I'VE GOT A SECRET'S TWO GREATEST ASSETS
Reprinted from TV Guide, August 18-24, 1962
First, there's the panel itself. Take the beauteous Betsy Palmer, for instance, who has been variously described as wholesome, vivacious, exuberant, disarming, charming and by other flattering surface adjectives. She has a striking figure, a glowing, well-scrubbed complexion, an infectious smile, and a host of admirers.
She is married to a gynecologist and obstetrician (Dr. Vincent Merendino), has recently produced her first offspring (Melissa), is a hard-working but as yet unfulfilled actress, with an impressive string of motion picture and TV credits, and a long history in summer stock. None of these factors makes Betsy outstanding or distinguishable from countless other females similarly endowed. And yet B. Palmer (nee Hrunek) is decidedly unique, a member of the most exclusive club in the world—a group of characters the likes of whom have never existed before in any other form of entertainment, from the days of Aristophanes to the era of Caesar (Sid, that is). These are the game show panelists, the new breed of non-performing performers, the highest-paid nonworkers in the history of Western civilization, with but a handful of charter members, including Bill Cullen, Arlene Francis, Henry Morgan, Bess Myerson, Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Tom Poston, Kitty Carlisle and the recently “retired” Polly Bergen.
And the most winsome nonperformer, nonworker of them all is Betsy Palmer.
Consider also the economics of this unique profession. According to Mark Goodson, who, with Bill Todman, first spawned the game shows and still controls a goodly sum of them, “the average pay for a TV panelist ranges between $500 and $1,000 per program” (with most regulars receiving the latter figure). For this stipend, the panelist “works” about an hour a week, with half of that time devoted to makeup and “getting in the mood.”
The $1,000 fee, however, is not all the panelist takes home at the end of the hour. The game show is a continual showcase for all his other pursuits and latent talents, and the residual rewards are equally satisfying.
Despite her seeming frivolity, her cutie-pie mannerisms, her childlike posturing, Betsy Palmer is not unaware of these on-the-job benefits. “Panel shows have made me what I am today,” she admits frankly. “When I played Columbus (Ohio) in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' last summer, we filled the auditorium to capacity—4,000 seats every night. They shouldn't pay us for being on Secret. We should pay them.”
Bennett Cerf expresses similar sentiments, adding, “I'll deny it if you print it, but I would do it for nothing.”
With all the accruing benefits, the short hours and large loot, the work that is all play, what does it take to be a game show panelist? How does one join the club? What special skills are needed? What training? What knowledge? The hard-working 9-to-6 cynics and lesser-paid non-players have one unanimous answer: “None.”
The club members themselves, however, take exception. Mark Goodson lays down the criteria for staffing one of his panels: The person, in some way, should be a celebrity to begin with. Also, he must reflect something other than mere showbiz. Most actors don't make good panelists because they are too parochial in their way of living. Most important, the panel member can't play a part—he must expose himself as he is, have no inhibitions, be a talker and have the capacity to communicate.”
Garry Moore, ever the practitioner of “being kind to each other,” describes his group on Secret as “four mavericks who are nevertheless members of one team, don't compete, and have respect for one another.” And Henry Morgan sums it up this way: “The ideal panelist should have charm, beauty, grace, money—and two good suits.”
Betsy Palmer may or may not have all the foregoing attributes.She apparently has a sufficient number to have left an indelible impression on both the public and her fellow club members.Goodson,who sold the show to CBS and Garry Moore in 1959, proclaims her “sui generis—one of a kind,” Henry Morgan thinks of her “what everybody thinks of her: She is delightful. One half as nice on as off.”
Garry Moore considers Betsy “an incurable optimist, radiating enthusiasm, and incapable of being offensive even while making a double entendre—mostly innocent.”
And to illustrate the point,he sites this by-now classic Palmerism. On one of the I've Got a Secret shows, two of the three contestants were policemen, and the “plot” called for them to flank the emcee. When Betsy Palmer's turn came she blithely inquired, “Does this secret concern the officers behind?” Naturally, this broke up the audience. Uttered by any other TV personality, it might have brought angry protests hurtling across CBS President Stanton's antiseptic desk. But innocent, wide-eyed Betsy never fully realized the implications of that question, and no one ever even considered reprimanding her. It is this same complete acceptance and approbation of her “wholesomeness,” no matter what the issue, that figured prominently in her recent pregnancy. Usually pregnant women on television receive indignant letters, castigating them for appearing in that condition.
“All Betsy Palmer got,” says Moore, “was tons of baby clothes.”
In the trade, this complete public acceptance has long been analyzed and diagnosed as a quality called empathy. As a panelist, Betsy Palmer has empathy plus. She never fails to expose her true, uninhibited self, to the delight of every onlooker. She was hired for I've Got a Secret without so much as an introduction to the head man of the show, the aforementioned Mark Goodson. After collecting her sizable weekly paycheck for seven months she wrote a little-girl fan letter to her boss, thanking him and expressing a desire to meet him. To oblige, Goodson appeared on the show as a contestant and when the “secret” was revealed, Betsy unashamedly rushed up and kissed her diminutive, graying benefactor.
The subject of all this adulation is,by most standards, a fairly average, if exceptionally attractive, matron, leading a fairly conventional existence (if living with an obstetrician, on call 24 hours a day, can be called conventional.) A native of Indiana, she comes from a middle-class Czechoslovak family and is steeped in old-world domesticity. Married eight years, she does her own marketing, her own cooking and cleaning up (Vinnie helps out with the dishes”). Mostly they entertain at home, and the guest list on occasion includes Bill Cullen and Henry Morgan, her two flanking club members. She does a great deal of reading, mainly best-sellers and mainly in bed, reinforced with a dish of ice cream and peanuts. Her television viewing tastes, reflecting conjugal harmony rather than personal preferences, are restricted to sports (including wrestling) and The Untouchables. To further conjugal togetherness she has taken up golf, with rather startling results (“Who keeps score?”). Lest all this sound humdrum, it might be worth noting that she and Vinnie always dine by candlelight. And to add further spice to an otherwise compatible arrangement, she admits—though reluctantly—that she is a lifelong Democrat married to a die-hard Republican (“We argue but we don't fight, and I sometimes split my ticket.”) Betsy Palmer, actress, mother, homemaker, sometime social observer and regular panelist on I've Got a Secret, has a secret of her own—the key to her success. “I'm just happy,” she says simply. “I've had no struggles, I've been extremely lucky, and people have been extremely kind to me. I have no burning ambitions, no definite goal. I just take things as they come. I'm not playing a role when I'm on Secret—what you see is me, as I am.”
Then there are the secrets, themselves, for instance, the time two brothers, one 9, the other 4, strode on stage for I've Got a Secret, sat down on either side of moderator Garry Moore, and, in turn, whispered their secrets in his ear.
“I collected 40 different kinds of bugs for my school project,” revealed the 9-year-old.
Added the little guy, “I ate them all.”
Their “secrets” were flashed on a screen out of sight of the panel. The studio audience roared. The four panelists began to question the boys (they did not guess these secrets). Studio and home audiences settled back to watch the fun—another I've Got a Secret program was underway.
The laughs didn't always come so easily on this show. In fact, when Secret made its debut 10 years ago last June, it flopped with a thud heard from Madison Avenue to Beverly Hills. One sponsor canceled after its 13-week contract was up. Secret is still with us because CBS quickly found another. “It took us almost a year to get on the right track,” says Garry.
Secret sprang from the fertile minds of Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, and they are the first to admit that it's a spinoff from their What's My Line?, which had taken to air several years earlier. On Secret each contestant whispers his riddle to Garry, and the panelists attempt to learn it by asking questions. CBS has renewed the program for next season, when it will be seen Monday nights at 8 (ET).
Chester Feldman, a soft-spoken, crew-cut man, liked and respected by Garry and the show's panelists, has been producer of Secret for the last four years and an associate producer before that. He reports that the initial show was a complete fiasco.
We played it in a courtroom setting, with Garry as a judge, the contestants in a witness chair, and the panelists cross-examining them like bad district attorneys,” he said with a shudder. “It was obviously too phony and contrived.”
That first panel included British actor Melvin Cooper, Louise Albritson, Orson Bean, and author Laura J. Hobson. “They were just not right for the show,” said Feldman. “Our guest celebrity was Boris Karloff, whose secret was that he was afraid of mice. Even if he were telling the truth, who cared?”
Garry and Feldman cite different reasons for Secret's eventually success. For Garry, Henry Morgan served as the catalystic agent. “The glamorous stars we tried out on the panel during the first year wanted to show us how bright they were. All tried so hard to win,” Garry said. “Then Harry came on November and refused to take the show seriously. He played for fun—and the show came alive. Heck, once Henry went for 13 weeks without guessing a single secret. We hired him as a regular and instructed our other panelists to play it Henry's way.
Feldman believes Secret started to catch on when they began to contrive secrets for the celebrity guests. “We tried to be factual that first year, but we soon discovered that anything factual was so well known as to be pointless. For example, Pat O'Brien came on once to say that he sometimes took showers with cigars in his mouth. And then we had this big tough movie star—I forget now who it was—whose secret was that he had long golden curls as a child.
“So our first change was to dream up secrets like somebody saying, ‘While we're talking, I'm handcuffed to Garry,' or Eddie Fisher wearing a necktie 20 feet long. Then we gradually became more elaborate—with, for instance, Ann Sheridan's secret that she would take Henry Morgan on an African safari. She did, too. They flew to the Congo together and came back the following week with films of their trip.”
Other celebrity guests have been involved in elaborate secrets. Feldman once arranged for the panel to attend a ballgame at Yankee Stadium so that Paul Newman, disguised as a vendor, could sell them each a hot dog. When Newman appeared a week later with that secret, the panel struck out.
Actor Edmond O'Brien also fooled the panel when, during the week prior to his appearance, he arranged to have his picture snapped surreptitiously with each of them. He turned up as a stagehand on The Price is Right, where a photographer snapped him with Bill Cullen. While Bess Myerson was filming a commercial atop the Hotel Astor marquee, O'Brien was sent over disguised as an electrician. For Morgan, he assisted a photographer who was legitimately shooting pictures of Henry. And for Betsy Palmer, O'Brien was a parking attendant where she stored her car.
A see-through mirror arrangement in the lady panelists' dressing-room was once rigged to fool Jayne Meadows, who was a panelist for several years before she moved to Hollywood with husband Steve Allen in 1959. Unknown to her, the cameras recorded Jayne's intricate art of putting on her makeup. Although the pitfalls of such a stunt are obvious, nothing untoward happened and the segment was taped so that a contestant could later give as his secret: “I just watched Jayne Meadows put on her makeup.”
An opera speaker once appeared as a celebrity guest with the secret that he had arranged for Morgan to be a spear carrier during a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House. The opera's cast was not informed and Henry played it straight. But after the opera he approached one of the stars and, in his usual irreverent manner, demanded, “Well, how'd you like my performance?”
Irate that a lowly spear carrier would talk to him, the star told Henry off in a tirade. For the first time in memory, Morgan was speechless.
On another occasion, Betsy figured in a secret that resulted from a TV Guide story. The magazine writer had described her as a beautiful girl and a fine actress but a terrible panelist because she never guessed anybody's secret. One night Garry turned the entire questioning over to her for a contestant who walked onstage with carrots sticking out of both ears.” He whispered to Garry, naturally enough, “I have carrots sticking out of both ears.”
“We had this really set up,” said Feldman with a laugh. “We had a band hidden in the wings that was slated to march on stage playing a victory song as soon as Betsy guessed the secret. We had cheerleaders, confetti-- the works. But Betsy didn't guess it. When we finally told her the secret she wailed, ‘I thought of that! But then I decided it was just too obvious.'”
Bill Cullen, oldest in length of service (he joined the show Aug. 7, 1952), was the central figure in another secret. After Morgan's junket to the Congo, Bill complained that because of his other radio-TV commitments, he never had a chance to go anywhere. Feldman and Garry immediately decreed a “Poor Old Bill” day.
Viewers at home voluntarily began sending in gifts for “Poor Old Bill.” By the time the next show rolled around, they had filled two warehouses and the stage with toys, old clothes, canned food, and whatnot. After using that stunt as a secret (“behind the curtains the stage is filled with gifts for ‘Poor Old Bill'”), the piles of gifts that still possessed utility were turned over to hospitals and orphanages.
On the assumption that viewers get their biggest kicks when the show itself is embarrassed, Garry recalls fondly the contestant whose secret was that he could blow and explode a full-sized inner tube using only his own lung power. The man said he could do it in two minutes, but he refused to demonstrate because he was afraid he'd “blow himself out.”
Came the show and the volunteer began to blow—and blow and blow. After three minutes Garry urged him to quit. After four minutes the camera cut away for a commercial and returned to find him red-faced and bug-eyed but still blowing. Andy Griffith, guest celebrity that night, never got the chance to divulge his secret because everyone on the show just sat back to watch. Finally, 30 seconds before signing off and after nine full minutes of blowing, the tube exploded—with such force that the man was propelled several feet to the rear and landed flat on his back.
Poltergeists, or at least gremlins, have snagged the show several times. One contestant was a figure skater whose secret was that she had attended twenty different schools during a single semester. After the questioning, she was to demonstrate her skating prowess. But when the curtains pulled back to reveal the portable ice rink placed on stage, Garry discovered to his horror that the ice hadn't frozen. “What could I do?” he asked. I simply leveled with the audience.
About 18 months later they had a contestant who claimed to be “the world's fastest spinner on ice.” CBS technicians had frozen ice on stage for Arthur Godfrey's skating shows and for Ed Sullivan. But again, they couldn't do it for Secret. This time, though, the show was prepared. A film of the girl spinning was thrown on the screen.
Garry, meanwhile, has certainly been exposed to more danger than any TV-panel moderator legitimately should be. Participating in secrets offered up by various contestants, he has wrestled an alligator, had Johnny Carson (an amateur archer) shoot an apple off his head, and had a 9-year-old girl hit a golf ball off his nose. Only recently he was demonstrating a new burglarproof jewelry-salesmen's case when it blew up in his hand, injuring a thumb.
He has asked out only once. That was this past April when a woman lion tamer, Evelyn Currie, appeared with the secret that she would put her head in a lion's mouth. After questioning, Garry was to have duplicated her feat—and in full view of the audience. But a visit to the circus the previous week, when he was introduced formally to the lion, convinced Garry that, at least in this instance, it was better to be chicken than food for a hungry beast.