Friday, April 26, 2019

Charles Van Doren in Jeopardy, and Other Quiz Show Tales

If you’re a Jeopardy fan, you already know there’s a new champion around, one who may give the fabled Ken Jennings a run for his money. Publications are currently chock-full of stories about James Holzhauer, a contestant who’s as strategic as he is smart about obscure factoids. The, for one, has issued a series of breathless updates regarding his meteoric rise: “On an episode of Jeopardythat aired Tuesday evening, James Holzhauer became the fastest-ever contestant on the show to to earn $1 million in prize money.” And so on.

I can’t pretend I’m a serious fan of quiz shows. But I can remember back to when the brand-new medium of television was full of shows like “The $64,000 Question” (cash awards have gone up considerably since then!) and “Tic-Tac-Dough.” TV was live back in the day, and it seemed as though the whole nation tuned in to watch. Of course we were fans of contestants with appealing personalities, and some of them became media stars. There was, for instance, that Italian immigrant shoemaker, Gino Prato, who answered questions about opera. And a smartly-dressed young psychologist, Dr. Joyce Brothers, who chose boxing as her unlikely topic area and became the first woman ever to win the $64,000 top prize. (Word is that sponsor Charles Revson, who founded the Revlon cosmetic line, disliked Brothers and some other contestants, and tried hard to maneuver them into losing.)

The fun of that early quiz show era came to a dramatic halt in 1958, when rumors began circulating that the various contests were rigged. When I recently read about the death of Charles Van Doren at the age of 93, it all came back to me. Among trivia nerds, Van Doren seemed to be a golden boy. Handsome and sophisticated, he was an English instructor at Columbia University. And his family tree was impeccable. Father was Mark Van Doren, a Columbia professor and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry. Mother Dorothy was a writer and editor. His father’s brother, Carl Van Doren, was a noted literary historian who won his own Pulitzer for a biography of Benjamin Franklin. I suspect old Ben might have been amused (or maybe saddened?) by Charles Van Doren’s fall from grace.

It seems that a show called Twenty-One, which launched in 1956, pitted two contestants against each other. The show (sponsored by Geritol, which solved the problem of “tired blood”) at first played it straight, but no one wanted to watch. That’s when the producers hit on a new strategy. According to what I’ve read, “Twenty-One was not merely ‘fixed,’ it was almost completely choreographed. Contestants were cast almost as if they were actors, and in fact were active and (usually) willing partners in the deception. They were given instruction as to how to dress, what to say to the host, when to say it, what questions to answer, what questions to miss, even when to mop their brows in their isolation booths (which had air conditioning that could be cut off at will, to make them sweat more).” Charles Van Doren’s agonized testimony before Congress in 1959 blew the lid off the scandal. Suddenly all the fruits of his success – the money, the contracts, the marriage proposals – disappeared, and he was left with a tarnished reputation and a lot of regrets.

Sounds like the plot of a movie, doesn’t it? In 1994, Robert Redford produced and directed Quiz Show, starring Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren and John Turturro as his unfairly defeated nemesis. It’s not nice to tamper with the faith of a nation.

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