In the days before I went off to school, or on long summer days, I left the lunch table and retreated into the cool recesses of my family's house on Guilford Avenue. There, atop the ancient Steiff piano, was a Sylvania television set. And each weekday at 1 p.m. "The Quiz Club" arrived.
Its hosts were two pleasant Baltimoreans, Brent Gunts and Jay Grayson, who died Tuesday. The breezy Brent Gunts contrasted with the serious tones of Jay Grayson, who looked as if he might have been a high school science teacher. Jay Grayson was often droll, a natural foil for his partner. He had an interesting way of hesitating before speaking in his deep, comforting voice, which resonated with authority.
I seem to recall that Jay Grayson also wore natty sport coats as he went through the afternoon's drill, with, of course, his trademark black nerd glasses.
The afternoon began with a happily sung musical introduction, "Hurry Mary, get the dictionary, it's `The Quiz Club.' " We were off and running.
"The Quiz Club" was pure 1950s live television. It was also pure Baltimore.
And like the city where it originated, the show was executed on a low budget. Prizes were foil-wrapped Esskay hams, cases of Goetze's caramel cream candies and dinner for two at Jimmy Wu's New China Inn restaurant. But people watched it - and it was far more fun than the leaden "Dialing for Dollars" and other local dreadfuls. (Its only competitor in the high camp department was a variety show called "The Collegians.")
Most of the contestants on the show were women, but on occasion a man would be on the panel. If he answered a question correctly, and got to dip his hand into the grab bag for a prize, his winning was invariably a corset.
"The Quiz Club" ruled the 1 p.m. airwaves in the 1950s and must have lasted until 1961, when I was in fifth grade. I can recall being summoned to the playroom at the old Visitation Academy in Roland Park, where classes were briefly interrupted for a special appearance of the school's mother's club on "The Quiz Club" that day. Just like home, there was a black-and-white television on the top of the school auditorium's upright piano normally used for Christmas carols and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
It came as a surprise to me, but there was my mother, all dressed up, on camera, as one of the dozen "Quiz Club" contestants. (By the way, although I watched "The Quiz Club," she did not, and thought the show a waste of time.) Like Mr. Grayson, she wore her serious glasses too - ever a sign she meant business.
According to my highly prejudicial memory, she was the star of the show. Her hand darted up and down to answer the quiz questions, including one tricky one regarding the Caroline Islands. She walked away with three gifts, including a pair of salt and pepper shakers. She was also the big winner by correctly getting the mystery name, the name alluded to in the answers to the show's 20 questions. The mystery answer was Jacqueline Kennedy.
We students at the school knew "The Quiz Club," but the cloistered nuns who taught us did not. They applauded wildly and began cheering too. I can still see Sister Mary Maurice calling out, "Come on, Stewart," a reference to my mother's first name.
The show had an unintentional humorous side. Kitty Heyrman, one of my mother's friends, answered a question correctly and won a box of chocolates. Arriving home, she opened the sweets only to discover they were plastic - a prop for the television camera's bright lights. Her family was not delighted.
At home, we savored my mother's big victory and all had a good laugh thanks to Brent Gunts and Jay Grayson, those genial hosts of the post-luncheon hour.