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This Is Your Secret
Written August 7, 2006


That's Random House publisher Bennett Cerf on the left.  He's dressed formally because he's appearing on television, live from New York City, as he did every Sunday night while I was growing up.

It's been fifty years since my family first got a television set.  I remember some of those early programs well, because I replayed them over and over in my young mind.  For you whippersnappers who don't recall TV in the 1950s, let me relate some of my memories.

The crowning of the new Miss America was televised for the first time on September 11, 1954, to a huge nationwide audience of 27 million people.  I might have been one of those people.  I have a vague memory of seeing some such program in a motel room with my parents.  The TV was coin-operated, so every 30 minutes we had to drop in another quarter.

I was also able to see TV when I visited my grandparents.

But my mother and father were reluctant to bring television into our home, because too much passive viewing is not good for children.  They finally relented in the fall of 1956, when I was 9½ years old.

The first program that our family sat down to watch was a half-hour crime drama, M Squad, starring Lee Marvin as a hard-boiled cop investigating murders.

On that November evening in 1956, the story seemed frighteningly real as it unfolded in black and white in our very own darkened living room.

Marvin's terse voice-over narration as he drove alone through the city, with a light flashing atop his squad car, was later parodied by Leslie Nielsen as Frank Drebin in the Police Squad series, which led to the Naked Gun movies.

M Squad was shot on film.  However, this was the Golden Age of Television, and there were still some dramas that were televised live.  I recall only the end of one of them, a U.S. Steel Hour production about the search for a valuable upright piano that had been made from carved wood salvaged from Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem but had gone missing during World War II.  That premise sounds terribly far-fetched to me now, so perhaps I have it wrong.  But at the end, when everyone had despaired of finding the treasure, they were gathered around an ugly old piano that was encased in concrete or plaster or something.  Then a corner of the plaster broke off.  One character picked it up and saw the impression of an ancient carving, and everyone realized that the missing piano was right in front of them, in disguise.

Dramas like that were expensive to produce.  Then as now, reality shows and panel shows were cheaper, and they drew big audiences.

One popular series was called This Is Your Life.   At the start of the half hour, host Ralph Edwards appeared, speaking in a conspiratorial tone and holding under his arm a big book — presumably a biography or scrapbook about that week's honored guest.

But at first, Ralph didn't reveal that person's identity.  He explained that the subject had no idea that he had been selected. Maybe he had been invited to a restaurant for dinner with a group of his friends, or perhaps he was in the studio next door thinking that he was about to film a commercial.

Ralph walked up to the subject and interrupted him.  The presence of Ralph and his book and the TV camera and lights suggested what was about to happen, but the guest of honor was usually momentarily speechless.  Ralph told him that that it was going to be a very special evening, "because tonight, Andy Devine, This Is Your Life!"  We heard music and applause.  Everyone smiled and laughed and offered congratulations, and we at home smiled as well.

The guest of honor usually cooperated willingly, although I remember radio journalist Lowell Thomas complaining about the friends who had dragged him to the restaurant, angrily muttering, "This is a conspiracy!"  And it's been said that Laurel and Hardy, who had been negotiating for a possible television series, were upset to suddenly discover themselves making their first TV appearance and not getting paid for it.

Nevertheless, no one was going to be a bad sport on live national television.  Ralph introduced a commercial break, during which he and the guest hurried next door to the This Is Your Life stage for the main part of the show.

It began with Ralph opening the book to tell the guest what he already knew —his life story.  "You know, you're a big star today, but in your younger days you made a different impression on your neighbors back in Brooklyn."

Then we would see the guest in closeup listening to an off-screen voice: "I always thought those Johnson boys were nothing but troublemakers, especially after they stole my icebox."

Ralph would ask, "Do you remember that voice?"  The guest might answer, "I haven't heard it in years, but is that Mrs. Fedelman?"

Ralph would reply, "That's right.  Your neighbor in the apartment upstairs when you were growing up; all the way from Brooklyn, New York, here's Mrs. Esther Fedelman!"  She would walk out on stage to applause and hugs, and Ralph would prompt her to tell her little story.

After half an hour of this, Ralph told us that everyone would be getting together for a big party after the show.  The guest of honor would be receiving many gifts from the sponsors, including a movie projector with a kinescope of the program so he could watch it over and over.

Here's a link to a slightly exaggerated version of the program.

In those days, when local clubs and organizations wanted to put on a program to salute one of their members, they didn't hold a "roast"; more often, they'd stage their own version of This Is Your Life.

Here, for example, is a photo from Michigan in 1959.  The Builders Class of the First Methodist Church honored its teacher, Port Huron mayor Etta Reid, on her 65th birthday.  Members dressed up in costumes to depict characters from Etta's past.

That practice has faded away, probably because the memory of the TV series has faded away.  But there has been talk lately of reviving the program.

Another inexpensive format was the panel show, featuring a panel of four celebrities playing a game by asking questions.

For example, Bud Collyer, who had once portrayed Superman on radio and later had a TV game show called Beat the Clock, plugged the sponsor's product as the host of To Tell the Truth.

Then a screen would rise to reveal three people standing on a high platform.  A spotlight hit each in turn as an announcer intoned, "What is your name, please?"  Each of them gave the same answer.  "My name is Arthur McArthur."  "My name is Arthur McArthur."  "My name is Arthur McArthur."

Bud would read an "affidavit" detailing Arthur's claim to fame.  Then the three came down from their platform to take their seats on stage.  Obviously, two of them were impostors.

The panel of four celebrities, often including Orson Bean and Polly Bergen and Kitty Carlisle, would question the three about the affidavit and vote on who was telling the truth.

Finally, in a memorable phrase, Bud asked, "Would the real Arthur McArthur stand up, please!"  The impostors looked at each other.  Each pretended to be about to rise before the real Arthur stood up, to smiles and applause all around.

My mother's favorite was What's My Line, hosted by the urbane John Daly.  He had been a newscaster, and one still sometimes hears a recording of his CBS Radio bulletin reporting that the American naval base at Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

But now each Sunday night he and a panel  would play a game of yes-or-no questions to guess a contestant's unusual occupation.  ("Is this object bigger than a breadbox?")  Or they would try to guess the identity of a celebrity mystery guest while wearing blindfolds (that's Arlene Francis at the right below).

Other panelists almost always included Bennett Cerf and Dorothy Kilgallen.

Each time the contestant was able to answer "no," John would flip over another card indicating that he'd won another five dollars.  "That's one down and nine to go.  Miss Kilgallen?"  If they ran out of time, John would flip over all the cards and the contestant would win the whole $50. 

Sometimes John would disagree with the contestant about which way to answer, and they'd have to put their heads together for a whispered conference.  The panelists were amused whenever John called a conference with a female contestant.

My favorite was "I've Got a Secret," a similar show hosted by Garry Moore.

Here the panel usually consisted of Bill Cullen, Betsy Palmer, Henry Morgan, and Bess Myerson or Jayne Meadows.  The contestant's secret was usually something rather offbeat.

If the contestant was a celebrity, sometimes the secret was an elaborate setup.  I think it was Steve Allen who took part in a strange pantomime during the questioning.  He shook out a tablecloth, draped it over a table, and sat down and ate a banana.

Eventually the secret was revealed:  the performance was being recorded on one of the newly invented video tape machines, and now it would be played back in reverse!

We saw the pieces of banana come out of Steve's mouth and assemble themselves into a fruit.  We saw the tablecloth rise up and appear to shake itself with Steve hanging on to one side.  An amazing application of new technology.

For another secret, a number of ordinary-looking people were seated on the stage.  It turned out that they had been chosen because their names comprised the words to the old song, "In the Good Old Summer Time."  Well, approximately, at least.  The first four people:  Inda, Goode, Olds, Somerstein.

Part of the lyrics go:

You hold her hand and she holds yours,
and that's a very good sign.

But Garry explained that his staff had had trouble finding people named And, so that section of the song was represented by people named













This was sufficiently silly to amuse my young mind when they all held up their name cards and sang out their names.  Especially when it was the turn of that goofy bald guy, Sam Datz.




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