By Rachel Del Gaudio, a Moving Image Processing Technician at the Library’s Packard Campus
Game shows have long been a television staple and it’s no different today, as “The Chase,” “Ellen’s Game of Games,” and “Family Feud” and long-time favorites like “Jeopardy!,” “Wheel of Fortune,” and “The Price is Right” attest. With prizes such as cars, boats and cash, for decades game shows have been enticing audiences to play along from the comfort of their living rooms. Now discoverable via the newly published finding aid, the Goodson-Todman Collection held at the Library of Congress (previously outlined in a post last fall), holds glimpses into some of the most popular game shows of the 1950s and 1960s.
The vast majority of the Goodson-Todman Collection consists of 16mm kinescopes. Unlike theatrical prints made from edited pre-print elements, kinescopes were created by filming the live broadcast as it plays on a monitor. Capturing exactly what television audiences would have watched in their living rooms, these kinescopes include the announcer’s introduction (some with Johnny Gilbert of “Jeopardy!” fame), advertisements, sign-offs promoting the following program, and of course, the show itself.
As is often the case, it’s those non-show parts that are sometimes the most intriguing. The advertisements captured within these game show kinescopes are snapshots of mid-century culture. Commercials illustrate what the advertisers think is important to the target audience. Predictably, daytime shows focus predominantly on house cleaning products (Phase III soap and Instant Pride furniture wax), medicine cabinet supplies (Cope headache sedative and 5 Day antiperspirant spray), and pantry items (Awake orange juice and M&M’s Sprint chocolate).
For today’s audiences, the most jarring commodity captured on these reels are the omnipresent cigarette ads. Cigarettes are present not only in advertisements and as contestant gifts (a carton handed to each “Two for the Money” participant) but also smoked by hosts and panelists. A Federal Communications Commission public service announcement warning about the dangers of smoking within a 1968 episode of “To Tell the Truth” captures the changing attitudes toward cigarettes; ads for them were banned altogether from U.S. television in 1971.
While advertisements provide ample resources for study, the programs also encapsulate the fun light-heartedness that viewers expect from game shows. Beyond noting the evidently enjoyable experience of shooting the episode, it is interesting to witness the cross-pollination of the regular celebrities. It seems that once you became a semi-regular on one game show then you were free to visit the set of other game shows, whether credited or not. The November 23, 1967 episode of “To Tell the Truth” holds one such gem. During the reading of the affidavit describing the contestant being crowned Yellville, Arkansas “Miss Drumstick 1967,” the curtain raised just enough to show three pairs of women’s legs. As in the Miss Drumstick contest itself, where contestants are judged on the beauty of their legs alone, the panelists had to guess the true winner without seeing their faces. Once she was identified, the two impostors revealed their identities. One pair of legs belonged to Joanna Barnes (possibly best known for her role in the 1961 film “The Parent Trap”), and the other pair was that of the queen of game shows herself, Betty White. Beyond her well-known stint at “Password,” White was a frequent panelist of “To Tell the Truth,” and surely getting to act as a contestant was a treat for the seasoned actress.
Other notable gems from the collection include the unaired pilot for what became “To Tell the Truth.” Hosted by Mike Wallace, “Nothing but the Truth” featured panelists Polly Bergen, John Cameron Swayze, Hildy Parks, and Dick Van Dyke. A precursor to “He Said She Said” (which was later reprised as “Tattletales”), the unaired pilot for “It Had to Be You” spotlights host Ed McMahon obtaining details about married life from one spouse at a time. The final unaired pilot in the collection, “Play for Keeps,” has host Sonny Fox asking contestants to go head-to-head in answering a few trivia questions to win wagered money.
In a sheer contrast with most game shows that today’s audiences are accustomed, “Two for the Money” features three rounds of contestants alternately listing items that belong to an assigned category. While this sounds close to what could be considered a quiz program, a majority of the show is actually dedicated to interviewing the contestants, giving the host, Herb Shriner, plenty of time to crack jokes. The game in this game show is secondary to Herb Shriner’s polished humor.
That humor and fun is what audiences tuned in to watch. It was an escape from everyday life, yet in a way through advertisements, celebrities and the games themselves, the kinescopes are a fascinating record of American popular culture. The Goodson-Todman Collection contains a treasure-trove of fun antics and notable guests just waiting to be discovered.
Now that we have reopened for visits by appointment, we invite you to come on down and be the next researcher in the Moving Image Research Center, so you can see the Goodson-Todman Collection for yourself. Take a look at the instructions for how to schedule appointments, and we hope to see you soon!