|John Charles Daly with the original regular panel, Dorthy Kilgallen, Louis Untermeyer, Arlene Frances, Hal Block.|
On September 3, 1967 What’s My Line, the longest running game show in the history of prime time television, ended a 17 year run on CBS, all but the first few months in the same familiar Sunday night time slot. And for all 17 years the program was hosted by the suave, but sometimes supercilious, John Charles Daly, who in that entire run missed only four shows.
The Irish-American Daly was born in 1914 in South Africa where his father was working as an engineer. After the senior John Charles died of a tropical illness the family returned to its roots in Boston. He was educated at the Tilton School, a progressive boarding school in Tilton, New Hampshire and at Boston College, one of the most prestigious American Catholic institutions. He was particularly devoted to Tilton, on whose board of trustees he served and to which he donated substantial sums for the restoration and preservation of its historic building. Daly credited his suburb diction and vaguely Middle Atlantic accent to his training there.
After a brief stint as a reporter on an NBC station, Daly’s radio career began to take off when he signed on the local Washington, D.C. affiliate where he was soon doing double duty as the network correspondent at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House. Soon he was regularly introducing Roosevelt’s speeches to the nation. Late in 1941 he transferred to the network in New York where he became anchor of The World Today broadcast.
He arrived in New York in time to be the first voice that broke the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Later, be broke the news of F.D.R.’s death. In between, he broadcast the news from London and was a war correspondent in North Africa and Italy. After the war in addition to his reporting duties he hosted CBS is There which recreated historical events that were “covered by actual radio reporters.” That program later became You Were There on television with Walter Cronkite.
After a brief stint as a panelist on a short lived game program producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman tapped him to host What’s My Line which premiered on February 2, 1950.
In 1953, Daly abandoned CBS news and became Vice President of ABC and the face of its fledgling TV news department anchoring its evening news program. He became one of the few people to be featured proximately at two networks over a long period. Daly abruptly resigned in November 1960 when the network chose to run cartoons instead of the first half hour of coverage of the Kennedy-Nixon election.
It would not be the last time Daly resigned on principle. After the end of the What’s My Line’s run, he was appointed Director of the Voice of America but quit after a few months on the job because the head of the U.S. Information Agency made personnel changes without consulting him.
After that Daly retired. He died at the age of 77 in Chevy Chase, Maryland on February 24, 1991 leaving behind his second wife, the former Virginia Warren, daughter of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren, and six adult children from his two marriages.
What’s My Line, under Daly’s stewardship, was a quintessential New York show. Its celebrity panelists were for the most part not Hollywood or music industry types. The members of the panel on the first show were poet Louis Untermeyer, former New Jersey Governor Harold Hoffman, psychiatrist Richard Hoffman, and Dorothy Kilgallen, a gossip columnist for the New York Journal-American. Kilgallen remained a regular on the panel until her death in 1965 at the age of 52.
Soon a regular panel included Untermeyer, Kilgallen, Broadway actress Arlene Frances, and comedy writer Hal Block. Frances remained on the show the rest of the run and into a later syndicated version, wearing the same heart shaped diamond pendent for every show.
Untermeyer was swept up in the anti-Communist hysteria of the period and was forced off the show over the objections of Daly and the producers at the instance of the sponsor, Stopette deodorant. The poet’s place on the panel was taken by publisher Bennett Cerf of Random House. Cerf also stayed on the program the rest of its time on the air and appeared on the syndicated version until his death in 1971 at age 73.
Block left the show in 1953 and the “comic’s” spot on the panel was filled for a year by Steve Allen and then by the acerbic Fred Allen until his death in 1956. After that the fourth spot was not regularly filled but frequent panelists include Frances’s husband Martin Gable, Orson Bean, and sometimes by regular panelists on other Goodson-Todman programs like Betsy Palmer, Bess Myerson, and Robert Q. Lewis.
Daly ran the show with a certain dignity and formality. He always referred to the panelists as Mr. or Miss. After 1953 he insisted the dress code be more formal. Gentlemen wore black dinner jackets and bow ties. The ladies were in formal gowns, and frequently white gloves.
About the only thing that changed on the show was the set. New sponsors would have their names emblazoned on the panel’s desk. The moderator’s background changed from paneling to drapes and back again. But the game remained the same.
Daly would invite contestants to “sign in please” on an ordinary blackboard. In the earliest shows they would parade in front of the panel who were invited to make wild guesses as to their occupation, but later they came directly to Daly, who rose to greet them. Contestants who could stump the panel for 10 questions could win a whopping $50 and a slice of immortality. A panelist could ask a question until he or she got a “no” for an answer, causing Daly to flip over a low tech card on his desk and move to the next panelist. Essentially it was just a version of the old parlor game 20 questions. The entertainment came from repartee between the panel and Daly, Daly’s sometimes convoluted attempts to clarify a contestant’s answer, and the occasional accidental double entendres of the panelists guesses.
The most popular feature was the Celebrity Guest. With the panel blindfolded—the women’s masks often adorned in rhinestones—the famous personage would sign in to inevitable cheers from the studio audience. The panel followed the same procedures to guess his or her identity. Well known stars often tried to disguise their famous voices. Almost all major Hollywood and Broadway stars, as well as recording artists appeared at one time or another. But Celebrity Guests also included the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Salvador Dali.
In 1967 CBS announced it was cancelling all of their long running night time game shows in an attempt to appeal to a younger audience. On the final show old clips were shown and former panelists brought back for a visit. The last mystery guest was….John Charles Daly.
Goodson and Todman revived the show for daily syndication in 1968 and it ran successfully until 1975 hosted first by Wally Bruner and then by Larry Blyden. It frequently ran in the half hour between the network news casts and prime time programming. Despite its success, the syndicated version is barely remembered today.
But the original show continued to attract audiences on the Game Show Network (GMS). For a while I frequently find myself chuckling along with John Daly and Bennett Cerf in the wee small hours of the morning when I surely should be asleep. Many clips are also available on Youtube.