Saturday, August 25, 2007

Tell 'Em Groucho Sent You

Channel surfing last night and I came across an old episode of the quiz show You Bet Your Life, starring Groucho Marx. This one was from the mid-fifties, which is the period I remember seeing them, even though the show started on radio before I was born, and stayed on TV into the early sixties.

It was interesting how well it help up. And how much better it was than today's rock-'em-sock-'em neon-and strobe-light fake-excitement quiz shows.

Who wants to be a millionaire? All of us. Who cares about the idiot who gets to take a shot on the tube? Not me.

The old format was simple: Groucho Marx, one of the sharpest and quickest wits ever to grace a stage, sat in a chair behind a small table, smoking a big cigar. His announcer, and very often stooge, George Fenneman would come out with a couple to play the game. Sometimes they were pre-selected before the show, and sometimes they had been put forth from the audience only moments before they stepped on stage.

The game itself consist of several questions, with values from ten to a hundred dollars. The contestants started out with a hundred dollars and added or subtracted to their total by answering correctly or missing it. This was done with three sets of players, and whoever won the most got to come back at the end to try for the big jackpot, a thousand bucks.

There was a secret word, held in the mouth of a duck puppet painted to look like Groucho and if a contestant said it aloud, the duck would drop down and they'd win an extra hundred.

The most a contestant could come away with in the preliminary round was something under four hundred dollars, plus a hundred if they said the "secret woid." Not so much today, but in 1955, the average family income was $3400, so the players could leave with a nice chunk of change even if they didn't hit the jackpot. (The money got bigger in the late fifties when the high-priced game shows like The $64,000 Question arrived.)

The categories were varied, the questions ranged from too-easy to pretty hard, and when Groucho was feeling feisty, he'd steer the conversation so that the contestants would say the secret word.

The show was presented by DeSoto/Plymouth, and the end, Groucho would appear behind a round window in DeSoto sign, tell the viewer to go see their dealer, and tell 'em Groucho sent you, before closing the porthole. The commercials were an integral part of the show, with Fenneman or Groucho or both doing them as they went.

The biggest part of the experience was watching and listening to Groucho, who was in his mid-sixties by then, crack wise. The contestants were seldom polished, they stammered or got embarrassed, and some of them had no stage presence whatsoever. Doctors, lawyers, dance teachers, sailors, housewives -- there was a wide spectrum of players. One I saw last night was a veterinarian who specialized in cats-only. In L.A., in 1955. Looked to be fifty, but was only thirty-two.

People looked a lot older back then.

Another pair were a Marine lieutenant and a young woman who organized elephant-hunting safaris. Neither were married. Groucho had them kissing before he was done ...

Now and then, a contestant would throw out some snappy comebacks, and Groucho loved that. But if you wanted to fence with Groucho, best you bring your sharp blade, cause he might be old, but de mahn, he be a steppin' razor, yah ...

There's a story, mostly likely apocryphal, I always loved: Interviewing one contestant in the radio days, he asked her how many children she had.

Nineteen, she said.

Nineteen? Why so many?"

I like children.

Well, I like my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.

The story is that NBC quickly cut that before it went out, but that for years, they used the recorded laugh track after the audience heard it on other shows when they wanted to show that something had been really hilarious. Supposedly right up there with Ed Ames's tomahawk throw on the Carson Show years later.

(Those of you who missed that episode of The Tonight Show: Ames played the character "Mingo," on the Fess Parker Daniel Boone show. He learned how to throw a tomahawk, and one night on Carson, set they set up a board with a cowboy chalked on it. He threw, hit the cowboy square on the crotch, and Carson did a take and milked it until the audience was peeing themselves laughing. Some line about not knowing Ames was Jewish did me in. Supposedly the longest laugh in TV history.)

Both Groucho and Fenneman denied the cigar exchange ever happened, and there's no tape of it, but still, you never let truth stand in the way of a good story.

I think Drew Carey is funny, but ... he's not in Groucho's league. Offhand, I can't think of anybody who is ...

1 comment:

Dan Gambiera said...

Groucho and his brothers were born to the greasepaint - the last vaudeville generation. They had to be good the way that a gazelle in lion country has to be fast. We won't see his like again.