What's My Line? A Who's Who of US Entertainers from Past Decades
September 7, 2010 10:01 AM   Subscribe

What's My Line? was a weekly televised game show that first ran in the US from 1950 to 1967, and featured a celebrity panel whose task it was to discern the profession or identity of the person who sat before them. The panel first guessed at the profession of two "regular folks," with a third "famous mystery guest," when the the panel were blindfolded and the guests often tried to disguise their voices. Let's start with a Halloween episode, split in 3 parts on YouTube, ending with the mystery guest (Andy Griffith). The lengthy list of Mystery Guests include the Harlem Globetrotters, Walt Disney, a young Ronald Reagan and Salvador Dalí (previously).

Some people we might consider to be well-know today needed no masked panel, such as Jacques Cousteau and Colonel Sanders, but most big names of the day were mysteries who replied by knocks, whistles, or let the host speak for them. The very last mystery guest of the first run was the host himself, John Daly. When the show had it's second run from 1968 to 1975, the format was the same but the characters had changed, as seen in these clips with a young George Carlin, Rodney Dangerfield, and Aretha Franklin.

There are a LOT of clips on YouTube, but a few users have uploaded the bulk of the clips. crepehanger47 and NorbertR33 have loads of mystery guest clips, as does joanfontainefan, though with audio limited to the right or left channel, but they they're still fun to watch. dentelTV1 has a few complete shows split into parts, and bluelobster has a mix of first and second-era clips.
posted by filthy light thief (34 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Once a week or so since I first discovered this months ago, I'll spend an hour or two going from clip to clip on YouTube. There's just something intensely fascinating about seeing how people think and behave from a era before my time (I'm a college student). Also interesting is some of the casual semi-sexism on display, especially in this clip.
posted by Hargrimm at 10:10 AM on September 7, 2010

There was a spoof of this in the original animated version of 101 Dalmatians, What's my crime?
posted by wheelieman at 10:13 AM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

"WML" also ran on Game Show Network in the past, although it's not in their lineup right now. I hope they put it back on at some point. Meanwhile, it's great to have so many clips on YouTube.
posted by briank at 10:14 AM on September 7, 2010

They used to show repeats of this regularly on GSN at really late hours, but now they seem to have instituted a policy of dropping all old game shows that aren't from the 1970s featuring Dick Clark and Charles Nelson Reilly down the memory hole.
posted by blucevalo at 10:16 AM on September 7, 2010

Dali did everything.
posted by The Whelk at 10:17 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

How odd, I've been watching these for a couple of days, starting at Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson and ending up at Dustin Hoffman. So super set up sometimes, the odder ones like Eleanor Roosevelt are easier because they're not in films but 'actress who sings and dances'...

The UK version of this was really extra cheesy too and I appreciate the clips where bits of adverts have been left in, I love old US ads.
posted by shinybaum at 10:21 AM on September 7, 2010

It's ridiculous how much Colonel Sanders looks like Colonel Sanders.

And why George Carlin looks *very* young, Rodney Dangerfield must have been born lined, pudgy and gray.
posted by DU at 10:22 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Over the weekend I rewatched the Elaine May and Mike Nichols segment.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:28 AM on September 7, 2010

Everything, except (serious) sports.

The Dalí clip is fantastic, but there are so many online (considering it ran for a combined 24 years and then re-ran on the Gameshow Network, this isn't surprising). It's odd to think no one would recognize The Colonel of KFC, but I'm assuming that clip is from the early 50s, before KFC became a franchise. And seeing Eleanor Roosenvelt go from looking a bit surly to grinning is fantastic. Also, Burns and Allen were magical, from young George Burns' mischievous grin to Gracie Allen's fantastic timing.

How odd, I've been watching these for a couple of days

This started when I saw the Dalí clip thanks to Best of You Tube linked on the blue.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:28 AM on September 7, 2010

What's my Line was so popular that people would play it on cruises back when my grandparents were going on vacation. Every time, my grandfather would come back crowing about how nobody ever guessed his line of work. I guess most people don't often think about Wholesale Carcass Salesmen.
posted by shmegegge at 10:32 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ah, the days before the internet when some famous people could get away with not being recognized by every single person on the planet....
posted by Melismata at 10:39 AM on September 7, 2010

There's also What's My Shoe Size
posted by cottoncandybeard at 10:52 AM on September 7, 2010

Another spoof: What's My Perversion?, complete with spoof ad running before the segment, as excerpted from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*
posted by filthy light thief at 10:57 AM on September 7, 2010

It only ran 'til '67?? I remember watching this show as a kid. They must've revived it later in the '60s or early '70s, because I watched it regularly.
posted by VicNebulous at 11:08 AM on September 7, 2010

Duh, always click the Wikipedia link...

"In 1968 it returned in syndication as a daily production which ran until 1975."
posted by VicNebulous at 11:11 AM on September 7, 2010

I remember watching both versions (John Daly and Larry Blyden, though the Daly episodes were almost all seen in reruns) as a kid. It seemed like Arlene Francis almost always guessed the mystery guest because she was so involved with the Broadway scene, and the show was originally taped in New York, so any celebrity guest that appeared was most likely in town in conjunction with some theater appearance. Anyway, it's also very interesting to see how the panel dressed in formal wear in the early days and were referred to as "Mr. Cerf" and "Miss Francis."
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:18 AM on September 7, 2010

Panelist Dorothy Kilgallen (who wouldn't have been nearly as much fun at a cocktail party as Arlene Francis) died 12 hours after taping an episode. There was 'speculation' that her death was a murder resulting from her public criticism of the Warren Commission.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:48 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

any celebrity guest that appeared was most likely in town in conjunction with some theater appearance

Or some other public performance or event, which the panel would know about, being people active in very public roles (most often consisting of columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, Random House publisher and co-founder Bennett Cerf, actress Arlene Francis and a fourth guest panelist). In those days people wouldn't hop across the country on a whim, it was easier to pin down who was (or so it seems).

More bits of obits: John Daly, Newsman and host of What's My Line (1991) with a correction plus elaborations in a letter to the editor, and Arlene Francis, Mainstay of What's My Line (2001)
posted by filthy light thief at 12:00 PM on September 7, 2010

Yeah, wifey and I used to watch What's My Line, I've Got A Secret, The Name's The Same, and a couple other old B&W gameshows at 1am on GSN last year. I would plan my sleeping patterns on being awake just for them. GSN used to make a lot of advertising dollars off my family back when all they showed were gameshow reruns (the 10-year-old loved Card Sharks), but since they've been making new gameshows or rerunning ones less than 10 years old, we haven't watched a single minute of the channel.

We do appreciate the clips on YouTube and the Internet Archive, but what we want to see are the NON-FAMOUS people. Bennett Cerf in a blindfold isn't nearly as entertaining as you might think, compared to the panel trying to guess that the 5' tall woman on the panel is a professional boxer or something like that. GSN should just digitize all those archives and make them watchable online if they're not going to air them.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:11 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was just talking to jessamyn, trying to sort memories of "What's My Line" and "To Tell the Truth" and which was which. I loved both of these shows as a kid.
posted by not_on_display at 12:16 PM on September 7, 2010

My mom was on this show in the 1950s with her brother (both in their 20s) and their dad who were all small town judges. Arlene Francis got them too, and they weren't hardly in NYC for show biz appearances. Mom's still pissed about it, too.
posted by msalt at 12:19 PM on September 7, 2010

Amen, AzraelBrown! Used to love "I've Got a Secret" on GSN. The last one I saw was of a 95ish year old guy whose secret was the fact that he had been in Ford's theater when Abraham Lincoln was shot. There needs to be an online presence for stuff like this. Needs.
posted by Melismata at 1:09 PM on September 7, 2010

It's a good thing they didn't ask the Globetrotters a complex physics question. That would have given them away right away.
posted by drezdn at 1:14 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Witness at Ford's Theater
posted by pjern at 2:14 PM on September 7, 2010

Amen, AzraelBrown! Used to love "I've Got a Secret" on GSN. The last one I saw was of a 95ish year old guy whose secret was the fact that he had been in Ford's theater when Abraham Lincoln was shot.

The internet remembers. Terrible quality, but it's there.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:15 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just got sucked into it again, by looking up that one clip. It's really great how funny those folks were, that I can get a huge laugh watching them 60 years later. Timeless.

Who knew Ed Sullivan was that funny, for crying out loud?
posted by pjern at 2:34 PM on September 7, 2010

The panelests all have these rounded tones and vague no-place-accent I associate with the older New England-y upper crust people I know. Some of it must be the microphones at the time (you had to speak. very. clearly) but isn;t some of it the vocal training schools? That kind of general 50s "Good Breeding" accent that you don't really hear anymore?
posted by The Whelk at 4:15 PM on September 7, 2010

Or maybe accents go out of style, like faces.
posted by The Whelk at 4:15 PM on September 7, 2010

Colonel Sanders is an interesting case. He mentions in the segment that he's got locations across the U.S., Canada, and one in England. I'm willing to bet that he was a pretty familiar face by then, though the chain might not have been doing national TV advertising yet, relying instead on appearances like this that cost the company nothing. I think the panelists' lack of recognition of him says more about the panelists than about him.
posted by evilcolonel at 5:26 PM on September 7, 2010

Don't know if this is linked directly in the FPP, but in 1975 John Daly, Arlene Francis, and producer Mark Goodson reunited for this 25th anniversary retrospective which aired on ABC after CBS passed on it. Sadly, the films of some episodes were damaged or destroyed as the producers scrambled to cut clips for the special.
posted by evilcolonel at 5:33 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really miss What's My Line on GSN. I loved Dorothy Kilgallen in particular (she really really really wanted to win every time) even though we probably wouldn't like each other in real life. She was really good at the game, and when Kilgallen, Cerf, and Francis were all on their game, it was brilliant.

Francis and Cerf respected Kilgallen, but I don't think they liked her as much. I read Bennett Cerf's oral histories, which were over-paginated, (Index/Table of Contents) (What's My Line stuff in particular) two years ago, and they were really fascinating, although I do recommend periodic breaks from his archness.

In any case, he said this about Dorothy Kilgallen:

... none of us liked her politics. She was a Hearst girl, and she had a different set of ideas than we did on Senator McCarthy and several other key problems. We just didn't think alike. But worse still, Dorothy was always a reporter. We began to discover that things that we would talk about in our dressing room, clowning around before the show, would begin popping up in Dorothy Kilgallen's column. We didn't like that.

posted by julen at 7:29 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Forgot the link: this is the link to Cerf's comment on Kilgallen.
posted by julen at 7:30 PM on September 7, 2010

Not only Reagan, but (Governor) Jimmy Carter and (House Minority Leader) Gerald Ford also make appearances.
posted by hangashore at 7:31 PM on September 7, 2010

I absolutely hate GSN for cancelling this show and all the ones like it. Game shows were really in their prime in the 50's to 70's. I don't know why they've stopped airing it, I cancelled my subscription when this show (along with the older version of Let's Make a Deal, et all) were taken off the air.

As for Dorothy Kilgallen, I believe she deserves her own FPP, she was so interesting. Her relationship with JFK is doccumented and its pretty clear how much his death affected her life. Not to mention the conspiracy theories surrounding her death.

But anyways, great show!
posted by addelburgh at 10:21 PM on September 7, 2010

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