top of page

What Was Their Line?

My wife and I have recently become fans of an old television game show from the Fifties. You might say that we've almost become What's My Line? junkies.

The show, hosted by John Charles Daly, featured four celebrity panelists who tried to guess the occupation (the "line" of work) of a guest by asking him or her questions that could only be answered with a "yes" or "no." (Well, sometimes Daly would allow the guest to say "maybe" or "sometimes.")

About once a week, a celebrity "mystery guest" would be featured, for which the panelist had to wear masks so they couldn't identify the star by sight. The guests, who usually tried to disguise their voices or answer by various grunts or groans, included such people as Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto (the first mystery guest to appear on the show), Giants outfielder and slugger Willie Mays, and other baseball players who happened to be in New York; Mickey Rooney, Doris Day, Danny Kaye, Sammy Davis Jr., and other film stars; and Broadway play actors, singers, or dancers. Even a young Billy Graham made an appearance as a mystery guest.

The panel had three long-running members--Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, and Bennett Cerf. The fourth seat on the panel was like a revolving door, featuring a variety of people, usually a comedian. Included among those were Steve Allen, Fred Allen (not related), Jack Parr, Johnny Carson, Victor Borge, and Joey Bishop, among others.

The program debuted on February 2, 1950, and aired until September 3, 1967. It was later revived with different personnel and even ran in syndication, but its hey-day of popularity was during the Fifties and early Sixties. It aired in black and white until going to color in 1966. It also was aired on NBC radio from May 20 to August 27, 1952, and after that on CBS radio until July 1, 1953.

As my wife and I have watched the various episodes, our curiosity has been piqued about the lives of the host and main panelists. Following are some of the more interesting details we've learned about them.

John Charles Daly (Feb. 20, 1914-Feb. 24, 1991)

A graduate of Boston College, Daly became a reporter for the CBS station in Washington, D.C., and its White House correspondent. He also had a program for which he conducted man-on-the-street interviews, asking passersby quiz questions.

In 1941, Daly was transfered to New York City, where he was anchor of The World Today broadcast. He had the distinction of being the first reporter to announce the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was soon transfered to London, from which he reported war news, also going to the war fronts in North Africa and Italy. He also reported from the D-day invasion of Normandy. He was the first reporter to announce the death of President Roosevelt.

After the war, Daly was lead reporter for a program called CBS Is There, a forerunner of Walter Cronkite's later You Are There. He was present as well in Moscow from which he reported the "kitchen debate" between Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon. (Daly is on the far left in the photo.)

For all his vast news reporting, however, Daly is best remembered for his role as host of What's My Line?

Dorothy Kilgallen (July 3, 1913-Nov. 8, 1965)

At the age of only 18 and with only two semesters at the College of New Rochelle behind her, Dorothy Kilgallen became a reporter for the New York Evening Journal. Seven years later, she had her own column titled The Voice of Broadway in which she discussd show business news and gossip. It eventually was carried in more than 140 newspapers across the nation.

In 1936, Kilgallen had competed with two other reporters in a race around the world, using any form of transportation they could manage to find. Although she came in second, she wrote a book about her adventures--Girl Around the World.

During World War II, Kilgallen turned her column into a radio program titled Voice of Broadway. After the war, she covered the murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was convicted. However, after the judge in the trial died, she swore that the judge had been biased against the defendant from the start and had declared that he was bound and determined to convict him. As a result, Sheppard was later retried and acquitted.

Kilgallen stirred more controversy when she wrote in her column some unflattering things about Frank Sinatra and questioned the veracity of the Warren Commission's report on the assassination of President Kennedy.

In 1960, Kilgallen was among the first 100 stars to get a star on the "Hollywood Walk of Fame."

She died on November 8, 1965, allegedly from an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates.

Arlene Francis (Oct. 20, 1907-May 31, 2001)

Francis was an actress and radio and television talk show host who also performed in 25 Broadway plays. She appeared in her first movie in 1932, starring opposite Bela Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue. During the Sixties, she would star in movies with James Cagney, James Garner, Doris Day, and other big-name Hollywood stars.

Francis hosted a television show called simply Home on NBC. It was geared toward female viewers. Continuing in the homemaker role, she also published a cookbook titled No Time for Cooking in 1961.

She was said to have been the highest paid panelist on What's My Line? at $1,000 a week. The second highest was Kilgallen at $500 a week. Both amounts were well above the $50 winnings the guests received--if they skunked the entire panel.

Francis died from Alzheimer's on May 31, 2001.

Bennett Cerf (May 25, 1898-Aug. 27, 1971)

Bennett Cerf graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism and worked briefly as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune.

Cerf was soon vice president of the publishing company Boni & Liveright. Later, along with Donald Kopfer, he bought the rights to Modern Library and began publishing books the two had selected "at random." Their firm soon became known as Random House.

As publisher, Cerf released works by William Faulkner, James Michener, Truman Capote, Theodor Seuss Geisel, Ayn Rand, and other now-famous authors. He was also the founder of the Famous Writers School.

Cerf spent 16 years on What's My Line? and was noted for the puns and jokes he spun on the show, although he was not a comedian.

Cerf died on August 27, 1971. His autobiography, At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf, was published posthumously the same year.

If you're not familiar with What's My Line? or its principals, watch a few episodes on YouTube. I think that you, like we, will soon be hooked. Its good, clean fun makes the overly scripted "reality" and "talent" shows of today seem lame by contrast.

12 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page