird way. There was something of a unified culture that existed in that time, that place, and they did all know each other. The acoustics on the early days of the show were awful. Beyond awful. Questions and answers had constantly to be repeated. Frank Lloyd Wright never heard a single thing said to him. Neither did Charles Coburn. Or Louis Armstrong. Of course, their answers were often misheard, too, which is perhaps what kept some of those figures from being identified just from their voices—however much they tried to fake accents.
And by the mid-1960s, when the show was dying, all that was fading away. Was the loss of that culture good or bad? I can’t decide. I mean, the culture was a shadow of a high liberal culture that was not the worst thing in the history of the world. Not the best, either. But for good or ill, it’s all gone. The Walter Winchells and the Joe Dimaggios are gone. The Fernando Lamases are still with us, but, then, they always are.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.