I've Got A Secret

First episode: June 19, 1952 
    Bill's first episode: July 3, 1952 
Last episode: April 3, 1967 
Seen weekly in prime time on CBS at various times   

The Show:

Bill's longest lasting gig wasn't in the middle of the spotlight, but sharing it. He served as regular panelist & occasional guest host for almost fifteen years on this immensely popular game from Goodson-Todman.

A contestant came onstage and whispered his/her secret to the emcee—originally Garry Moore, and later Steve Allen—while the audience saw it superimposed on the screen...

One at a time, each of the four panelists had about 30 seconds to cross-examine the contestant asking only yes-no questions. Each panelist whose time elapsed without figuring out the secret paid $20, for a top possible prize of $80 (plus a carton of cigarettes sometimes, depending on who was sponsoring the show that week). A celebrity guest also dropped by with a secret on each show.

Notes:

Bill joined the panel of this popular guessing game on its third episode, and stayed for the next fifteen years.

According to Gil Fates in his What's My Line? memoir, the idea for a show called I've Got A Secret was brought to Goodson-Todman by comedy writer Allan Sherman and his partner, Howard Merrill.  The producers, of course, recognized it as a simple variation on their What's My Line? and told the young pair they didn't want to rip off their own successful program. 

 

"You might as well," Sherman said, "because if you don't start copying your shows, someone else will." 

Goodson and Todman agreed, paid both men a royalty and named Sherman associate producer of the new venture.  Years later, Sherman would make a name for himself with a series of novelty folk songs including "Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda." Merrill wrote episodes of virtually every popular sitcom of the next 20 years.

Popular radio star Garry Moore (a former straight man to Jimmy Durante, best known to radio audiences as host of the quiz Take It or Leave It featuring the $64 question) was chosen to host the show.  To offset comparisons to What’s My Line?, the premiere episode had a courtroom setting, with Garry Moore acting as “judge” and the panelists each acting as prosecutors, standing and approaching the contestants for questioning. The result looked so awful that the set was burned immediately afterward and replaced by two desks placed across stage from each other. 

Longtime Goodson-Todman director Franklin Heller once compared finding ideal panelists to casting a play. It wasn't enough for a panelist to play the game well; they also needed to have distinctive personalities and interact well with each other. There was a great deal of turnover on the panel in the first year of the series, perhaps as the producers worked to find the proper chemistry. None of the original panelists (actress Louise Albritton, comic actor Orson Bean, Broadway vet Melville Cooper and author Laura Hobson) stayed with the show past the first thirteen weeks.  Bill joined I've Got A Secret on the third episode, when original panelist Orson Bean took an acting job out of town.  Bean, who later said of this early TV gig, "I didn't know what the hell I was doing," wasn't asked back. Years later, Bean would become a regular on To Tell The Truth, often appearing with Bill on the 1970s version.

This is just one example of the trouble that I’ve Got a Secret had getting onto the right footing early in its run. It was originally presented as a straightforward game with panelists seriously attempting to win. The problem with the straightforward secrets was that they just weren’t that interesting. If a contestant’s secret was, for example, “I shook hands with the president”…well, who cares?

 

Garry Moore would later marvel at how much time the network gave the show to get it right, though, saying that I've Got a Secret was on the air for over a year before they did a good episode.

Jayne Meadows (later to become Mrs. Steve Allen) replaced Albritton a short time after Bill's arrival and was likewise signed to be a regular. For years afterward, Meadows was fond of quoting her first meeting with Goodson, who called her "saucy." Original panelist Melville Cooper was replaced by comic Eddie Bracken on October 9.  Bracken appeared in six shows before being replaced by Henry Morgan on November 13.  Morgan stayed with the show thereafter, his cranky and sarcastic demeanor a perfect counterpoint to Bill's boyish enthusiasm.  The second female chair was filled for weeks at a time by several "bright young actresses", including Larraine Day (Mrs. Leo Durocher), Nina Foch, and Kitty Carlisle.  By early 1953, Faye Emerson had emerged as the fourth regular.

Although this site's a salute to Bill, the credit for making I've Got a Secret "click" arguably goes to grouchy radio comedian Henry Morgan, who played the game but clearly didn’t care about winning. He wasn't particularly invested in the show at all, admitting later that sometimes, he was already in his car when the show's closing credits started to roll. Bill followed that lead as time went by, and eventually, other panelists were told to simply stop caring if the game got too difficult. The other change was looking for wilder secrets (for example, a woman named Ivy Ivy whose secret was “I have poison ivy”).

In a 1955 Time Magazine article about panel shows, Bill expressed the fun and the danger in his I've Got A Secret role, especially in those early days when they took the game itself more seriously than they would later. "I'm always thinking automatically of what question I can ask in case a joke falls flat," he said.   "But even when jokes go over, I've got to be careful that Henry Morgan and I don't get kidding and forget about the game.  We've had the riot act read to us, let's face it.  We've gotten the riot act for horsing up the show too much."

The team of Cullen, Meadows, Morgan and Emerson remained intact for several years, affected only when one of the ladies took acting jobs that interfered.  That became more common as roles became more available in California than in New York.   Stage actress Betsy Palmer began appearing on the panel in 1957.  New York personality and former Miss America Bess Myerson joined in 1958.  Soon, the new regular line-up became Cullen, Palmer, Morgan and Myerson, and it remained that way through the run of the series.  (Meadows and Emerson had become west coast residents, but still visited the show on occasion.)

The final four-member panel was about as perfect as this sort of thing can be.  Funny Bill, spunky Betsy, grumpy Henry and glamorous Bess brought diverse backgrounds and styles to the game.  They seemed a family to TV viewers, although like most panels, they seldom even socialized off-camera.  (Bill once said of Palmer, "I never got to know her until she'd been showing up regularly for three or four months.")  It was even easy to pair them off, Bill and Betsy representing youthful exuberance, Henry and Bess suggesting worldly (in Morgan's case, world-weary) sophistication.  Not surprisingly, that's the way they were usually paired when a game required it.

With the panel relatively stable, the guest stars provided variety.  Visiting celebrities brought a lot more entertainment to the show than did the What's My Line? mystery guests.  For one thing, their appearance could be promoted, since it was not supposed to be hidden from the panel. 

As the years went on, having a celebrity "secret" (like Desi Arnaz, whose secret, fittingly, was "I love Lucy") became less important, and the guest stars would often introduce some entirely different parlor game instead, or engage the panel in a stunt or surprise them with an elaborate set-up.  Paul Newman emerged in a vendor's uniform and revealed that he had sold Henry Morgan a hot dog at a ball game earlier in the day, and Morgan didn't recognize him. Johnny Carson, with surprising archery prowess, shot an apple off Garry Moore's head.

Even many of the traditional contestants had some sort of musical or other performance-related secret, which would inevitably be demonstrated after the questioning was through.  It no longer remotely mattered whether the panel got one right, again unlike What's My Line?, which took its game seriously until the end.  This difference was highlighted in a segment when Henry Morgan started his turn by declaring, "I think I've got it!," only for the sound effects man to trigger the buzzer and end his turn immediately.  I've Got A Secret became a variety show masquerading as a game show.

The Secret gig was perhaps the easiest of all Bill's assignments.  Along with the rest of the panel, Bill seldom showed up much more than ten minutes before the show.  There were no rehearsals, no run-throughs (at least not for the panel), no briefings, nothing but a spontaneous, live, half-hour performance.  Once Steve Allen took over in 1964, the panel had even less of a time commitment.  In order to limit Allen's commute from his California home, they began doing two shows (one live, one on tape) once every two weeks. Bill made $200 a show when he began appearing on the I've Got A Secret panel.  By the time the show ended fifteen years later, he was making close to $2000.  This for a commitment of about an hour of his time a week.

Bill described the cushy Secret job in a 1967 interview.  "It's been like stealing," he said.  "Imagine getting paid handsomely to turn up at a studio every other week at 7pm in a clean shirt, without preparation, and play a parlor game for a half-hour.  Then there was time to smoke a cigarette and maybe talk to Henry Morgan awhile, and then play a parlor game for another half hour and go home."

Despite several time changes, I've Got A Secret was a consistent ratings success, nearly always drawing more viewers than What's My Line?.  It ranked #5 among all shows for the 1958-59 season, and was still in the top twenty as late as the 1965-66 season.  At the time I've Got A Secret left the air in 1967, it was the fourth longest running series in the history of prime time television, behind only The Ed Sullivan ShowRed Skelton and What's My Line?. Today, it's still among the top twenty longest running shows of all time.

The show was revived in syndication for a season in 1972 with Steve Allen once again hosting.  Bill did not participate in that version, which taped in Los Angeles while he was still living in New York.  It returned to network television as a brief summer series hosted by Bill in 1976 (see below) then sat dormant for nearly a quarter century until being revived again in 2000 for the female-friendly Oxygen cable network.  The Oxygen version was the first time I've Got A Secret had been produced as a daily program.  Alumni Steve Allen and Betsy Palmer appeared on a special episode of the show.  In 2006, Game Show Network launched their own version of the series.  It was also a daily show, though only eight weeks of shows were produced.  Bil Dwyer hosted this version, and the regular panel consisted of Frank DeCaro, Suzanne Westenhoefer, Billy Bean and Jermaine Taylor.

As the loosest of all the panel shows, as well as the highest-rated, I've Got A Secret was probably more influential than even What's My Line?, its older sibling.  An entire generation of Nickelodeon watchers, for example, have no idea how much the popular Figure It Out resembles Secret.

Video:

The vast majority of episodes have survived, though not the first few.  Most of these episodes have turned up on Game Show Network, including a great number of episodes which were originally sponsored by Winston cigarettes.  The show has since popped up on Buzzr. A number of episodes are available on Amazon Prime.

Complete episodes:

Clippings:

Click the below TV Guide covers for vintage articles about I've Got a Secret:

1959 TV Guide Bill Cullen Betsy Palmer Henry Morgan Bess Myerson
1962 TV Guide Gary Moore Bess Myerson Henry Morgan, Bill Cullen, Betsy Palmr
TV Guide 1963 Garry Moore Betsy Palmer Bill Cullen Henry Morgan, Bess Myerson

Additional Links

I'VE GOT A SECRET EPISODE GUIDE - An impressive comprehensive resource for guests & secrets featured on the show.

I'VE GOT A SECRET ONLINE - Tommy Gun's immaculate fansite