What? You haven’t put much thought into this topic? It’s really just me, huh?
Well, anywhoo… Game shows are never not a fun sit. Remember, I’m from the generation that had Regis and Who Wants to be a Millionaire on nightly. It didn’t take me long to venture into more classic game shows, thanks to Match Game reruns on Game Show Network.
Before long, YouTube also morphed into a goldmine for classic game show fans. A number of series (including quite a few deep cuts) have full runs available– thanks to all the hard working amateur archivists out there. There’s such a volume of fun stuff to dive into– as long as you have the patience to look.
Truthfully, this ended up being a very hard list to write. There are so many television personalities out there who easily could rank: Gene Rayburn, Allen Ludden, Burt Convey… the list doesn’t end. So, I’m limiting this list (at this point) to the early years of television as a medium. We’ll get to the 1970s and beyond at some point here…
Without further ado, here are my Top 5: Favorite (Classic Era) Game Show Hosts.
Arlene Francis (1907-2001)
Arlene Francis does deserve noted praise as I dive into this topic. Francis isn’t a new name, especially for fans of classic entertainment. She’s best known as a recurring panelist on What’s My Line, as well as for co-starring turns in films like One, Two, Three! and The Thrill of It All.
What I was surprised to learn is that Arlene Francis is one of the few women to host a game show in the earliest years of television. While women in front of the camera are certainly more commonplace in contemporary popular culture, as our Top 5 would suggest, women were rarely seen fronting series during this era.
Arlene Francis hosted a show called Blind Date going back as far as 1949 and it was she who took the series from its earliest days on radio through its first venture into television in the early 1950s. A quick search over YouTube will also spotlight Francis as a solid recurring guest host for various series throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the easiest to find being her stint standing in for Bill Cullen on the now legendary The Price is Right.
Francis’ story is such a testament to why early television preservation is so important. We’ve lost so much footage (precious little exists showing Blind Date) and with the loss of this cultural record, we’re loosing our pop culture memory of these stories.
Okay, now we’re really getting into the picks!
5.) Bud Collyer (1908-1969)
Bud Collyer is a bit of a late addition to this list, but it’s well deserved. As a fan of classic television in all its forms; for me, BudCollyer has been one of the harder hosts to gain an appreciation for… there’s just fewer available episodes of his longest running works, To Tell the Truth. There’s also the added struggle in that most of the men listed below continued to work, in some cases prolifically, into the 1970s and 1980s. We lost Collyer at the relatively young age of 61 in 1969– when television game shows were really gaining momentum towards the growth they saw in the 1970s.
As I began familiarizing myself with his career, I was fascinated to learn that game show host and television presenter was actually the second incarnation of Collyer’s career. While he’s probably best known to contemporary audiences for his work on To Tell the Truth, Collyer began his career on the radio. His best known role began in the 1940s when he took on the role of Superman in the popular radio serial, The Adventures of Superman. Check it out if you have superhero proclivities, it is definitely a fun listen!
4.) Steve Allen (1921-2000)
Fine, I’ll admit it. I’m cheating a bit here. Steve Allen didn’t enter my consciousness as a game show host. In fact, it wasn’t altogether that long ago that I only really stumbled onto his hosting duties on I’ve Got a Secret.
Steve Allen is probably best known in popular culture as the initial host of The Tonight Show on NBC. Allen earned an early reputation as a boy genius and renaissance man during this era of television. On top of hosting and comedy duties, Allen was also an accomplished musician, writer, song writer and author.
Allen is also known as a game show panelist. He joined What’s My Line as a regular after the death of radio comedian Fred Allen. Steve Allen’s quick witted and highly intellectual comedic sensibilities were a perfect fit for the urbane series of the period. In fact, he’s remembered for his legendary contribution to What’s My Line lore, thanks to his never-fail question, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”.
Allen took a little time to step into hosting duties. In fact, he’s the latest host of the men on this list, taking the reins to I’ve Got a Secret (from original host Gary Moore) beginning in 1964. He would remain with the series until 1967. However, throughout the game show haven that was the 1970s, Allen was regularly seen on the panels of popular shows like Match Game and Tattletales.
3.) John Charles Daly (1914-1991)
Of the five men on this list, I’m inclined to think John Charles Daly is probably the best known, even if his name might not always be the best remembered. Daly (aside from being a newsman on CBS) is immortalized in popular culture as the host of the long-running game show, What’s My Line.
What’s My Line is one of those classic shows that even if you haven’t seen an episode, it is one of the images most conjure when thinking of the this era of game shows. It’s legendary. The series featured a group of celebrity panelists who would attempt to guess the job (or the “line”) of the contestant. The New York based show brought a highly urbane, literary tone, largely thanks to the intellectual Daly, as well as regular panelists Bennett Cerf (the head of Random House publishing), Dorothy Killgalen (a society columnist and crime reporter) and Arlene Francis (a Broadway, sometimes film actress).
Daly brought the calm and steadying tone of a newsman to his control of What’s My Line. In truth, I struggled to warm-up to What’s My Line in my youth… the sophisticated vibe of the show was difficult to wrap my head around. However, with age comes the ability to understand the humor behind Daly’s trademark wordplay…. and his mastery of the English language is truly a thing to behold. Check out some of the highlights in the video below.
2.) Bill Cullen (1920-1990)
Bill Cullen is a name who came into my consciousness embarrassingly late… I say embarrassing, because very few presenters managed to equal his presence in games shows…heck, on television… throughout the middle of the twentieth century. He was always working.
Like most of the Millennial demographic, my first memories of The Price is Right are of syndication airings featuring Bob Barker when I was home sick from school. So, the show has really always been at least a small part of my life (even if I was just waiting for Happy Days to start). However, I’m not sure I ever truly knew that the popular series had a full history before Barker took the reins. The Price is Right is like a cat… it has 9 lives.
My first exposure to Bill Cullen actually came during a YouTube quest for more clips featuring the number one entry on this list (read on!) and I discovered both men working on the delightful 1950s gameshow, The Name’s the Same. I then quickly found my way to Cullen’s regular role on the long-running series, I’ve Got a Secret. However, that’s just a snippet of Cullen’s formidable and legendary career not only on television, but on the radio as well.
Bill Cullen is of course, best known as the host of The Price is Right going back to its 1956 television debut. He remained with the show until 1965. He fought through health problems and lingering physical effects from a childhood bout with polio while continuing to work prolifically into1990s, shortly before his passing. Many Game Show Network viewers might also recognize him from a long tenure on the popular Block Busters.
In a field where there’s a thin line between popular and potentially slimy, Bill Cullen brought a true and real sense of likability to the screen. It didn’t matter the show or the situation, he was always a joy to watch.
1.) Robert Q. Lewis (1921-1991)
Last but certainly not least, Robert Q. Lewis entered my pop culture consciousness early in life, just not as a game show host. Initially a radio presenter, he was also a very early face on television as the medium grew to prominence in the 1950s. By the 1960s, he enjoyed a handful of film roles, most of them on the small side, but always enjoyable. This is where I discovered Robert Q. Lewis… I believe it was in Ski Party. Many might also recognize him from his memorable turn in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
In fact, it wasn’t until very recently that I came to Lewis’ game show work on The Name’s The Same (Thank you YouTube!). The series is definitely a deeper cut in the classic TV pantheon, but it is definitely worth a watch for fans of the period. The series features a panel of celebrities trying to guess the famous name of the contestant. Sometimes the individual might be named after a celebrity, others might be named after an object, or even a place. However, it’s always adorable, especially when the audience is giggly (as is often the case).
In his role as host, Robert Q. Lewis is decidedly less formal than many of his contemporaries and the show is better for it. His banter with Bill Cullen in particular is always delightful and the group always seems to be having a lot of fun.
As I mentioned, this list gets far more complicated if I factor in the game shows of the 1970s. I’m a shameless fan of the medium and no, I’m not sorry. Never fear if you don’t have Game Show Network. It is truly surprising just how many– of even the rarest shows– are ending up on YouTube and other streaming mediums. As such, there are so many ways to jump into these bite-sized little shows. Game shows might feel fluffy on the surface, but these are such fascinating little snippets of history.
Who are your favorite game show hosts? Shout them out in the comments.
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!