October 10, 1907 – Arlene Francis:
“Trouble is a sieve through which we sift our acquaintances. Those too big to pass through are our friends.”
An only child and a little bit spoiled, I had a small television in my room as a kid in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was a small black and white set with a length of tin foil reaching across the rabbit-eared antennae that had to be moved around to catch different channels (there were only four). Because I lived on a different floor from the parental units, I was able to enjoy television with the volume low late into the night. I loved television. It was my friend.
On Sunday nights at 10:30pm, I watched What’s My Line?, a guessing game show where the four panelists would try to determine the “line of work” (occupation) of a guest. When it was a famous mystery guest, the panel would try and determine the identity of the celebrity while blindfolded. The panelists were required to ask only “yes or no” questions. A typical episode featured two standard rounds, plus the mystery guest round.
It remains the longest-running primetime network television game show. The handsome host was John Charles Daly, a broadcast journalist and network executive. In World War II, he was the first correspondent to report the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The regular panelists were journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, witty publisher Bennett Cerf (with comedian Steve Allen subbing for Cerf on occasion) and Arlene Francis, plus a fourth guest panelist.
It was a very different era and What’s My Line? paid attention to manners and class. The men were in suits and the women wore formal gowns and gloves. In fact, most of the guys wore black suits with bow ties, and a few guests in fact wore tuxedos. Female panelists donned formal gowns and often gloves.
The game followed a line of formality and adherence to its rules. Daly usually addressed guests and panelists with their surnames. He would also amiably chide the panel if they talked among themselves without first asking him. Yet it wasn’t all that stodgy, Daly would trade bon mots with the panelists during the game, and Cerf would make puns. Cerf also made fun of Daly’s full name, “John Charles Patrick Croghan Daly”, rarely getting it right over the course of the series.
To begin a round, Daly would invite the contestant to “enter and sign in, please.” The contestant entered and wrote his or her name on a small chalkboard. Daly would then ask where the guest lived. With a woman, he would ask if she should be addressed as “Miss” or “Mrs.”
The 876th and final CBS telecast of What’s My Line? aired in September 1967; it was highlighted by clips from past telecasts, a visit by the show’s first contestants, a challenger from the New York unemployment office, and the final mystery guest, was Daly himself.
What’s My Line? won three Emmy Awards for “Best Quiz Show” and a Golden Globe for Best TV Show of 1962.
Woody Allen parodied What’s My Line? in his film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), with a segment featuring a game show called What’s My Perversion? Appearing as panelists were Robert Q. Lewis, who had been a guest panelist on the original What’s My Line?; dishy Pamela Mason, who had been a mystery guest; and Jack Barry, who had been caught up in the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s, hosted “What’s My Perversion?”.
Watching What’s My Line? I was drawn especially to Francis, who worked as an actor, with 25 Broadway plays to her credit through 1975. She made her film debut in Universal’s Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932). She plays James Cagney‘s wife in One, Two, Three (1961), directed by Billy Wilder; and she was in The Thrill Of It All (1963) with James Garner. Her final film performance was in Wilder’s Fedora (1978)
She possessed a jaunty, good-natured personality, perfect for 1950s/1960s television. She was the highest-earning game show panelist in the 1950s, making $1000 ( $11,000 in 2019 dollars) per show for What’s My Line?.
She remained a panelist on What’s My Line? for 25 years. She dispensed upbeat charm and humor on the show, and the show made her a national star. She exchanged lighthearted banter with other panelists, and I found her to be the essence of grownup Manhattan sophistication.
Francis was a pioneer for women on television, one of the first to host a program. From 1954-57, she was host and editor-in-chief of Home, an hour-long daytime magazine program oriented toward women on NBC.
She was born Arline Francis Kazanjian in Boston. Her Armenian father was studying art in Paris at 16 years old when he learned that both his parents had died in one of the massacres perpetrated by the Turkish government in Turkey between 1894 and 1896. The Hamidian Massacres of Armenians resulted 300,000 killed with 50,000 orphaned children. It is the sort of genocide that Turkey seems to be especially fond of perpetrating. He immigrated to the United States of America and became a portrait photographer, opening his own studio in Boston in the early 20th century. Later in life, he became a noted landscape painter.
When Francis was seven years old, her father moved the family to a flat in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan. She remained a New York City resident until 1993.
Her first love was always the stage, but television overtook her theatre career. In 1988 Francis said she somehow let the theater go:
”I don’t know quite why. Television took over with such strength. I was working in every phase of it and I thought, ‘Maybe I ought to do this for a little while,’ and I was caught up in it. I got so much pleasure out of ‘What’s My Line?’. There were no rehearsals. You’d just sit there and be yourself and do the best you could.”
Francis’s first marriage lasted a decade and ended in 1945. Her second marriage was to actor Martin Gabel; married from 1946 until his death in 1986. Gabel was a frequent guest panelist on What’s My Line? where the couple would coo at each other.
In 1949, they had a son, Peter Gabel, who is an associate editor of Tikkun, a Jewish commentary magazine. In 1964 he surprised his mother as a contestant on What’s My Line? where he stumped the panel, including his mother. He lives in San Francisco and is an outspoken supporter of Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, LGBTQ Rights and is a Climate Change activist.
Francis had a heart-shaped diamond pendant, a gift from her husband, which she wore on most of her What’s My Line appearances. In 1988, a mugger robbed her of the pendant.
Soon after her radio program was canceled, Francis began showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease and went to live in a retirement home in San Francisco to be closer to her son. Her final credits rolled in 2001, taken by Alzheimer’s at 93.