Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.
---broadcastellan.

Friday, September 22, 2006

An Unfinished Product

So you thought Beat the Clock was a peripatetic television stunt game? You thought it was just genial Bud Collyer (radio's former Superman) bobbing and weaving between hapless guests who were as likely to get a faceful of cream as a brand new television set before they finished their cartoonish stunts?

Meet the original Beat the Clock, birthed on radio about a year or two before its television matriculation and alteration.

Attention all uninitiated listeners. Here on stage, there’s five big clocks. They can pay fifty dollars, a hundred dollars, a hundred and fifty dollars, two hundred, two hundred and fifty dollars, three hundred, three---nooo, two hundred and fifty dollars, all in terrific prizes. The faster you answer, the more you make on each one. If you can beat all five clocks, you get seven hundred and fifty dollars in Beat the Clock prizes, and a chance to solve our Time Rhyme, and open the Time Capsule, and here’s Hal Sims to tell you what our Time Capsule contains.

So said Bill Cullen, the original version’s host, after a little banter with his evening’s first contestant. As it happened on this particular night, the Time Capsule contained a round trip from Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle to two weeks in Honolulu, aboard a Pan American Boeing Stratocruiser. (That, ladies and gentlemen, was the long-range airliner that looked as though someone decided to just plop a wider-tubed upper fuselage atop a B-29 bomber.)

“You will stay for two thrill-packed weeks in your own suite in the beautiful Hali-Kolani Hotel,” crooned announcer Sims. “During your stay, you will be the guest of Don the Beachcomber, for a real Hawaiian feast, with authentic hula-hula dancers.”

“We-elll, now we’re getting somewhere,” hollered Cullen. It was probably the best laugh on the night for him. He wasn't exactly a finished product in 1949. With writers such as provided his copy that night, his awkward enough ad-libs had to allow for considering the sources. He might have been left lucky he wasn't pronounced finished, period.

“Thank you, Hal. I’m glad—I was on a show the other night, just when they announced my name, the orchestra starts blaring out real loud, the people thought it was John Reid King,” he rapid-fired, following the show’s introduction. “We have Mrs. William Blanks, of Meridian, Mississippi, who came all the way back again, uh, after last time. Mrs. Blanks, did you have a delightful trip?”

“I’ve been through torture the last few minutes,” the lady warbled, in a deep Southern tongue.

“Oh, through torture from . . . last few minutes?” Cullen replied. “These planes are getting faster all the time.”

The lady’s first question of the night went against the hundred dollar clock. Presumably, she’d begun the game late in the previous show and was asked to come back the following week, where she learned the hard way how fast those planes really were getting all the time. Except for the rude interruption of the big-money quiz shows of a decade later, a week’s been no longer than half an hour, for many years, when it comes to transcribing two or even three installments worth of your average game show.

“When I say ‘go,’ Mrs. Blanks,” Cullen began, with the clock poised to knock ten dollars per second off her prize value the longer she needed to answer correctly, “you name any two countries which are partly north of the Arctic Circle.” The lady named Alaska, Labrador, Newfoundland, and Iceland. By the game’s standard she had Alaska right. The show’s fact checkers also assumed Greenland and Siberia independent countries. With time and dollars lost it was worth a five dollar cooker, worth ninety five dollars today. Thanks for playing.

Next contestant? A Larchmont lady on the threshold of marrying a Harvard graduate employed gainfully enough by Pitney-Bowes. “I got my fingers caught in one of those Pitney-Bowes machines, once,” Cullen warbled, “and I woke up in a mail sack in San Francisco.” Those Pitney-Bowes postage meters were getting faster all the time, too.

He managed to introduce her as Mary Jane Buxton, somehow, somewhere between her first words and his fingernails waking him up in San Francisco. Then, she named the Atlantic and the Pacific as the two major bodies of water on either side of Central America. Cullen let her slide on forgetting the Carribbean was an arm from the Atlantic. Thus she won the fifty dollar clock, with two five dollar penalties per second spent before answering.

That was what Cullen called a Harvard question. Asked what he called a Princeton question, the sum of two, four, and six bits in dollars, Miss Buxton scrambled her way to spending forty dollars (four seconds spent on the clock) to win sixty dollars for a buck fifty answer. The federal budget made only slightly more sense. Converting Beat the Clock from quiz to stunt made even more sense than that.

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