Television's first scandal Reliving the quiz show hoax

January 06, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

THIS WASN'T just some small-time confidence operation, a couple of sleazy characters taking an old lady's savings. The 1950s quiz-show scandal was a con game that duped a nation.

"Even now, when I watch the kinescopes of those shows, I think they're real," said producer Michael Lawrence. "They were great at what they did."

"They" are the producers of such programs as "The $64,000 Question," "Twenty-One" and "Dotto," some of the first children that television produced.

These weren't plays or variety shows that took place before the camera, or even comedies moved over from radio. No, the quiz shows were pure television, demonstrating the power of this nascent medium to mesmerize the country with nothing more than a bit of drama and a dollop of personality.

The nation took to these game shows like grandparents doting on the newest baby in the family. They were real-life Frank Capra movies: John Does picked randomly from the populace and sent to stardom on the back of that great equalizer of the classes -- education and knowledge.

According to "The Quiz Show Scandal," a documentary produced by Baltimorean Lawrence and Julian Krainen for PBS' "American Experience," it was eventually class warfare that brought the shows tumbling to the ground. The story, told with a skillful blending of recent interviews, vintage footage and still photographs, will be on Maryland Public Television (channels 22 and 67) tonight at 9 o'clock.

The stage for the quiz shows' downfall was "Twenty-One." The stooge was one Herbert Stempel.

Stempel had first been promoted as a poor-boy-makes-good, working his way up the big money ladder, answering question after rigged question as the elaborate staging of "Twenty-One" went far beyond the subtle maneuverings of "The $64,000 Question." But the appeal of Stempel's thick-glasses nerdishness was waning.

Enter the classic American hero, Charles Van Doren. Handsome (great cheekbones, blue eyes that would eventually grace the cover of Time), well-bred (son of the prize-winning poet Mark), well-educated (a literature professor at Columbia), Van Doren was a perfect TV star.

Stempel was to take a dive. The question he missed was excruciating -- the Oscar winner for best film in 1955. He knew good and well it was "Marty," but he was told to say, after the appropriate pauses and mopping of the brow, "On the Waterfront."

"Of course he knew it was 'Marty.' This guy was Marty," Lawrence said of Stempel's resemblance to Ernest Borgnine's classic character. "He told us he had seen 'Marty' something like five times."

Stempel was one of the major sources for "The Quiz Show Scandal." Another is the man who choreographed Stempel's fateful dance, Dan Enright, who is now once again a successful producer but who then was the brains behind "Twenty-One."

"We got the idea for this about a year ago after hearing Enright interviewed on Larry King's show," Lawrence said. "We wrote up a proposal for 'American Experience' and they accepted it right away."

Lawrence and Krainen then went about finding as many participants in the scandals as possible.

"We started with the New York and Los Angeles phone books and found most of the names," said Lawrence, interviewed in his St. Paul Place offices.

"Most of them were successful people, producers making a lot of money. Sometimes we would just get a long silence when we'd say why we were calling. Others were willing to talk and tell us all kinds of things, but not on camera. Even 35 years later, they are still haunted by this."

They landed Stempel, in large part because he had grown up in the same Forest Hills, N.Y., neighborhood as Krainen. Van Doren agreed to talk, but then reneged, apparently due to an argument with his wife over coming out of hiding. Other producers, announcers and contestants spoke for the cameras.

Eventually, watching the documentary, you realize that Enright, who at first seems like such a low-life for what he did, at least was willing to come clean for the sake of history.

When Van Doren won the rigged show and immediately vaulted into huge public prominence on the strength of his patrician appeal, Stempel found himself suddenly relegated to the scrap heap of former celebrities. He plotted his revenge, blowing the whistle on the elaborate fraud.

"The Quiz Show Scandal" details the various evidence that led to the meteoric downfall of the big-money quiz shows in 1959. But it also subtly makes the case that this was more than just a tempest in a pop-culture teapot.

In the '50s, the big institutions of the country -- the government, the media, big business -- were trusted authorities. And now it was revealed that one of them had lied to the public, big time.

That distrust of large institutions has continued and multiplied in the years since, in part, perhaps, because the lesson many took away from this scandal was not the shame and degradation of such corruption, but rather how easily the American people were duped by this fantastic medium of television, and how much money was made in the process.

Politicians, evangelists, pro wrestlers and plenty of talk-show hosts have trod down the path Enright and company blazed. And, the occasional Watergate scandal notwithstanding, many of them have walked away richer for the experience.

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