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Game Shows


There is a certain vicarious thrill to watching someone beat the odds, and game shows have been popular from the earliest days of television for that reason.  It is also fun to watch a game show and compete from your own home, seeing just how you stack up against the competition.

Television game shows are programs where people are engaged in a competition, with the object being to win the game and win prizes in the form of cash, gifts, vacations, etc.  The contestants can be people from everyday walks of life or celebrities, and, depending on the program, they compete as teams or as individuals.

The competitions range from intellectual to physical.  In quiz-type game shows, the contestant is challenged to answer questions, and in the physical type program the contestant must perform physical stunts in order to win.  Most games are played in rounds, with each round increasing in difficulty, and the size of the prize increasing.  Part of the allure is to see if the contestant will stop, keeping whatever prize they may have already won, or if they will gamble their winnings and move on to the next level of the game as the value of the prize increases.

A staple of the game show is the host, a celebrity who interviews the contestants and guides them through the game, explaining the rules and presenting the challenges to the player.

The first television game show was “Spelling Bee” in 1938, broadcast by the BBC.  The first television game show in the United States was “Uncle Jim's Question Bee” in 1941, making the transition from radio to television.

In the 1940’s, programs like “Break the Bank”, hosted by Bert Parks and Bud Collyer, “Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge”, and “Quiz Kids”, hosted by Joe Kelly, captured the attention of fans of the small screen.

Some big-name celebrities got their start on game shows from the 1950’s, such as Johnny Carson, who hosted a show called “Earn Your Vacation”, and Walter Cronkite, hosting “It's News to Me”.

Airing from 1950 to 1961 with 429 episodes, “You Bet Your Life” was an extremely well-liked game show, due mostly to the popularity of its host, Groucho Marx.  The program, which had been on radio since 1947, was broadcast on both radio and television for a period.  The contestants were given a small amount of cash, and the game consisted of the contestants selecting questions from categories, and wagering all or part of that money if they thought they could answer the question correctly.  A correct answer would add to their bankroll, and they would lose the wagered amount if they answered incorrectly.  During each game, a secret word would be revealed, and if the contestant happened to say the secret word they would win an additional cash prize.  A great part of the appeal of the program was the ad-libbing and interplay between Groucho, the program’s announcer, George Fenneman, and the contestants.

Also airing from 1950 to 1961, “Beat the Clock” involved contestants in physical stunts which had to be completed before the time on the clock ran out, usually in less than a minute.  The introduction to the program shows a cartoon mouse dancing on the second hand of a clock as it spins around, and the host, Bud Collyer, is introduced as “American’s #1 clock watcher”.  Different episodes include stunts like a man trying to wriggle into a girdle being raised by ropes by his wife, and another with a man trying to guide saucers into a basket as they are released down a slide by his wife.  If the competitor beats the clock, they are awarded increasing cash prizes, and can progress to trying to beat the “Jackpot Clock”.

What's My Line?” (first called ‘Occupation Unknown’) was broadcast from 1950 to 1967, and hosted by John Charles Daly.  The program was a panel game show and regular members of the panel were Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf, and a fourth guest panelist who was different for each episode.  The celebrity panelists have to question a guest in order to discover what the guest’s occupation is.  The contestant must answer their yes or no questions truthfully, and if the contestant can stump the panel, he is awarded the prize.

From 1952 to 1957 “Two for the Money” was broadcast, with Herb Shriner as the original host, replaced by Sam Levenson in the last season.  A pair of contestants, usually husband and wife, is given a category, such as words beginning with ‘th’ and would alternately give answers to fit the category, such as ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘the’, etc.  A cash amount is awarded for each correct answer given within a time limit.  The cash prize amount is then increased for the next round, up until the final round.

Another panel game show viewers enjoyed was “I've Got a Secret”, airing from 1952 to 1957.  The program was originally hosted by Garry Moore, and then by Steve Allen when Moore retired from television work.  The panel in the early days included Henry Morgan, Faye Emerson, Bill Cullen and Jayne Meadows, and later included Betsy Palmer and former Miss America Bess Myerson.  The premise of the show is for the panelists to guess the unusual, amazing, embarrassing or funny ‘secret’ of the player, which could include something that had happened to them, an achievement of some kind, or a special skill.  Cash prizes were awarded to the guest if the panel could not guess their ‘secret’.  Notable guests with secrets who appeared on the show include Col. Harland Sanders (he started his restaurant with his first Social Security check), Philo T. Farnsworth (he invented electronic television), Pete Best (used to be a Beatle), and Samuel Seymour (an elderly man who was the last surviving eyewitness to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln).

“Manhattan Honeymoon” was an interview style quiz show hosted by Cal Tierney and Neva Patterson and announced by Johnny Olson, broadcast in 1954.  Competing in question and answer rounds, three engaged (or married) couples would score points for correct answers, with the winner receiving an all-expense-paid honeymoon in New York.

In 1955 “Make the Connection” aired for thirteen half-hour episodes.  This is another panel game show where members of the celebrity panel must figure out the connection between two guests appearing on the show.  Hosted for the first four episodes by Jim McKay, the final nine were hosted by Gene Rayburn.  The celebrity panel includes Betty White, Gloria DeHaven, Eddie Bracken, and Gene Klavin.  In one episode, Buster Keaton and Harry Gribbon were the guests, and their connection was that, although Keaton had thrown pies at over fifty actors in his career, Gribbon was the only one who had thrown at pie at Keaton.  Another episode feature famous chimpanzee actor J. Fred Muggs with his babysitter.

"Queen for a Day", which aired from 1956 to 1964, has been called the precursor to today’s reality television programs.  The show’s host, Jack Bailey, interviews women who relate their stories of emotional or financial hardships.  Each woman is asked what she needs the most and why she wants to win, and the winner is selected by the audience by means of the applause meter.  The winner is wrapped in a red velvet cloak, a crown is placed on her head and she is given a large bouquet of roses, and then is awarded her most-wished-for prize, and other gifts such as appliances, vacations, and fashions.  Even the non-winners were given meaningful prizes.

Memory games have always been popular for children, and “Concentration” is a television game show based on the children’s game.  Two matching pictures of various items are displayed on a large flip-type game board, and boxes selected in turn by contestants trying to make matches.  When a match is made, the boxes are turned over to reveal portions of a puzzle which the contestants must solve.  If the contestant does not make a match, the boxes are turned back to their unrevealed position and the next player takes a turn trying to make a match.  The program aired on television beginning in 1958, with varying versions continuing until 1991.  Hosts of the program have included Hugh Downs, Bob Clayton, Ed McMahon and Jack Narz.

Make a Face” was broadcast from 1961 to 1962, first as a game show with adult contestants, and then later with children as contestants.  The contestants stop revolving wheels to reveal a character’s face.  When the wheels are stopped in the correct positions, they are then shown portions of a celebrity’s face.  The first player to correctly guess the identity of the celebrity is the winner.  Bob Clayton was the host.

Hosted by Hans Conreid, with panelists Jan Sterling, Walter Slezak and Don Murray, “Made in America” aired in 1964.  Hans Conreid interviews millionaire guests on the program, with the panelists trying to guess how they made their fortunes.  If the panel cannot guess the correct answer, the millionaire wins a cash prize, which is donated to charity.

Make Me Laugh” is another game show that was broadcast in different versions between 1958 and 1980.  The original version was hosted by Robert Q. Lewis, and later versions were hosted by Bobby Van.  In order to win the game, contestants have to maintain a straight face while three stand-up comedians do their best to make them laugh.  Some of the comics appearing on the program are Bob Saget, Howie Mandel, Gallagher, Gary Mule Deer, Yakov Smirnoff and Garry Shandling.

Episodes of these and other game shows are available for viewing here at Matinee Classics.  For a glimpse of how games were played on early television -- for a few good laughs -- and to see how you well you can do, take a look at these gems from the past. 

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