I’ve spent a lot of time lately watching old game shows on You Tube.
It started out when an algorithm tagging me as someone who’s a sucker for ‘50s TV programs. Perhaps my viewing a Sage Lillyman video about making a vintage cherry cake that clued them in. Sage is an Australian millennial who operates a vintage You Tube channel pretending like it’s 1954.
Sure enough, the next thing I knew I was reliving the days of What’s My Line? on CBS.
It was the era of glamorous panelists and society chitchat about Broadway and publishing and such. There were other prime-time game shows, notably I’ve Got a Secret and To Tell the Truth, $64,000 Question, The Price is Right.
What’s My Line? was the most sophisticated show of the lot—always paying attention to manners and class. Panelists wore bow ties and dinner jackets and evening gowns and rhinestones.
I was a preschooler when my family watched the show religiously—on Sunday evenings after Lassie, Candid Camera and Ed Sullivan. I knew little of what the people were talking about, but I liked watching Arlene Frances, the glamorous blonde actress with her silk boas and sparkly heart-shaped necklace. My mother was so taken with Arlene’s necklace that she ran out and bought herself one in rhinestones.
Media personality John Charles Daly hosted the show, flipping cards based on cash winnings for contestants up to $50—roughly $500 in today’s money.
Other regular panelists were the genial Bennet Cerf, co-founder of Random House publishing, and Dorothy Kilgallen, the brunette with the real brains of the What’s My Line? panel. A crack investigative reporter and national columnist, she was less attractive than Arlene, but held her ground when it came to discerning the occupations of contestants that ranged from trampoline instructors to fertilizer manufacturers to hockey stick salesmen.
The second male panelist was usually a guest such as Johnny Carson or Jerry Lewis or the host of General Electric Theatre, Ronald Reagan.
Every show had a mystery contestant.
“Are blindfolds in place, panel?” Daly would ask, then direct the celebrity mystery guest to “Enter and sign in, please” on a chalkboard.
Notable guests were the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Walt Disney, Art Linkletter and Joey Heatherton, who appeared on Dorothy Kilgallen’s last show.
In the wee hours of Monday, Nov. 8, 1965, Kilgallen died in her Manhattan home. Her death rocked the nation. What’s My Line? was a big deal in its day, and Dorothy was a well-respected, national figure.
Kilgallen,’s death was officially reported as an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates, though she was not known to drink heavily or to abuse drugs.
Her personal assistant who found her body described the scene as staged. She was not in her normal bedroom. She wore a bolero-type blouse over a nightgown and false eyelashes, and was supposedly reading a book, The Honey Badger, though she’d finished it weeks before.
Kilgallen had weak eyesight and required glasses to read, but no glasses were found in the room.
Once reported, it took hours for the police to arrive at the scene.
A thorough investigation as never conducted though biographers have attempted to solve the mystery in true crime books. A motive? They need only look as far as the manuscript she was working on.
Kilgallen, who had covered such famous cases as the Lindbergh kidnapping and the Sam Sheppard trial, was covering the Jack Ruby case in Dallas. Ruby, as we know, was the man who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged murderer of President John F. Kennedy. Kilgallen, the only reporter to be granted an interview with Ruby, was in process of writing a book that would supposedly “bust this case wide open,” to use her words.
Earlier, Kilgallen had publicly expressed skepticism about the Warren Commission’s findings. In an odd twist of coincidence, John Charles Daly, moderator of What’s My Line?, was married to the daughter of Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Had Kilgallen published her tell-all book, we would likely know far more about the Kennedy assassination and the roles Oswald and Ruby played.
As I watch those fuzzy old episodes of What’s My Line? I want to ask the smart brunette on the panel, what do you know? What can you tell us while there’s still time?
Tammy Wilson is a writer who lives near Newton. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org