“What’s My Line?” by Alan Hait

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I’ve been away from How Sweet It Was for some time now.  Unintentionally.  And return with a post I had no intention of posting until a couple of hours ago.  Let me explain…

I try to post daily tributes on my tumblr page, Citizen Screen, honoring classic stars who would have celebrated birthdays on a particular day.  One of the ways I like to pay tribute is by posting clips of the stars in appearances as the “mystery guest” on the television game show, “What’s My Line?”  Well, true to form, this past week I searched for a clip of Robert Cummings on that show and found a unique clip.  I knew the clip was unique because that show’s panel included Mickey Rooney, Jack Lemmon and Esther Williams (who just passed away this week.)   “What’s My Line?’s”  regular panel, or at least the one I’m used to seeing, featured Bennett Cerf, Dorothy Kilgallen and Arlene Francis who were always entertaining but certainly not of the stature in filmdom as Lemmon, Rooney and Williams (at least to me).

"Regular" What's My Line? panel

“Regular” What’s My Line? panel

In case anyone reading this is unaware, I am fairly active on twitter (@CitizenScreen) and have encountered a group of people who share my love for the classics.  Alan Hait (@AlanHait) is one of those people who’s been in my twitter “circles” for some time.  I met Alan at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in April and now consider him a friend.  Well, it turns out that Alan is much more than a trivia enthusiast, which is how I would have formerly described him.  In truth, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of fantastic behind-the-scenes Hollywood stories.  Of both television and film.  I was mesmerized every time we found the opportunity to talk during the festival.

Anyway, so I posted the “unique” clip  I mentioned of “What’s My Line?” in tribute to Bob Cummings and shortly thereafter Alan sent me an email – an email so fantastic that I asked him if he’d mind if I shared it here.  He didn’t mind and here it is…

First, here’s the clip that I shared, which he references in the message:

“What’s My Line” (WML) by Alan Hait…

This is such a wonderful clip – it’s a shame the poster didn’t have it fully referenced. I was looking for it when I heard the news that Esther Williams had passed on.

“What’s My Line?” was done every Sunday night at 10:30 pm LIVE (as a very little kid I remember begging to stay up late on Sunday – Candid Camera was on at 10 pm and WML was always at 10:30 – the last thing America watched before bedtime and work on Monday mornings – one key reason why Kellogg’s was a sponsor of the show for so long – subliminal messaging around Monday morning breakfast!)

Before video tape came into use, WML was live. If John Daly had to miss a show, for example traveling to cover a news story, they had to have a substitute host (once it was Eamonn Andrews, the hose of the British version; once it was Clifton Fadiman, and once it was even Bennett Cerf!). If I recall, John only missed, like, 3 shows in 17 years. In August 1956, the show was broadcast live from Chicago, as John Daly and Dorothy Kilgallen had to cover the Democratic National Convention. They packed up the flimsy NY sets and shipped them to Chicago, and the panel either flew out or took the train. So the show was done just as it always was, with the same people, just from Chicago for that one evening. Funny bit of trivia: the producers had approached and had an agreement for Harry Truman to be the Mystery Guest. (Margaret Truman had been an occasional panelist in the early years of the show.) But instead, the Mystery Guest turned out to be Perle Mesta. What happened to Truman? One of the show’s sponsors was Remington Rand, and retired Gen Douglas MacArthur sat on their board of directors – when he heard that Truman was going to be Mystery Guest, he threatened to pull the sponsorship. Shows how vain and petty he was, and that Truman was probably right to fire him!

The only other show outside New York was the one you linked to. It was January 12, 1958 and came from the then-newish CBS Television City. Not sure if they shipped out the New York set or had one assembled in L.A. for the occasion. I read somewhere that it was actually a “test” color transmission (only the B&W kinescope survives). Since John Daly had to be in LA on news business, they decided to give the regular panel a night off (rather than paying for the then-expensive and time-consuming cross-country trip – this was before jet planes!) and use a star-studded Hollywood panel. FYI, Laraine Day was a favorite of Goodson-Todman and was one of the few Hollywood stars easily available in New York, since she was married to Leo Durocher, manager of the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. She was on To Tell The Truth, I’ve Got A Secret, The Name’s The Same and – after the Dodgers moved to LA – on You Don’t Say, Hollywood Squares, and of course this one episode of What’s My Line? Being a devout Mormon, she didn’t drink alcohol, so unlike a lot of the other panelists she was on-time and reliable!

Once video tape came into regular use and was economical, John Daly never had to miss another Sunday as CBS made sure they had 4 or 5 taped episodes “in the can” for use in case of ill health, or during the summer vacations.

Margaret Truman as Mystery Guest:

Perle Mesta from Chicago Aug 1956:


Opening sequence of the LA show Jan 1958: (I think this was the only time Mutual of Omaha was the sponsor)


I know – more than you ever wanted or needed to know!!

– Alan

wml small

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