Gil Fates

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Born

9/29/1914 , Newark, New Jersey, USA

Died

5/1/2000

Birth Name

Gilbert Fates

Gender

Male

Biography:

Obituary as seen in newspapers:
"Prolific TV Game Show Producer Gil Fates Dead at 86"
NEW YORK (AP) - Gil Fates, an executive producer for "What's My Line?" and other leading TV game and panel shows of the 1950s and 1960s, died May 1, 2000. He was 86. Fates, in more than 35 years with Goodson-Todman Productions, helped create programs like "Beat the Clock," "Winner Take All," "To Tell the Truth" and "I've Got a Secret." He produced "What's My Line?" for its entire 25-year run. He also supervised the production of foreign versions of various Goodson-Todman shows. After three years of theater, he joined the CBS television department, where he produced and hosted the first regularly scheduled game show, "The CBS Television Quiz." He left CBS in 1950 and joined Goodson-Todman in 1953. In 1978, he wrote a book about his encounters with celebrities and game show contestants, "What's My Line? The History of America's Most Famous Panel Show."



Gil Fates' Legacy: What's My Line?
(Would he approve of its treatment by today's media?)

Anyone who is even remotely familiar with the study of communications, mass media and journalism is aware of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian author, professor and media visionary.

Arguably, McLuhan's most famous contribution was his simple statement "The medium is the message."

McLuhan didn't live to see the proliferation of cable television channels we have today, specifically the Game Show Network, or GSN.

Neither did Bennett Cerf. Nor did Dorothy Kilgallen.

And John Charles Daly, Mark Goodson and Bill Todman were all gone by the time GSN began operations 10 years ago.

Gil Fates and Arlene Francis were still around in 1994, but nobody has really catalogued whether they were aware that the medium of cable television in general, and GSN in particular, would be turning a once-a-week venture in which they took part in the 1950s and 1960s into a different sort of message for TV viewers in the 21st century.

When I was still in elementary school, the TV show "What's My Line?" was a Sunday night event of sorts, kind of a late-night version of Walt Disney and Ed Sullivan, who rode herd over the earlier portions of the evening.

This particular Sunday night gig not only was apparently fun for many of the people just mentioned, but was highly profitable, too. It doesn't appear anybody went broke sitting in a New York theater every Sunday night trying to either figure out somebody's occupation or identity, or working behind the scenes making sure that the little game was broadcast to the nation.

From what we can gather, they got together to do these shows, somebody hit the proper buttons to send the signal out to a willing public, and everybody cashed their paychecks at some point thereafter.

A few, such as Daly, apparently cashed some very large checks. Others, it can be assumed, made a living.

Meanwhile, Gil Fates, the executive producer, made sure that the vast majority of these shows were not only kinescoped, but somehow kept for posterity, or whatever.

Who knows if Fates gave a hoot about posterity? Most of us really don't, do we?

But for whatever reason, he did it, and as a result, we now have these Sunday night games available at least once a night, on GSN. And we have VCRs and Tivo and digital recording and whatever else available to make sure that if we aren't up at 3:30 a.m., we can still watch.

And we have the Internet, the crazy and wonderful world that makes the nightly replay of a 51-year-old game show telecast the subject of online water-cooler conversation whenever we want to log on.

And that's where McLuhan comes back in. All these media have changed the message.

When I watch "What's My Line?" episodes from the 1950-67 run on CBS, I try to remember two things:

1) That these were real people who lived, worked, partied and did whatever people do while they're on this planet, but that they were doing it long before I was born and, in some cases, before my parents were born, and:

2) That they showed up once-a-week and did a TV show, but that they had other lives, jobs and interests that pretty much occupied the vast majority of the time that made up the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately, I think the message we get from the nightly GSN telecasts -- the medium in this case -- is that these are more or less recurring characters in some sort of serial.

It's almost as if had Bennett, Dorothy, Arlene and John not existed, somebody at Pixar or some other studio would have had to create them.

It's fascinating how we watch Bennett Cerf talk on a Tuesday night about his upcoming trip to the Far East, and then two nights later, there he is, back grinning and punning on "What's My Line?"

Talk about a "Global Village," eh, Professor McLuhan.

When we watch these nightly broadcasts, we see Dorothy and Arlene and Bennett and John Charles back over and over and over, as if they pop up, spend a little time on our screens, then go back into stasis for 23 more hours.

I'm pretty sure it wasn't like that for real, though. It's this modern medium making it appear that way.

In the index to Bennett Cerf's autobiographical book "At Random," there are five entries for "What's My Line?"

John Daly and Arlene Francis have three entries each. And Arlene was his neighbor in Mount Kisco!

Dorothy Kilgallen has two.

Meanwhile, Donald Klopfer, Bennett's partner in Random House, has 50 entries. The Book-of-the-Month Club -- whose warehouse I drive by almost every day in Pennsylvania -- has 37!

Check on eBay or Amazon.com. The man published books of humor as if he was trying to set some sort of record for productivity.

He seemingly spoke everywhere. There doesn't seem to be a town in the world in which he isn't able to drop the name of its best hotel.

But he's been gone for more than 30 years, and every day on the Internet, there's a new discussion about something he said on a vintage "What's My Line?" program aired by GSN. I haven't seen much online talk lately about any of the things he wrote during his lifetime, but I've seen dozens of postings about one word he said on a 1950s 30-minute TV show.

Bennett, I think your message has definitely been swallowed up by these new media.

Dorothy Kilgallen has been dead for nearly 40 years and I don't think a day goes by when her substance-abuse issues, her marital troubles or her run-ins with some celebrity are not aired online.

John Charles Daly spent years as a broadcast journalist and executive. Today, it seems as if one "small conference" of his carries more weight than a year's worth of his daily news broadcasts at CBS and ABC.

I never knew any of these people, but I think that if they were asked how they would like to be remembered, they probably said as a publisher (Bennett), a newsman (Daly), a columnist and reporter (Dorothy) and an actress (Arlene).

But who knew that long after they'd pulled the plug on their last "What's My Line?" they'd be stars on cable TV and the Internet, media whose very existence they certainly couldn't have envisioned?

And how could they have known that the little Sunday night lark that paid well, but wasn't exactly hard labor, would live on long after so many of the other experiences of their lifetimes were, to paraphrase Shakespeare, interred (or at least in Bennett's case, cremated) with their bones?

Bill Savage, January 2005