Discovering What’s My Line

Charylee writes about the US game show ‘What’s My Line’, which ran on CBS from 1950 to 1967; hosted by John Charles Daly.

Too many times I find myself up late at night flipping through the channels on the TV;  I am not a huge prime time television watcher these days. There honestly isn’t much that sparks my interest. All too often I am up, not able to sleep, browsing and hoping to find something worth my while; only to end up suckered into some reality show far from anything real.

Speaking of reality TV… Game shows are somewhat ‘reality’, aren’t they? No script, no cast; just everyday people trying to win some cash or maybe a new car…or win nothing at all. Ok, so I like game shows. I’m fond of the classic Price is Right and subliminally wanted to be a Barker’s Beauty so I could wear the flashy dresses & show off the next item up for bid, all while standing alongside Bob….sigh…..I digress. Several years ago, while having one of those late-night channel flipping sessions, I found John Daly on a black-and-white screen wearing a suit and tie; as charming as ever. He was laughing and carrying on with the then actor, Ronald Reagan. I knew of What’s My Line?, and of John’s work, but had never sat down and watched it; I decided this would be an opportune time to do so.

First, let me say here that I stumbled upon the show when it was nearly over. Typically, a mystery guest featured toward the end of the taping, not always. Sometimes in an unexpected twist, the MG appeared at the beginning, but this night was the standard protocol schedule. Immediately, I pushed the guide button on my remote to see if there was another episode only to find there was not. So, I did what I always do and went to Google to search for more episodes. It surprised me to find a treasure trove of season after season on YouTube. 

The first video I clicked on was entitled “What’s My Line Lucille Ball & Desi Arnez (Oct 2, 1955)”. Upon hitting play, a Remington Rand ad flashed on the screen, followed by some early graphics and then a shot of the panel. The panel comprised four fairly popular faces of the time. There were usually three mostly permanent panel members and then a fourth who was a guest panellist. In this episode, it was Dorothy Kilgallen; the voice of Broadway as she was known; to her left, famed TV star Robert Q. Lewis; to his left, talk/radio host & actress Arlene Francis and to her left, the Random House Publishing powerhouse Mr Bennett Cerf. The first thing I noticed was the apparel. The ladies were dressed to the nines in high fashion no doubt, dripping in diamonds and pearls. The men looked dapper and well to do in their suit coats and ties. Bennet would then introduce John Daly and the show was ready to roll.

As I watched this show’s guests with the appearance of Lucy & Desi who were a trip by the way,  I began to see that What’s My Line stayed consistent with its format throughout the years; four panellists then followed by the introducing a ‘challenger’ who would sign in and then sit next to John; where their occupation or line would then be revealed to both viewers at home and the studio audience. The panellists would then ask the mystery guest questions about their occupation that could only be answered yes or no. A no would constitute a five-dollar flip of the cards by John and an automatic move to the next panellist. If after their questions they still couldn’t come up with the MG’s occupation, then he or she walked away with the prize money all while having a few good laughs. The show prided itself on seeking individuals with a stranger than normal occupation. Examples include mosquito counter or skirt blowing machine operator, or my personal favourite, the nudist camp owner. The thirty-minute episodes seemed to fly by in a flash and were star-studded to the gills with celebrated names including Debbie Reynolds, Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra to name a few. And because the show was shot LIVE for the majority of the time, there were also some unexpected visitors in a few episodes that just added to its charm. Needless to say, I ended up watching six- thirty-minute episodes that night, subscribing to the WML YouTube channel and joining its Facebook group; I was hooked.

The show lasted 25 seasons and aired from 1950 through the Fall of 1967. It saw the assassination of Kennedy and the unexpected death of its beloved permanent panellist Dorothy Kilgallen. The show entertained millions of viewers over the years and went into syndication after its cancellation in ‘67. It is regarded as one of the all-time greatest game shows in history. Since finding it on YouTube, I have been through the entire playlist of shows at least a dozen times where I learn something new that I hadn’t known before. What’s My Line? is just as educational as it is entertaining. Something that game shows of this era often in lack, in my opinion.

So, the next time you’re channel surfing late at night with no luck on the TV, consider firing up the laptop or switching on your phone and visiting the YouTube archive of What’s My Line? shows. Believe me when I say, they don’t make ‘em like they used to.


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