757 Episodes of the Classic TV Game Show What’s My Line?: Watch Eleanor Roosevelt, Louis Armstrong, Salvador Dali & More

What would the host and pan­elists of the clas­sic prime­time tele­vi­sion game show What’s My Line? have made of The Masked Singera more recent offer­ing in which pan­elists attempt to iden­ti­fy celebri­ty con­tes­tants who are con­cealed by elab­o­rate head-to-toe cos­tumes and elec­tron­i­cal­ly altered voiceovers.

One expects such shenani­gans might have struck them as a bit uncouth.

Host John Charles Daly was will­ing to keep the ball up in the air by answer­ing the panel’s ini­tial ques­tions for a Mys­tery Guest with a wide­ly rec­og­niz­able voice, but it’s hard to imag­ine any­one stuff­ing for­mer First Lady Eleanor Roo­sev­elt into the full body steam­punk bee suit the (SPOILER) Empress of Soul wore on The Masked Singer’s first sea­son.

Mrs. Roosevelt’s Oct 18, 1953 appear­ance is a delight, espe­cial­ly her pan­tomimed dis­gust at the 17:29 mark, above, when blind­fold­ed pan­elist Arlene Fran­cis asks if she’s asso­ci­at­ed with pol­i­tics, and Daly jumps in to reply yes on her behalf.

Lat­er on, you get a sense of what play­ing a jol­ly par­lor game with Mrs. Roo­sevelt would have been like. She’s not above fudg­ing her answers a bit, and very near­ly wrig­gles with antic­i­pa­tion as anoth­er pan­elist, jour­nal­ist Dorothy Kil­gallen, begins to home in on the truth.

While the ros­ter of Mys­tery Guests over the show’s orig­i­nal 17-year broad­cast is impres­sive — Cab Cal­lowayJudy Gar­land, and Edward R. Mur­row to name a few — every episode also boast­ed two or three civil­ians hop­ing to stump the sophis­ti­cat­ed pan­el with their pro­fes­sion.

Mrs. Roo­sevelt was pre­ced­ed by a bath­tub sales­man and a fel­low involved in the man­u­fac­ture of Blood­hound Chew­ing Tobac­co, after which there was just enough time for a woman who wrote tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials.

Non-celebri­ty guests stood to earn up to $50 (over $500 today) by pro­long­ing the rev­e­la­tion of their pro­fes­sions, as com­pared to the Mys­tery Guests who received an appear­ance fee of ten times that, win or lose. (Pre­sum­ably, Mrs. Roo­sevelt was one of those to donate her hon­o­rar­i­um.)

The reg­u­lar pan­elists were paid “scan­dalous amounts of mon­ey” as per pub­lish­er Ben­nett Cerf, whose “rep­u­ta­tion as a nim­ble-wit­ted gen­tle­man-about-town was rein­forced by his tenure on What’s My Line?”, accord­ing to Colum­bia University’s Oral His­to­ry Research Office.

The unscript­ed urbane ban­ter kept view­ers tun­ing in. Broad­way actor Fran­cis recalled: “I got so much plea­sure out of ‘What’s My Line?’ There were no rehearsals. You’d just sit there and be your­self and do the best you could.”

Pan­elist Steve Allen is cred­it­ed with spon­ta­neous­ly alight­ing on a bread­box as a unit of com­par­a­tive mea­sure­ment while ques­tion­ing a man­hole cov­er sales­man in an episode that fea­tured June Hav­oc, leg­end of stage and screen as the Mys­tery Guest (at at 23:57, below).

“Want to show us your bread­box, Steve?” one of the female pan­elists fires back off-cam­era.

The phrase “is it big­ger than a bread­box” went on to become a run­ning joke, fur­ther con­tribut­ing to the illu­sion that view­ers had been invit­ed to a fash­ion­able cock­tail par­ty where glam­orous New York scene­mak­ers dressed up to play 21 Pro­fes­sion­al Ques­tions with ordi­nary mor­tals and a celebri­ty guest.

Jazz great Louis Arm­strong appeared on the show twice, in 1954 and then again in 1964, when he employed a suc­cess­ful tech­nique of light mono­syl­lab­ic respons­es to trick the same pan­elists who had iden­ti­fied him quick­ly on his ini­tial out­ing.

“Are you relat­ed to any­body that has any­thing to do with What’s My Line?” Cerf asks, caus­ing Arm­strong, host Daly, and the stu­dio audi­ence to dis­solve with laugh­ter.

“What hap­pened?” Arlene Fran­cis cries from under her pearl-trimmed mask, not want­i­ng to miss the joke.

Tele­vi­sion — and Amer­i­ca itself — was a long way off from acknowl­edg­ing the exis­tence of inter­ra­cial fam­i­lies.

“It’s not Van Clyburn, is it?” Fran­cis ven­tures a cou­ple of min­utes lat­er.…

Expect the usu­al gen­der-based assump­tions of the peri­od, but also appear­ances by Mary G. Ross, a Chero­kee aero­space engi­neer, and physi­cist Helen P. Mann, a data ana­lyst at Cape Canaver­al.

If you find the con­vivial atmos­phere of this sem­i­nal Good­son-Tod­man game show absorb­ing, there are 757 episodes avail­able for view­ing on What’s My Line?’YouTube chan­nel.

Allow us to kick things off on a Sur­re­al Note with Mys­tery Guest Sal­vador Dali, after which you can browse chrono­log­i­cal playlists as you see fit:




1961 ‑63


Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Sal­vador Dalí Gets Sur­re­al with 1950s Amer­i­ca: Watch His Appear­ances on What’s My Line? (1952) and The Mike Wal­lace Inter­view (1958)

How Amer­i­can Band­stand Changed Amer­i­can Cul­ture: Revis­it Scenes from the Icon­ic Music Show

How Dick Cavett Brought Sophis­ti­ca­tion to Late Night Talk Shows: Watch 270 Clas­sic Inter­views Online

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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