Place The Face
First episode: July 2, 1953
Bill's first episode: Jan 28, 1954
Last episode: September 13, 1955
Until Aug 26, 1954: Thurs at 10:30pm (CBS)
Sept 18 - Dec 25, 1954: Sat at 8:30pm (NBC)
June 28 - Sept 13, 1955: Tuesdays at 8:00pm (NBC)
A contestant is brought out and then introduced to someone from their past, identified as "Mr./Miss Face," who is standing inside of a picture frame. That person's real name and the "connection" between the two is revealed to the home audience. For example, singer Carole Edwards met a face who turned out to be a boy that she had defeated in a hog-calling contest years earlier. Singer Xavier Cougat faced off against the hotel detective who kicked him out for smuggling a dog disguised as a baby.
The contestant is given three minutes to ask yes-or-no questions to divulge the identity of Mr./Miss Face. The person behind the frame reads a clue to start and reads a new more specific clue each minute. If the contestant's partner's clues aren't enough, Bill quite liberally gives clues throughout the show. The clues are part ad-libbed and part-scripted for Bill. Cash and prizes are awarded based on how fast the connection is guessed.
Jack Smith was the original host, followed by Jack Bailey. By the time Bill took over, most of the contestants were celebrities and interviews took up much of the show.
Despite being a show played mostly for laughs, the program ran a $25,000 contest -- huge for the time -- called "Three Face" starting in March, 1954. Viewers sent in messages supporting the Heart Fund (in 25 words or less, of course), and the writers of some of those letters won the opportunity to identify the three faces that made up a composite film. Bill and a celebrity guest would call a letter writer on the air to play the game. The first caller to guess one of the three stars won $1,500; the second correct guess paid $3,500; the third correct guess was worth $20,000. The correct faces were Jimmy Stewart, tennis player Gussie Moran, and Bringing Up Father cartoonist George McManus. It took nine episodes for all of the faces to be identified.
Ralph Edwards Productions put a remarkable amount of effort into keeping the correct answers from being leaked during this contest. To create the composite image, Edwards hired Casade Picture Company, the same firm that the U.S. government retained to film its atom bomb experiments, because that precedent had proven that the company could keep a secret.
The three faces were each brought to a secret location and filmed separately. A crew of five combined the three films to create a single face and voice.
Meanwhile, to prevent any favoritism in the message-writing contest, a staffer would separate the incoming messages from their envelopes, write a matching number on the message and the envelope, and then turn in the messages to be judged so that the people reading them wouldn't know the identity of the writer. The number of show employees aware of the correct answers was kept to an absolute minimum. Even Bill himself didn't know the correct answers.
On August 26, 1954 the show ended its CBS run. The following week, Bill began hosting Name That Tune for the same sponsor (Toni) in the same time slot. When NBC picked up Place the Face two weeks later at a different day and time, Bill hosted both shows. Place the Face would be cancelled yet again two months later, only to reappear (with Bill) as a summer series in 1955.
Place the Face was based in Hollywood, requiring Bill to commute across the country once a week to host it. Air commuting isn't so unusual for performers now, but it was unusual enough that the time that Bill's weekly coast-to-coast flight garnered quite a bit of press. A cross-country weekly commute for a host in the days of live TV was a bit of a gamble, so Ralph Edwards had a back-up in place. Former host Jack Bailey was retained as a stand-by host in the event that anything went wrong with Bill's flight. He was never pressed into service.
Bill's frequent flying led to his signature look. While still flying recreationally, enough wind passed through the windows of Bill's plane that he had trouble keeping his thick hair neat and combed. He got a crew cut and liked it so much that he kept it that way for the next 15 years. Because his best known work was during this period, the crewcut became a trademark for him.
The announcer for the entire run of Place the Face was Jack Narz (although because original host Jack Smith and Jack Bailey both objected to having an announcer with the same first name, he went by the name Johnny Narz until Bill became host). Jack unintentionally became a matchmaker. During the run of the series, Bill met Jack's sister-in-law, Ann, at a party. They were married on Christmas Eve, 1955, making Bill and Jack brothers-in-law (as well as making Bill a brother-in-law to another legendary emcee, Jack's younger brother, Tom Kennedy).
Bill and Jack were both surprised by people from their past during the series. On the October 2 episode, Bill was a contestant on his own show; the face he had to place was his kindergarten teacher. A month later, Jack was surprised on his birthday and pressed into playing the game; his face turned out to be his World War II co-pilot.
Place the Face had a research staff charged with finding people from celebrities' pasts to be contestants. As with most game shows, they also encouraged people to write in if they thought they'd make good contestants, but virtually none of the people who applied to be contestants made it onto the show. According to one article, the bulk of the mail was "I once got ______'s autograph outside of a theater." The staff managed to put together games on remarkably short notice; they tracked down Jack Narz's co-pilot in Lansing, Michigan on a Thursday and flew him to Los Angeles the following day in preparation for the Saturday night broadcast.
Place the Face performed fairly well during its year on CBS. Its fall 1954 jump to NBC was a flop (it aired against Jackie Gleason) and in early November, reports surfaced that Place the Face and its lead-in, The Mickey Rooney Show, were on thin ice. Place the Face was pulled after Christmas. It returned for a brief summer run on Tuesday nights, but by the end of the summer, CBS owned Tuesday nights completely on the strength of The $64,000 Question.
Two episodes survive. One, in general circulation among game show fans, features guests Xavier Cugat and Joanne Gilbert. That episode happens to be the one pictured at the top of this page, courtesy of Fred Wostbrock's Collection and seen in the original Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows. Gilbert is pictured facing a childhood schoolmate who had kissed her without asking, and she had reacted by giving him a black eye.
Our thanks to Fredrick Tucker, who got us started on this with his own research into the career of Verna Felton. Even though these shows probably don't exist anymore, it's still interesting to see some of the big names (and not so big names) who paid Bill a visit!