History fascinates me.
As a child, I was completely disinterested in the past. It was all irrelevant to me. I didn’t care who was famous or how wars began and ended; my 1980s childhood may as well have been in a vacuum, because all that mattered was now. But as I started to learn more about my grandmother, Fleeta, who died before I was born, I have become more and more mesmerized by the world that was before me.
I want to know more about the way people dressed, the way they spoke and the way women were treated. I want to know what it was like to not have a computer and to have to talk to an operator to make a phone call. I want to know what it was like to live in her world in the 1950s.
That’s how I became obsessed with a show called “What’s My Line?” You might think I’m using that word — obsessed — lightly, but my husband would tell you I’m not. He’ll come home from work, and as I’m cooking dinner, he’ll see the grainy black and white show playing from my computer. He’ll come into the bathroom as I’m getting ready in the morning, and it’s playing on my phone. Sometimes as I’m winding down for bed, it’s on in the background.
My parents introduced me to the show about a year ago. I came into the room as they were watching an episode with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and I asked them about it. I looked at them like they were crazy when they mentioned the names of Dorothy Kilgallen, Arleen Francis, Bennett Cerf and John Daly like they were household names. I’d never heard of them, or their show. They were obsolete.
But I was curious. I was fascinated by the rudimentary graphics at the beginning of the show — it was obviously a series of drawings on a piece of paper scrolling by as the camera stayed in once place. I was intrigued by the show’s sponsor, Stopette, which advertised a deodorant in powder form with the slogan, “Poof! There goes perspiration.” I was amazed at the number of people who appeared on the show whom I had heard of, from Walt Disney and Ella Fitzgerald to Salvador Dali and Sir Edmund Hillary. They had Eleanor Roosevelt and Duke Ellington, Ronald Reagan and Mickey Mantle. It seems like anybody who was anybody was on that show, and I was transfixed.
But most of all, I was captivated by the way everyone on the show spoke.
They chose their words so carefully, and they spoke so clearly — so politely.
They referred to each other as Mr. or Miss, as gentlemen and ladies. Even when a stranger ran onto the stage, the show’s moderator, John Daly, was hardly ruffled.
“Just a moment, we have a small problem,” Daly said, as a man in a suit and tie ambushed the stage just as the panel put on blindfolds to guess the identity of a celebrity guest. “Gail, would you get the relieving unit? Schedule two.”
Then, as soon as the man was quickly assisted off-screen, Daly resumed without missing a beat.
“Panel, so that you will not be confused, we’ve had a bad-mannered visitor who has now been removed from the stage and we can go on with what we were up to.”
The premise of the show was to invite visitors from around the country to come and let the panel guess their occupation, or “line,” as it was called then. The gist was that the occupation was to be unexpected or unusual, for example, a lady wrestler, a lady barber, a male turtle catcher, a male photographer of passport photos. It first aired in 1950, just five years after the end of World War II.
The people I was seeing had experienced the pain of World War I, in many cases, and World War II was their most recent reality. And yet, they smiled and spoke politely. They talked about “pictures” instead of movies, and radio instead of internet. They were pivotal characters not just for their generation, but for mine. They seemed to come from a culture that was jovial and simple. Uncontroversial. Happy. You could just imagine the color on the other side of the screen.
Every guest, whether famous or not, always dressed to the nines. Their hair was always impeccably styled, their clothing was smart and tailored, and the way they smiled and lifted their chins when they listened to a question was universal. They smiled and chatted and joked in a way that was cordial and kind.
This was my grandmother’s world — so unlike mine. They looked perfect, but underneath the surface was a different story. Next time I’ll tell you what this Generation X member learned about the Greatest Generation through an obsolete show.