The $64,000 Question
The big-money quiz show that spawned a rash of copycats in the mid-1950s was none other than "The $64,000 Question." The idea for the show came from the 45-year old Louis G. Cowan, who created long-time radio quiz show hits such as "Quiz Kids" and "Stop the Music." Years earlier, Cowan had bought the rights to a popular radio show called "Take It or Leave It," which he hadn’t yet figured out how to repackage. Then he remembered the $64 question--the top prize offered on the show--and had the inspiration to expand that figure to $64,000 for the television version of the program.
The first episode of "The $64,000 Question" aired on CBS on June 5, 1955. The show was designed to involve both players and viewers in a drama that extended from one week to the next. It took eleven right answers -- and there were no multiple choices -- to win the full $64,000.
The first four questions were provided by an IBM sorter, a cutting-edge technology of the day. The machine was used to create the impression that questions were picked randomly, when in fact all questions were pre-selected. To win at the next level — the $1,000, $2,000 and $4,000 prizes -- contestants answered questions pulled from a New York Manufacturer’s Trust bank vault protected by two guards. At the $8,000 and $16,000 level, contestants entered the isolation booth. The booth was far from sound proof and music was pumped in to drown out answers yelled from the audience. If the contestant answered the $32,000 question correctly, he or she was sent home for a week to consider whether or not to continue on to the final question. Contestants had the option to hold on to the money or risk it all to win the full $64,000. If a contestant decided to go for the $64,000 question, they were permitted an adviser for their final question.
The contestants chosen for the show were another ingredient contributing to its appeal. Producers hired five people who worked full-time sorting through the 15,000-20,000 letters sent in by hopeful contestants each week. Their goal was to find ordinary men and women who had some area of specialized knowledge.
Who was chosen? The show’s first guest was Redmond O’Hanlon, a Staten Island policeman with an expertise in Shakespeare. His knowledge of the date of the printing of Shakespeare’s first folio won him $16,000. Like many guests who followed, O’Hanlon achieved overnight fame. His appearance prompted offers to go on the lecture circuit and to even write a book on Shakespeare’s puns.
Another guest was Catherine Kreitzer, a grandmother with a specialty in the Bible who worked as a typist in a supply depot in Pennsylvania (She later read from the scriptures on the "Ed Sullivan Show"). Gloria Lockerman, a black 12 year old from Baltimore won $32,000 with her spelling abilities. Gino Prato, a 5’ 4" cobbler from the Bronx answered questions about opera. America learned that he waited in line for hours to get standing-room tickets for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Gino, one of the shows most popular guests, walked away with $32,000 after his father, still in Italy, told him that he has won enough.
"The $64,000 Question" was a smash hit from the day of its premiere. One evening during the peak of its popularity, 55 million Americans watched the show, an astronomical viewership. In the first six months of the show, sales for Revlon, the show’s sponsors, increased 54 percent. The following year, Revlon’s sales tripled. Cowan, one of the stars at CBS, was rewarded with a vice presidency of the company.
A little less than a year later, the station capitalized on the fortunes of the show by launching a spin-off called "The $64,000 Challenge." The show invited winners from "$64,000 Question" to come back and test their knowledge against challengers. Many of the new show’s contestants were celebrities, such as Vincent Price, who tested his knowledge about art against Edward G. Robinson. In July 1956, a little over a year after the first quiz show aired, "$64,000 Question" and "$64,000 Challenge" were rated number one and two on television. These CBS shows were so successful that they drove one of the most respected shows of all time, the "See It Now" with Edward R. Murrow, from the airwaves. A flurry of imitators followed, including "High Finance," "Giant Step," "Can Do" and "Brains and Brawn." One of the games that jumped on the bandwagon was "Twenty-One," which features Columbia professor Charles Van Doren in the spring of 1957. Through 1957, interest in "$64,000 Question" and "The $64,000 Challenge" dwindled.
The producers of "The $64,000 Question" responded by announcing that their show would quadruple its stakes. The first contestant to win big was 10 year old Robert Strom of the Bronx who answered questions in the field of mathematics and went home with $224,000. Not long afterwards, "Twenty-One" had a huge winner of its own, as Elfrida Von Nardroff, a 32-year old personnel consultant from Brooklyn Heights won $220,500 during a 16-week run in the field of history.
When the rigging of the CBS game "Dotto" show was revealed in May 1958, ratings for all the quiz shows tumbled. More and more formaer quiz show contestants came forward to reveal how they had been coached. A contestant from "The $64,000 Challenge," the Reverend Charles E. "Stony" Jackson, gave details to a grand jury, saying that he was given answers during his "screening" that enabled him to win. The same week that Jackson testified, P. Lorillard Tobacco dropped "The $64,000 Challenge." By October, 1958, both "Twenty-One" and "The $64,000 Question" were off the air.
Louis Cowan, then president of CBS, defended his innocence. He never appeared before the Congressional committee investigating the shows due an illness many suspected was contrived. Cowan, however, was forced to resign from CBS. Many others connected with the quiz show phenomenon were temporarily blacklisted. The quiz shows disappear temporarily from prime-time television, giving way to the next television phenomenon: westerns.