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The $64,000 Question was an United Statesmarker television game show broadcast from 1955 to 1958, which became embroiled in the scandals involving TV quiz shows of the day. The $64,000 Challenge (1956-58) was its popular spin-off show.

Broadcast history

  • Take It or Leave ItCBS radio, April 21, 1940-July 27, 1947, Sunday 10-10:30pm.
  • The $64 QuestionNBC radio, September 10, 1950-June 1, 1952, Sunday 10-10:30pm (1950-51) and Sunday 9:30-10pm (1951-52).
  • The $64,000 Question—CBS television, June 7, 1955-June 1958, Tuesday 10-10:30pm; September-November 9, 1958, Sunday, 10-10:30pm. Simulcast for two months on CBS Radio where it was heard from October 4, 1955 to November 29, 1955.
  • The $64,000 Challenge—CBS television, April 8, 1956-September 14, 1958, Sunday, 10-10:30pm.
  • The $128,000 Question—syndicated television, 1976-1978.


Origin

Take It or Leave It

The $64,000 Question had its roots in the CBS radio quiz show, Take It or Leave It, which followed in the wake of the pioneering Professor Quiz (radio's first quiz program) and Uncle Jim's Question Bee (the second radio quiz show). Take It or Leave It ran from April 21, 1940 to July 27, 1947. It was first hosted by Bob Hawk (1940-41), followed by Phil Baker (1941-47). In 1947 the series switched to NBC, hosted at various times by Baker, Garry Moore (1947-49), Eddie Cantor (1949-50), and Jack Paar (beginning June 11, 1950). On September 10, 1950, Take It or Leave It changed its title to The $64 Question. Paar continued as host, followed by Baker (March-December 1951) and Paar (back on December 1951). The series continued on NBC Radio until June 1, 1952.

On both Take It or Leave It and The $64 Question, contestants were asked questions devised by the series' writer-researcher Edith Oliver. She attempted to make each question slightly more difficult than the preceding one. After answering a question correctly, the contestant had the choice to "take" the prize for that question or "leave it" in favor of a chance at the next question. The first question was worth one dollar, and the value doubled for each successive question, up to the seventh and final question, worth $64.

During the 1940s, "That's the $64 question" became a common catch phrase for a particularly difficult question or problem. In addition to the common phrase, "Take it or leave it", the show also popularized another phrase, widely spoken in the 1940s as a taunt but now mostly forgotten (except in Warner Bros. cartoons). Chanted in unison by the entire audience when someone chose to risk their winnings by going for the $64 prize, it was vocalized with a rising inflection: "You'll be sorrr-REEEE!"

The huge popularity of the radio program inspired a 20th Century Fox feature film, Take It or Leave It, about a man who needs $1,000 to pay his wife's obstetrician. When he is chosen as a contestant on the radio quiz show, the prize money is increased beyond the usual $64. His category choice, "Scenes from Famous Movies," leads to a parade of clips from 27 Fox movies. Released July 12, 1944. the film did not get high marks when reviewed in The New York Times:

British versions

The format was imported to the UK (1956-58), produced by ATV (always keen to pick up successful US formats), hosted by Jerry Desmond, and called simply The 64,000 Question with the top prize initially being 64,000 sixpences (£1,600), later doubling to 64,000 shillings (£3,200). Robin Bailey hosted the spin-off 64,000 Challenge in 1957. £3,200 was actually substantially higher, in real terms (i.e. accounting for inflation), than anything on offer on British TV for most of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, after the Independent Television Authority (later the Independent Broadcasting Authority) imposed prize limits on game shows after the general discrediting of the genre following the quiz show scandals in the US and rumors that the British version of Twenty One was also corrupt.

Much later, there was a further British adaptation of the show, this time known by the original US title of The $64,000 Question, hosted by Bob Monkhouse, although the top prize was only £6,400. This was, however, a significant amount of money for a British game show at the time (1990-93) though still probably worth less than £3,200 had been in the 1950s. Shortly after this, prize limits were lifted by the Independent Television Commission, paving the way for the eventual arrival of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? which itself featured a question worth £64,000 until the format of the show changed in August 2007.

The hard sell

The $64,000 Question, as American television audiences would know and love it, was created by Louis G. Cowan, formerly known for radio's Quiz Kids. Cowan had a difficult time finding sponsorship for The $64,000 Question. Cosmetics giant Helena Rubenstein (who eventually did become a familiar television advertiser) rejected the idea, reportedly because its wealthy founding namesake didn't even own a television set at the time and had no idea of television's advertising potential. The Chrysler Corporation turned down the chance to launch the show because the automaker reportedly feared sponsoring a big-money quiz show would outrage company workers whose wages they were trying not to inflate. A vacuum cleaner company also said no to Cowan, reportedly because the concept would be too glamorous for its product. It was an odd argument, considering that print ads of the time featured vacuum cleaners operated by women who stopped just short of being glamor queens, and never appeared in soiled housework clothes.

Finally, Cowan convinced Revlon. The key: Revlon founder and chieftain Charles Revson knew top competitor Hazel Bishop had fattened its sales through sponsoring the popular This is Your Life, and he wanted a piece of that action if he could have it. According to Fire and Ice (1976), Andrew Tobias' biography of Revson, Revlon first signed a deal to sponsor Cowan's brainchild for 13 weeks with the right to withdraw when they expired.

The $64,000 Question premiered June 7, 1955 on CBS-TV, sponsored by cosmetics maker Revlon and originating from the start live from CBS-TV Studio 52 in New York (later the disco-theater Studio 54marker). The first contestant on the show was Thelma Farrell Bennett, who won a 1955 Cadillac convertible. To increase the show's drama and suspense, it was decided to use an actor rather than a broadcaster as the host. Television and film actor Hal March, familiar to TV viewers as a supporting regular on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and My Friend Irma, found instant fame as the quiz show's host, and Lynn Dollar stood nearby as his assistant. Author and TV panelist Dr. Bergen Evans was the show's expert authority, and actress Wendy Barrie did the "Living Lipstick" commercials. (Coincidentally, in 1978, Evans and Barrie died within 72 hours of each other.) To capitalize on the initial television success, the show was also simulcast for two months on CBS Radio where it was heard from October 4, 1955 to November 29, 1955.

Gameplay

Contestants first chose a subject category (such as "Boxing", "Lincoln" or "Jazz") from the Category Board. Although this board was a large part of the set, it was seen only briefly, evidently to conceal the fact that categories were sometimes hastily added to match a new contestant's subject. The contestant would then be asked questions only in the chosen category, earning money which doubled ($1, $2, $4, $8, $16, $32, $64, $128, $256, $512, $1,000, $2,000, $4,000, $8,000, $16,000, $32,000, $64,000) as the questions became more difficult. At the $4,000 level, a contestant would return each week for only one question per week. They could quit at any time and retire with their money, but until they won $8,000, if they got a question wrong, they were eliminated without winning anything. Once the contestant won $8,000, if they missed a question they received a consolation prize of a new Cadillac. Upon reaching the $8,000 level, they were placed in the Revlon "isolation booth", where they could hear nothing but the host's words. As long as the contestant kept answering correctly, they could stay on the show until they had won $64,000. The first contestant to win the top prize money, on September 13, 1955, was Richard S. McCutchen, a Marine whose subject was cooking. McCutchen became an instant celebrity with people stopping him in the street to ask for his autograph.

Public reception

Triumph on Tuesday night

Almost immediately, The $64,000 Question beat every other program on Tuesday nights in ratings. Broadcast historian Robert Metz, in CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye, claimed U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself did not want to be disturbed while the show was on the air and that the nation's crime rate and movie theater and restaurant patronage dropped dramatically when the show was on. It earned the #1 rating spot for the 1955-1956, holding the distinction of being the only television show to knock I Love Lucy out of the number one spot. Among its imitators or inspirations were The Big Surprise, Tic-Tac-Dough, and Twenty-One.

Not only did Charles Revson not exercise his withdrawal right, but he wanted another way to take advantage of Question's swollen audience. Within ten months of Question's premiere came The $64,000 Challenge (initially co-sponsored by Revlon and Lorillard Tobacco Company's Kentmarker cigarettes), hosted first by future children's television star Sonny Fox and then, for the remainder of the show's life, Ralph Story. It pitted Question winners against each other in a new, continuing game where they could win another $70,000. In time, the sister show came to include various celebrities including bandleader Xavier Cugat and former child star Patty Duke as well as former Question champions.

Everyday celebrities

Question contestants sometimes became celebrities themselves for a short while, including 11-year-old Robert Strom (who won $192,000) and Teddy Nadler ($252,000 across both shows), the two biggest winners in the show's history. Other such newly made celebrities included Italian-born Bronx shoemaker Gino Prato, who won $64,000 for his encyclopedic knowledge of opera. The longest enduring of these newly made celebrities was psychologist Joyce Brothers. Answering questions about boxing, she became, after McCutcheon, the second top winner, and went on to a career providing psychological advice in newspaper columns and TV shows for the next four decades. Another winner, Pennsylvania typist Catherine Kreitzer, read Shakespeare on The Ed Sullivan Show. TV Guide kept a running tally of the money won on the show, which hit $1 million by the end of November 1956.

The American Experience (PBS) episode probing the scandal noted, "All the big winners became instant celebrities and household names. For the first time, America's heroes were intellectuals or experts jockey Billy Pearson on art, Marine Captain McCutcheon on cooking every subject from the Bible to baseball. Not only had the contestants become rich overnight, but they were also treated to a whirlwind of publicity tours, awards, endorsements and meetings with dignitaries. Traveler Gino Prato, whose category was opera, was brought to Italy for a special performance at la Scala and honored by an audience with the Pope. After winning $64,000, spelling whiz Gloria Lockerman became a guests speaker at the Democratic National Convention. Baseball expert Myrtle Power was made a sports commentator on CBS. Eleven-year-old stock market expert Lenny Ross was asked to open up the New York Stock Exchange. And with only an eighth-grade education, supply clerk Teddy Nadler, an expert on everything, won more money than any other contestant. It was a new kind of hero in America, a common person with the uncommon gift of knowledge."

Merchandising and parodies

One category on the Revlon Category Board was "Jazz," and within months of the premiere, Columbia Records issued a 1955 album of various jazz artists under the tie-in title $64,000 Jazz (CL 777, also EP B-777), with the following tracks: "The Shrike" (Pete Rugolo), "Perdido" (J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding), "Laura" (Erroll Garner), "Honeysuckle Rose" (Benny Goodman), "Tawny" (Woody Herman), "One O'Clock Jump" (Harry James), "How Hi the Fi" (Buck Clayton), "I'm Comin', Virginia" (Eddie Condon), "A Fine Romance" (Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond), "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" (Duke Ellington) and "Ain't Misbehavin'" (Louis Armstrong).

Other musical tie-ins included the 1955 song, "The $64,000 Question (Do You Love Me)," recorded by Bobby Tuggle (Checker 823), Jackie Brooks (Decca 29684) and the Burton Sisters (RCA Victor 47-6265). "Love Is the $64,000 Question" (1956), which used the show's theme music by Norman F. Leyden with added Fred Ebb lyrics, was recorded by Hal March (Columbia 40684), Karen Chandler (Decca 29881), Jim Lowe (Dot 15456) and Tony Travis (RCA Victor 47-6476).

When the show was revived in 1976 as The $128,000 Question, its theme music and cues were performed (albeit with a new disco-style arrangement for the theme) by Charles Randolph Grean, who released a three-and-a-half minute single, "The $128,000 Question" (the show's music and cues as an instrumental), with the B-side ("Sentimentale") on the Ranwood label (45rpm release R-1064). For the show's second season, Grean's music package was re-recorded by Guido Basso.

There were numerous parodies of the program, including Bob and Ray's The 64-Cent Question and The Jack Benny Program featured Hal March as a contestant in a November 1957 spoof with Benny asking the questions (Jack actually appeared as a contestant [as a gag] on The $64,000 Question a few weeks before, but insisted on walking away with $64 after answering the first question; Hal March finally gave him $64 out of his own pocket). At the height of its popularity, The $64,000 Question was referenced in the scripts of other CBS shows, usually but not exclusively through punch lines that included references to "the isolation booth" or "reaching the first plateau." Typical of these was a line put into the mouth of Ed Norton, the scatterbrained sewer worker played by Art Carney in The Honeymooners, who identified three times in a man's life when he wants to be alone, with the third being "when he's in the isolation booth of The $64,000 Question." At least three other Honeymooners episodes referenced The $64,000 Question: In A Woman's Work Is Never Done Ralph proposes to Alice that he go on the show because he's an expert in the "Aggravation" category. In Hello, Mom Norton tells Ralph that his mother-in-law's category on the show would be "Nasty." In The Worry Wart, Ralph advises Alice to become a contestant because she's an expert in the "Everything" category.

Another episode of The Honeymooners, delivered one of the best known Question references a parody of the show itself, in one of the so-called "Original 39" episodes of the timeless situation comedy. In that episode, blustery bus driver Ralph Kramden becomes a contestant on the fictitious $99,000 Answer. Regarded as one of the Golden Age of Television's best quiz show parodies, the Honeymooners episode depicted Kramden spending a week intensively studying popular songs, only to blow the first question on the subject when he returned to play on the show. The host of the fictitious $99,000 Answer was one Herb Norris played by Jay Jackson, the former Twenty Questions host and briefly the real-life nighttime host of Tic-Tac-Dough.

The show has been referenced on other game shows. On the U.S. version of Deal or No Deal, an episode aired January 15, 2007, in which the banker's offer was $64,000. Host Howie Mandel said, "This is the $64,000 question."

Philip K. Dick used the show's fabricated reality as a springboard to develop an entire science fiction novel, Time Out of Joint.

Cancellation

Three years after it exploded into a nation's consciousness, The $64,000 Question and its progeny were dead. Having faded in popularity as it was, in the wake of the hugely popular Twenty-One championship of Charles Van Doren, The $64,000 Question and The $64,000 Challenge were yanked off the air within three months of the quiz show scandal's eruption. Challenge went first, in September 1958, with Question once the emperor of Tuesday night television taking its Sunday night time slot, until it was killed in November, 1958.

The scandal

The relatively new but phenomenally popular Dotto, and then Twenty-One, were found to have been rigged and were promptly canceled. Then one Challenge contestant, the Rev. Charles Jackson, told the federal grand jury probing the quiz shows that he received answers during his screening for his appearance. That prompted Challenge's sponsor, the Lorillard Tobacco Company (Kent, Old Gold cigarettes), to drop the show.

Question had the opposite problem: sponsor Revlon possibly under pressure from its chieftain, Charles Revson, who has been credited with expressing the desire for famous faces that prompted Challenge's expansion to include celebrities often tried to interfere with the production of Question, including and especially trying to bump contestants it simply disliked, no matter whether the audience liked them. Revson's brother, Martin, was assigned to oversee Question including heavy discussions of feedback the show received. The would-be bumpees were believed to include Joyce Brothers herself, who proved strong enough that the bid to bump her finally ended, and she continued on to the maximum prize.

According to producer Joe Cates in a PBS documentary on the scandals, he used an IBM sorting machine to give the illusion that the questions were randomly selected - in fact, all of the cards were identical. Since all of the buttons were on one line, they were mostly for show.

It was revealed during Congressional investigations into the quiz show scandal that Revlon, the sponsor, was as determined to keep the show appealing even if it meant manipulating the results as the producer of Twenty-One (albeit also under sponsor pressure) had been. But unlike with Twenty-One and Dotto, where contestants got the answers in advance, Revlon was reportedly far more subtle: they may have depended less on asking questions on the air that a contestant had already heard in pre-air screenings than on switching the questions kept secure in a bank vault at the last minute, to make sure a contestant the sponsor liked would be suited according to his or her chosen expertise.

The most prominent victim may have been the man who launched the franchise in the first place. Louis Cowan, made CBS Television president as a result of Question's fast success, was forced out of the network as the quiz scandal ramped up, even though it was NBC's and not CBS' quiz shows bearing the brunt of the scandal and even though CBS itself, with a little help from sponsor Colgate-Palmolive, had moved fast in cancelling the popular Dotto at almost the moment it was confirmed that that show had been rigged. Cowan had never been suspected of taking part in any attempt to rig either Question or Challenge; later CBS historians have suggested his reputation as an administrative bottleneck may have had as much to do with his firing as his tie to the tainted shows. Cowan may have been a textbook sacrificial lamb, in a bid to pre-empt any further scandal while the network scrambled to recover, and while president Frank Stanton accepted complete responsibility for any wrongdoing committed under his watch.

Aftermath

By the end of 1959, all the first generation big-money quiz shows were gone, with single-sponsorship television following and a federal law against fixing television game shows (an amendment to the 1960 Communications Act) coming. Except for a short-lived ABC quiz show called 100 Grand, the networks stayed away from awarding five-figure cash jackpots until the premiere of The $10,000 Pyramid in 1973. The disappearance of the quiz shows gave rise to television's next big phenomenon Westerns.

None of the people who were directly involved in rigging any of the quiz shows faced any penalty more severe than suspended sentences for perjury before the federal grand jury that probed the scandal, even if many hosts and producers found themselves frozen out of television for many years. One Question contestant, Doll Goostree, sued both CBS and the show's producers, in a bid to recoup $4,000 she said she might have won if her Question match had not been rigged. Neither Goostree nor any other quiz contestant who sued similarly won their cases.

  • Louis Cowan In addition to Quiz Kids (1949-1951), Cowan also created Down You Go (1951-1956) and the short-lived Ask Me Another. Cowan briefly served as CBS Television Network president before leaving in the wake of the quiz show scandals. He later joined the faculty of the Columbia University school of journalism. He and his wife Polly were killed in an apartment fire in New York City in 1976. Lou Cowan's son Geoffrey later produced brief revivals of Quiz Kids in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and is currently dean of the University of Southern Californiamarker Annenberg School for Communication.


  • Hal March The former comic actor who became an overnight star on The $64,000 Question continued to appear as an actor in television and movies through the 1950s and 1960s. Shortly after he signed on as host of It's Your Bet in 1969, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 1970, four months short of his 50th birthday.


  • Irwin "Sonny" Fox The first $64,000 Challenge host was also known at the time for co-hosting the CBS children's travelogue Let's Take a Trip (Fox described it as "Taking two children on sort of an electronic field trip every week live, remote location, no audience, no sponsors"). But his fame rests predominantly on his eight-year (1959-1967) tour as the suave, congenial and dryly witty fourth host of New York's Sunday morning children's learn-and-laugh marathon, Wonderama. Fox hosted the Way Out Games Saturday-morning series for CBS in the 1976-1977 season. He later spent a year (1977) running children's programming for NBC and eventually became a chairman of the board for Population Communications International, a nonprofit dedicated to "technical assistance, research and training consultation to governments, NGOs and foundations on a wide range of social marketing and communications initiatives," for which he is still an honorary chairman. Fox has also been a board chairman for the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.


  • Ralph Story He became the much-loved host of Ralph Story's Los Angeles (1964-1970), still considered the highest-rated, best-loved local show in Los Angeles television history. Story has also hosted A.M. Los Angeles and was the narrator for the ABC series Alias Smith and Jones in 1972-1973. He died on September 26, 2006 at the age of 86.


Show revivals

A resurrection of The $64,000 Question began in 1976. Selected PBS outlets showed surviving kinescopes of the original Question in the summer of 1976, as a run-up to a new version of the show called The $128,000 Question, which ran for two years. The 1976-1977 episodes were hosted by Mike Darrow and produced at the Ed Sullivan Theatermarker in New York Citymarker. The 1977-1978 version was produced at Global Television Network in Don Millsmarker near Torontomarker, Canadamarker and hosted by Alex Trebek.

In 1999, television producer Michael Davies attempted to revive Question as The $640,000 Question for ABC, before abandoning that project in favor of producing an Americanmarker version of the Britishmarker game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Millionaire has a very similar format to The $64,000 Question: 15 questions in which the contestant's money roughly doubles with each correct question until reaching the top prize. However, the questions in Millionaire are of a broader variety than Question's one-category line of questioning, and Millionaire offers three chances for help (called "lifelines,") which are not present in Question.

In 2000, responding to the success of Millionaire, CBS bought the rights to the property in a reported effort to produce another revival attempt, The $1,064,000 Question, to be hosted by sportscaster Greg Gumbel. Because of format issues similar to those encountered by Davies for ABC, this version was never broadcast.

References

  1. http://www.andrewtobias.com/fireandice.html
  2. Stewart, Bhob. "Charles Van Doren and the Rip in the Fabric of Reality".
  3. American Experience: The Quiz Show Scandal


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