My first vague recollection of What's My Line? comes from my family's first black and white television during the 1950s. I was probably about six years old in the mid-1950s when I can actually remember the show. I recall not loving the show, but not hating it either. My parents were regular watchers, so if I was up at 10:30 PM usually on Sundays when we had no school the following day, I too tried to guess the occupations of the contestants.
Unfortunately for me, instant information from the Internet and our 24-hour cable news cycle came into being 20 years too late. I would have loved for an opportunity to see the WML? reruns daily on GSN as now showing and gather information on the panelists, guests and John Daly before most of them passed away. They lived rather unique and interesting lives...not to mention the glamorous lives the women led with their designer gowns and sometimes outrageous hair styles.
Looking back now over these weekly programs, it is fascinating to track the bits of information that seep out of each episode. Together they are a living history of how our society and world evolved after World War II. The IRS Director would spout out the number of taxpayer submissions they processed. The Postmaster General explained the upcoming new zip code concept and how many Christmas season cards and packages they handled. The inventor of the disposable diaper explained the concept behind his product.
Many of the guests were war heroes or current military servicemen and servicewomen who helped test jet planes by breaking speed records, launch our first satellites, operate the first nuclear submarines or develop intercontinental missiles.
Interesting people or new products in our society were introduced to a wide audience on the show through regular guests. Twelve-year-old Henry Makow offered advice in a syndicated newspaper column to parents throughout Canada and the United States. The Duncan yo-yo and hula hoop creators were among the guests whose line "needed to be spotted" as John Daly would say. The European inventor of Teflon introduced his pots and pans to the American public on the program. Col. Harlan Sanders (KFC founder) dressed in his trademarked white suit stumped the panel!
Political guests also frequently stumped the panel. For example, one episode featured an incumbent congresswoman and her newly elected son who were the first congressionally elected mother and son in U.S. history. When their states were included in the Union, the first governors of Alaska and Hawaii appeared on the show. The Air Force One pilot for President Eisenhower, the personal secretary for President Johnson, the head usher (domestic support staff) of the White House along with Sarge Shriver, the head of the newly formed Peace Corps and brother-in-law of President Kennedy, appeared.
The celebrity guests provided a treasure trove of backgrounds and achievements ranging from Joan Crawford to Betty Davis to John Wayne to Bob Hope with his daughter to Charles Laughton to Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to the entire Cincinnati Reds who featured a young Frank Robinson who is currently Washington Nationals Baseball Manager.
If everything we have today existed twenty years ago, I would be seeking to bump into a retired John Daly at the National Press Club to chat about his coverage of my father's W.W.II unit in Italy and to pick his brain about incidents on the show. However, today we can barely find the few who appeared on the black and white versions of WML? let alone use three degrees of separation to learn about the quirks of those broadcasts.
Almost everyone knows that Dorothy Kilgallen one week surprised viewers when she drastically changed her hair color to red. But one thing I observed is that Bennett Cerf colored his hair as well. During episodes in May of 1953 Cerf has nearly an entire head of white hair, but by September of 1955, in episode #168, Cerf's hair is almost entirely black.
In all, I am hooked on What's My Line? broadcasts, hoping to record every one of the 876 episodes. As I record nightly on GSN, my collection of DVDs spans 1954 through most of 1964, but the going has slowed since GSN is airing "theme" episodes...baseball celebrities are currently being shown. I don't think my interest is about returning to my childhood since the shows played mostly before my teenage years. My fascination stems from the recorded history of attitudes and products as our nation lived through more than a decade of growth, paranoia and, to an extent, the last vestiges of outward discrimination.