Winner Take All

August 8, 1950, CBS

Goodson-Todman's first hit radio series, Winner Take All arrived on CBS on July 1, 1948. The weekly prime-time series was hosted by Bud Collyer for most of the year. But each year, Bud Collyer took the month of August off, and in the era of live TV, that meant a guest host was needed.

In the summer of 1950, Bill Cullen got the nod to step in for the TV version. We're not at liberty to share the video, but we've been given a blessing to share these screengrabs and give some thoughts about what we can see of our favorite host in this rare gem, the earliest known existing footage of him.

Bill himself acknowledged in years to come that he initially felt painfully uncomfortable on television. Part of this was self-consciousness about his disability, part of this was simply the alien nature of the new medium.

Bill's discomfort is actually extremely noticeable in this early effort. The two most apparent clues:

#1. His rapid-fire rambling speech patterns.

#2. His eyes dart all over the stage, not making direct contact with the camera until the very last shot of the episode. He even looks at the contestants as he says "Goodnight, everybody!"

Bill is also forced to stretch late in the show during a live-TV nightmare. Bill begins to describe a ghost-themed game that the contestants are about to play. He glances all over the stage, realizes that something he's expecting just isn't there, and vamps and vamps and vamps until two models surprise him by wheeling an easel onstage. Bill is handed a stack of cards and ends up describing an entirely different game for the contestants.

The show is an interesting glimpse into early television. We were taken aback by the fact that the show had been on the air for two years and was still airing without a sponsor; not a single commercial break was taken the entire night.

Goodson-Todman was also, even at this stage, trying to break out of the question-answer form for the games to make this more of a show that needed to be on TV instead of radio. For one round, contestants had to ring in and guess the weights of common objects. 

And for a round that proved utterly painful, actors performed brief sketches that provided clues to common expressions. In one, a wife serves her husband a head of lettuce for dinner. He's delighted. She sets down a second head, which he declares is better.

The contestants rang in and guessed "Eat, drink, and be merry," and then "A rolling stone gathers no moss."

Bill promptly declares that the round will flop, and he proves completely right; the contestants are stumped by a woman helpfully named Penelope, who tells a lifeguard, "You saved me, so you earned me!" They actually run out of sketches/sayings, and Bill has to pull out a stack of back-up questions to decide the winner.

The amazing thing is how the disaster seems to bring Bill out of his shell. Bill at one point just stares at the contestants, proclaiming, "Television's young, we'll wait for you." He nicknames the players Daniel Webster and Socrates as the game sinks lower and lower. At one point, he warns the players that the show is about to start charging them rent for staying on the stage. He turns to the actors and asks them to talk slower.

On the one hand, it's startling how biting Bill's sense of humor is here, and this is another observation the man himself made years later. He really mellowed out after only a few years on TV. But the game is a flop, and Bill's oddly manic energy and high-pitched giggling make the segment a treasure.

It's not Bill's finest hour, but there's a spark there, and it's easy to see why he kept getting shots at TV until the light finally came on for him.