Thursday, January 10, 2013

Meeting My "Match!"

Mercy, things have been nuts in The Underworld lately! It's like someone opened a stop-gap at work and it's all been headed my way. As a result, I haven't been able to blather on here in my preferred manner. To bridge the gap until my next post, I'm going to ruminate a little about one of my favorite game shows. Posting a recent pick of Jo Anne Worley on Match Game sort of whetted my appetite for more on that program.


Match Game first saw the light of day all the way back in late 1962 (when it was called The Match Game.) The pilot episode for the series involved two celebrity guests, Peggy Cass (later to become a fixture on To Tell the Truth) and Peter Lind Hayes (a then-famous comic singer and TV sitcom actor.) They each headed a team of three and sought to match answers amongst themselves to such benign questions as “Name a kind of muffin.” Then points would be earned for matches within the teams and the first one to reach 100 points proceeded to a bonus round, which involved matching an audience survey.

The host of that very first pilot and the resultant program was none other than Gene Rayburn, a radio personality and sometime actor who had just come off a run on Broadway as Dick Van Dyke's replacement in the smash hit Bye Bye Birdie. Rayburn would come to be known as the face of Match Game from 1962 until the mid-'80s (and is, of course, still the only host to have made any sort of impression with it in many peoples' eyes.)
Having been picked up as a series, the first episode aired on New Year's Eve of 1962 and this time featured Miss Arlene Francis (already a cornerstone of What's My Line?) and Skitch Henderson (a multi-talented composer and band leader who worked on The Tonight Show.) It was produced in New York City. With such scintillating questions such as “John loves his _____” and “Name a flavor of pudding,” the show ran into ratings trouble and was cancelled before the end of its first season.

Producer Mark Goodson (who was a game show legend, co-creating with Bill Todson such programs as Beat the Clock, Password, The Price is Right, I've Got a Secret, What's My Line?, Card Sharks and Family Feud) thus didn't see any point in worrying when one of the show's writers submitted a question that could be seen as suggestive, even perverse.

Dick DeBartolo posed the question, “Mary likes to pour gravy all over John's ______” and Goodson allowed it and others. Remarkably, in the wake of these potentially hilarious questions (which caused titters amongst the panelists and audience, but were nonetheless answered with restraint by the contestants) the ratings began to bounce back up! No less than Miss Jayne Mansfield (complete with dog in tow!) appeared as a panelist on at least one occasion, her competitor on this day being comedian Orson Bean. Bean would return years later on the '70s version of the show, as well as on many others including To Tell the Truth.


For most of the next five years, The Match Game won its time slot and became a top three hit amongst all daytime game shows. It was still doing well ratings-wise when NBC cancelled it in 1969 as part of a scheduling-marketing change in their daytime line-up. Most of those involved with The Match Game figured that it had moved on to that big bonus round in the sky. For his part, writer DeBartolo was hardly unemployed. He had managed to secure a steady position at the notoriously irreverent Mad magazine and holds a record for having had material of his published in the most consecutive issues (from 1966 – 2009!) That's him on the far right with Rayburn during a much later appearance with trash-TV host Geraldo Rivera.

But as it turned out, DeBartolo's warped sense of humor would find itself being put to use again, but this time in an all-new updating (this time on CBS) called Match Game '73! This time, there would be only two contestants and those two would do their best (over the course of two rounds) to match a six-pack of celebrity panelists. Again, Gene Rayburn would host. The first week of shows had the following panelists: Michael Landon, Vicki Lawrence, Jack Klugman, Jo Ann Pflug, Richard Dawson and Anita Gillette. Richard Dawson would become a permanent fixture, as would Charles Nelson Reilly and, at her husband Jack Klugman's express suggestion, Brett Somers.

Now with the 1970s in swing, the colorful program opened each episode with a twinkling, twirling portal that showed each star's face as the legendary announcer Johnny Olson (of The Price is Right fame -- “Come on down!”) called their name. Needless to say, this method of opening the show was and is my all-time favorite and I love to see who will be the next face revealed as the portal spins around!

As funky electric guitar music hummed, Olson, with his distinctive voice would say, "Get ready to match the stars!" One never knew WHO was going to pop up as the window revolved!
Again, the questions were suggestive (such as "After being hit by a steamroller, Norman had to slide his ______ under the door."), but now there was a tad more freedom in what the panelists could list as their answer. Even so, boobs and buns were about as far as anyone dared go. If genitalia, or anything very close to such, was mentioned, it was bleeped out and blacked out before airing! This lent a charming sort of wink-wink bent to the proceedings as the people involved would push the envelope of certain questions without ever actually opening it.
Match Game '73 was an instant hit, immediately becoming not only the #1 game show on television, but sometimes the #1 show on daytime, period! Host Rayburn (and his memorable long-necked microphone) began to abandon the buttoned-up, staid qualities that he'd generally displayed on the original program and proceeded to enjoy the loosey-goosey atmosphere of the new incarnation.

One reason the show got wackier as the week went on was that five shows were filmed in one day and five the next over the course of a Saturday and Sunday. Rayburn lived in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and would fly to Los Angeles, where the new show was taped, every two weeks, meaning that an entire month's worth of episodes were created in just four days. (With little to no preparation required beforehand, this was quite the cushy job! Wheel of Fortune has always been done the same way which means that Vanna White basically works four days a month, though she also has wardrobe fittings, promotional blurbs, occasional trips, etc... to deal with as well.)

Since a dinner break was called for towards the end of the day's taping – during which the host and panelists would often have a drinkie-poo – it soon became evident that the Thursday and Friday installments tended to be even more fun that then others and were particularly “can't miss.” Somers and Reilly reveled in taking pot-shots at one another, he ribbing her about her looks and she (and he himself) joshing about his less-than-burly manner.

Dawson, meanwhile, became extremely popular thanks to his proficiency in the bonus round, in which contestants had to match one celebrity of their choice (which was almost always Dawson) in completing a certain phrase (for example, “Tough _____” or “______ Chicken.”) He frequently took on a mincing quality meant to ape Hollywood Squares' Paul Lynde, though it was different enough (or bad enough?) that it only vaguely resembled its source.

Recurring characters would pop up in the (now lengthier and more involved) questions including Old Man Periwinkle, Horrible Hannah, Ugly Edna and, memorably, Dumb Dora and Dumb Donald. Rayburn would start a question, “Dumb Dora is so dumb...” to which the audience would roar back, “How dumb is she?!” As it continued, Match Game audiences grew more and more enthusiastic and vocal, sometimes to the delight, but sometimes also to the consternation, of the participants.
On many occasions, things would go haywire as Rayburn, Somers, Reilly, Dawson and Miss TV herself, frequent guest Betty White, would depart from the norm and get up from their seats to take part in all sorts of mayhem. Rayburn crashed through his entry door, White engaged in a fauz-striptease as bump 'n grind music played, Reilly fell to the floor in faux pain, Dawson ran out to kiss women in the audience and Rayburn drew a halt to the proceedings to fix broken mics or chairs.


Reilly, who had one of the most hideous toupees ever, would often take to wearing hats on the show while it was being “worked on.” One one occasion, he stunned viewers by briefly showing them his bald noggin under the Panama hat he had been wearing. Ironically, like Rayburn, he'd also gotten his Broadway start in 1960's Bye Bye Birdie (albeit in a small role) and would later act and direct several times on The Great White Way.

From 1973 to 1977 (with the name of the show augmented to fit each new calendar year), Match Game ruled the daytime airwaves and was a favorite program to many folks, young, old and in-between. In 1975, a weekly nighttime version called Match Game PM was introduced (with one episode being filmed at the tail end of each Saturday and Sunday tape day), which often featured stars of an even more notable caliber than the ones who often figured into the daytime version. This was a self-contained format (never spilling into a second episode) that I, as a structured type, appreciated a lot. It ran until 1981 and yielded 230 episodes.

At least two famous folks were contestants on Match Game before they'd made their mark. One was NFL coach and commentator Brian Billick (who now writes for MSN.com), shown here in all his lantern-jawed, leather-jacketed glory. Another was Kirstie Alley, miffed from the start at Rayburn's mispronunciation of her then-unusual first name and acting rather above it all throughout.
Things on the show began to sour a bit when 1978 brought the Star Wheel. By now, the finale of each game was more or less Richard Dawson's moment in the sun. For whatever reason, the powers that be decided to mix it up by putting the panelists' names on a huge wheel that the contestants would spin to see who they'd be trying to match in the bonus round. Not only did this lead to many mismatches in answers, but it took the wind out of Dawson's sails (who, by now, had his own mega-hit show Family Feud.) Things were never the same after this.

Dawson departed Match Game in 1978 after several months of surly demeanor and rotating male celebrities were placed in his signature spot such as McLean Stevenson and Robert Donner. At its peak, it had drawn 12.5 million viewers, setting records in daytime ratings that stood until General Hospital caught fire several years later with its “Luke and Laura” storyline. Now, after Dawson's departure and unsuccessful fiddling with the show's time slot (and, of course, the unavoidable slide in popularity that virtually all programs face eventually), the show was removed from CBS in 1979.
The series still had enough drawing power, though, to continue in a syndicated version and did so until 1982, adding three more years to its overall run. After this, various attempts were made to recapture the success of the '70s version, but none of them could make it. NBC bit once more with 1983's The Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour, with Rayburn still hosting his half, but it didn't even last a year. A 1990 incarnation with Ross Shafer and a 1998 one with Michael Burger both tanked. This last one only featured five celebs in an effort to scale back... (In both 1985 and 1987, attempts were made to re-launch the show with Rayburn, but they didn't come to fruition.
Other tries have been made to get the show going again (including a bizarre re-working of it in 1996 with Dallas' Charlene Tilton as the host, which never got past the pilot stage.) Most likely, in this more crass, anything goes era, the entertainingly coy way in which suggestiveness was handled in prior years can never be replicated. Certainly the later editions of the game left much to be desired in their handling of the risque and were instead just crude and unfunny... None but about four episodes of the 1960s Match Game exist thanks to the practice of wiping/erasing tapes after each broadcast, but practically all of the '70s rendition have been saved for posterity.

By now, all of the principal on-camera participants from the glory days of Match Game have gone on to that great big bonus round in the sky. Rayburn died in 1999 at age eight-one of heart failure. Reilly passed away of pneumonia in 2007 at age seventy-six. Somers was gone just several months later of colon and stomach cancer at age eighty-three. The last of the four, Dawson, was taken by esophageal cancer just last year at age seventy-nine. With them, they took some of the funniest moments in game show history, but thankfully their legacy lives on through rebroadcasts of their hilarious shenanigans.

8 comments:

NotFelixUnger said...

Another post with soooo many memories attached. I would watch this non-stop and would laugh at the off-color humor and risqué language even though I didn't understand 3/4s of what the heck they were talking about!

There was one episode when a particularly dull female answered her question (I can't remember the question!) suggesting Ms. Brett Somers was the inspiration for a "bring-the-ugliest-date" party. I wanted to reach through the TV and strangle the contestant. Rayburn beat me to it. He wished upon her some horrible communicable disease to take home with her as a consolation prize after losing. I tell you, chivalry was alive that day! I loved the rivalry between Somers and CNR. You could tell each one loved getting under the other's skin and pushing the envelope to see how far they could go.

Thanks for the memories!

joel65913 said...

Love Match Game! Occasionally GSN will have a marathon which is a delicious treat. Brett and Charles are priceless and I too love the anticipation of who is going to show up in those boxes. Sometimes one of the guests is someone so arcane that even a google search yields little info but then there are the times when someone fascinating and rare like Mary Wickes or Ethel Merman is there and it adds a whole other level of fun.

I usually prefer game shows that require skill and thought like Password, the $100,000 Pyramid or What's My Line but the fun and infectious spirit of Match Game pulls me in whenever I run across it and I have to stop and watch the rest of the episode.

The networks would never be able to duplicate it now. Even if they didn't turn it into a loud flashy vulgar sideshow the kind of celebrities that the show thrived on are almost impossible to find today.

Scooter said...

Match Game was always so much fun. I remember watching it as a kid and thinking it was "so grown up"!

Poseidon3 said...

Not Felix, sort how it is when you are allowed to playfully diss one of your friends, but God help the stranger who does it?

Joel, obviously I agree with your comments. Did you see none other than Shelley Winters pictured above?! And Della Reese and Cass Elliott? I love that about Match Game. The time I turned it on and the first face was Tab Hunter, I almost lost a vocal chord....

Scooter, I'm right there with you. I thought Gene Rayburn, with his low laugh and severe face, was the most dirty, adult, carnal person ever! I was the planet's most naive child, though. Looking at him now, I can see that generally he was just very knowing, well-read and really pretty tasteful!

Ana Maria said...

Dear Mr. Poseidon,
I just turn around to say you "Happy New Year". I hope I will have more time to read your blog this year.
(I cannot comment about your text because I know none of the television games you describe. But I can tell you something : in the 70's there was a massive attack of orange colour !!!)
All the best for your blog and your.

Michael Strangeways said...

Terrific article, as always, but there's a boo boo in it...the CLASSIC Match Game of the 70's was on CBS and not on NBC!

Poseidon3 said...

Ana Maria, always wonderful to hear from you. Thanks!!

Michael, so sorry for that typo. I've fixed it. The classic version was on NBC, the '70s one on CBS and then the Hollywood Squares combo on NBC again. (and the 1990 on on ABC!) Somehow in all that I just got my letters confused. No one who watched the show originally could forget that tag on the end with Olson saying, "Stay tuned for Love of Life (or Tattletales) on most of these CBS stations..." !! Thanks for finding that and alerting me to it! ;-)

Chuck Kopsho said...

I loved Match Game 7X. The whol.e concept was a rousing success. When Goodson-Todman reworked both "Match Game", and "The Price is Right", I knew that both shows would do a lot better than their predecessors. TPIR is still getting those great ratings. Goodson-Todman struck gold when they revived those wonderful shows.