Feel-good reality shows conjure `Queen for a Day'

It was profitable to have been utterly miserable, contestants found

Television: DVDs

July 03, 2005|By Roger Catlin | Roger Catlin,HARTFORD COURANT

It's no longer enough on reality shows to outwit, outlast and outplay, to quote the bywords of Survivor.

Now, you need tears.

An increasing number of the most popular network reality shows feature winners who deeply deserve a break or a big prize. Humiliation has made way for helping. These shows alleviate such human misery as job loss or a death in the family by piling on lavish home makeovers with over-the-top accessories that guarantee a good cry at the end.

There are more "feel-good" reality shows on the way, with CBS developing Reunion, which tracks down missing family members, and Crossroads, which gives participants a glimpse at what their lives might have been like had they made a different choice in the past.

ABC's forthcoming Miracle Worker will feature a team of doctors providing urgently needed medical care for those who can't get it. At NBC this fall, on Three Wishes, Amy Grant will travel to small towns to do everything from solving a family medical crisis to saving the job of a dedicated teacher.

Each of these emotion-packed shows harks back to one of broadcasting's pioneering shows, Queen for a Day. That Cinderella program, which rewarded tears with toaster ovens, started 60 years ago on radio, when it was called Queen for Today.

Though he didn't originate it, host Jack Bailey joined the show its first year and was forever associated with it as it moved to daytime TV in 1956, first on NBC through 1960 and then on ABC from 1960 to 1964.

There wasn't much to it, but those who remember seeing it won't likely forget it.

Four women from the audience were chosen to tell their wishes, usually associated with some glum tale of paralysis or death at home, a runaway husband or terrible working conditions. If the contestant cried too much while telling her tale, an "electronic curtain" (actually a black box superimposed in the control room), was lowered to give her privacy.

After each story, a studio audience in the Moulin Rouge Theater in Hollywood ("the world's largest theater restaurant") determined the winner with the first-ever applause meter - "no stomps or whistles please," Bailey would admonish.

Then the queen was crowned. Overcome with emotion, she got a robe and was led to a throne, where she was nearly buried in four dozen long-stemmed dozen roses from Carl's of Hollywood as she heard the litany of prizes, most of which had nothing to do with her request.

Gone from the airwaves for 35 years (since a 1970 syndicated version with a different host), Queen for a Day is back out on DVD, looking as weird as ever.

A new three-disc package from First Look Media, which comes without booklet, commentary or much of an explanation, purports to contain the only seven surviving episodes of the show that ran nearly 20 years and crowned 5,000 queens.

As a show, Queen for a Day was likely more tied to radio than the new medium: Its announcer, Gene Baker, just as often read commercials as opposed to cutting to them. Bailey clowned on the stage as if he was on a stage show broadcast for radio, wiggling his hands behind Baker as if trying to distract him, wagging his foot-long microphone, hooking his thumbs in his lapel pockets and seriously winging it on the live shows, often interrupting his own thoughts.

A lot of the show was the 50ish Bailey. With his slicked-back hair and pencil mustache, the one-time cartoon voice for Disney's Goofy was an odd presence on TV then or now. It's no surprise he began his career as a carnival barker, as his voice expands to bellow the show's trademark beginning, "Would YOU like to be QUEEN for a DAY!"

The women who appear in the DVD episodes are mostly terrified, perhaps because they're on TV, perhaps because they have to deal with Bailey, who resembles a smiling Thomas E. Dewey. He doesn't seem to help matters as he tries to hold their hands, interrupt them and coax out their sob stories.

To the most horrific news, about a baby's brain tumor or a little girl's fatal crash, he'd usually just cock his head and say, "How about that? You don't say?" then quickly follow: "Do you have any other children?"

Though he endeavored to keep the tone light, the sad stories of the women, mostly culled from Southern California, eked out a portrait of desperation not far removed from the Dust Bowl just a generation or two earlier.

Hard-working, careworn women with Midwestern accents told of their bad jobs, husbands out of work or jalopies on their last legs. One asked for a hole to be cut in her ceiling so the babies upstairs could get some heat. Another, who described herself as "adrift" after the death of her husband six months earlier, seems essentially homeless.

Instinctively, the Iowa-born Bailey knew most of the contestants were from other parts of the country before they settled in L.A. suburbs like Hawthorne or Downey.

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