Saturday, May 20, 2006

What's My Time Line?

I have probably spoken here before about my addiction to Game Show Network's nightly (3:30 a.m., eastern) reruns of the classic WHAT'S MY LINE? program, hosted by the impeccable John Charles Daly. While watching last night's installment, Donna and I noticed something strange at the end of the show as announcer Johnny Olson said the most unusual closing words, "This program was pre-recorded." We promptly rechecked the beginning of the show, when he usually announces, "Live from New York," and true enough, it wasn't there... and it was spoken at the beginning of the last four episodes we have presently archived on our hard drive. Donna had a theory, which I promptly checked out on the episode guide at the IMDb, and her theory was correct.

Apparently last night's episode was the first to be aired in the wake of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The host and panel show no inkling of this important blow to American history, as it was one of the program's rare pre-recorded episodes, taped earlier -- on November 3, I understand -- as a means of giving the panel some time off over the coming Thanksgiving weekend. (Interestingly, the first guest was none other than Colonel Harland Sanders, whose identity as the living logo of Kentucky Fried Chicken not one of the panelists recognized... which shows you how much KFC has grown in the past 40 years!) However, according to what we've been able to find out, the episode running tonight will be the first one aired live in the wake of this national tragedy. It should make fascinating viewing for anyone interested in American history, sociology, and pop culture.

The original WHAT'S MY LINE? transcends its status as a game show for several reasons. Some of them have to do with the unfailing civility and wit of the participants, and the little through-lines that carry from one show to the next -- Bennett Cerf's weekly search for the pun that will most agonize host Daly, Daly's unflagging fondness for his Tilton School alma mater, the interesting choices of fill-in panelists (Woody Allen, Peter Cook, Tony Randall [who recently appeared with head shaved in the wake of filming THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO], and Martin Gabel, the actor husband of regular Arlene Francis, to name a few), and certainly, the show's occasional encounters with tragedy and near-tragedy.

In 1956, the show's amusing regular panelist, droll radio comedian Fred Allen, died of a heart attack, and his loss was strongly felt for awhile. Recently, the GSN episodes came to a point in the run when regular Dorothy Kilgallen suddenly began to suffer from facial spasms, evidently a side effect of alcohol and pill abuse, and disappeared from the show for the duration of her rehabilitation, during which time she was replaced by Phyllis Newman.

Then, about a week ago, the GSN reruns featured a series of episodes that coincided with Arlene Francis' 1963 automobile accident, in which her car collided with another, resulting in the death of the other driver. The consequences of the accident were never mentioned, but the show in which John Daly announced the accident, which had just happened, with Francis' fellow panelists looking shaken, was compelling television -- not least of all to everyone's valiant determination to give their viewers a game show worth watching. The episodes that followed found Francis replaced by various fill-ins, including Phyllis Newman, and she eventually returned with her right arm in a sling. A few shows later, a Sunday night live broadcast happened to coincide with Francis' 56th birthday and everyone (audience included) joined together to sing a very loving "Happy Birthday."

None of us who saw it will forget the most tragic of all the WML episodes, the one in which John Daly and company had to announce, and carry on in the wake of, Dorothy Kilgallen's untimely death at age 52. Her passing is commonly viewed an accident brought about by mixing alcohol and seconol, but in later years, the theory has been proposed that she was deliberately silenced after announcing she had obtained evidence that would blow the lid off the Kennedy assassination story. This theory is made somewhat more compelling by two associated facts: the notebooks containing her findings were never found, and Kilgallen's closest friend, with whom she may have shared or entrusted this evidence, also died an early death around the same time. Therefore it could be said that the drama of this particular series through-line, almost two years in duration, commences with tonight's broadcast. But as anyone who lived through those days will tell you, America became a different place in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Actually, it was Americans who changed, because the media involve us in this and still-coming tragedies in unprecedented depth and proximity.

It was on tragic occasions such as these that the WML cast showed themselves to be not merely glib and charming, but also heroic individuals who could rise to any challenge and perform with grace under pressure. They soldiered on through the worst of times, and one's heart went out to them all the more because of it.

POSTSCRIPT added 5/21, 5:21 a.m.: The episode aired earlier tonight, performed live on December 8, 1963 -- some two weeks after the assassination -- made absolutely no reference to the national tragedy, but the regulars did seem uncustomarily tense and a bit rattled. Lastly, here is a link to an incredible WHAT'S MY LINE? site that features complete details, descriptions, and even reviews of every episode!

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