When was the last time you saw a Surrealist (or even just a surrealist) painter appear on national television? If such a figure did appear on national television today, for that matter, who would know? Perhaps surrealist painting does not, in our time, make the impact it once did, but nor does national television. So imagine what a spectacle it must have been in 1950s America, cradle of the “mass media” as we once knew them, when Salvador Dalí turned up on a major U.S. television network. Such a fabulously incongruous broadcasting event happened more than once, and in these clips we see that, among the “big three,” CBS was especially receptive to his impulsive, otherworldly artistic presence.
On the quiz show What’s My Line?, one of CBS’ most popular offerings throughout the 50s, contestants aimed to guess the occupation of a guest. They did so wearing blindfolds, without which they’d have no trouble pinning down the job of an instantaneously recognizable celebrity like Dalí — or would they? To the panel’s yes-or-no questions, the only kind permitted by the rules, Dalí nearly always responds flatly in the affirmative.
Is he associated with the arts? “Yes.” Would he ever have been seen on television? “Yes.” Would he be considered a leading man? “Yes.” At this host John Charles Daly steps in to clarify that, in the context of the question, Dalí would not, in fact, be considered a leading man. One contestant offers an alternative: “He’s a misleading man!” Few titles have captured the essence of Dalí so neatly.
The artist, showman, and human conscious-altering substance later appeared on The Mike Wallace Interview. Hosted by the formidable CBS newsman well before he became one of the faces of 60 Minutes, the show featured a range of guests from Aldous Huxley and Frank Lloyd Wright to Eleanor Roosevelt and Ayn Rand. In this broadcast, Wallace and Dalí discuss “everything from surrealism to nuclear physics to chastity to what artists in general contribute to the world,” as Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova describes it. A curious if occasionally bemused Wallace, writes The Wallbreakers’ Matt Weckel, “asks Dalí such gems as ‘What is philosophical about driving a car full of cauliflowers?’ and ‘Why did you lecture with your head enclosed in a diving helmet?'” But they also seriously discuss “the fear of death, and their own mortality,” topics to which American airwaves have hardly grown more accommodating over the past sixty years.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.