Shades of Grey: Early Radio Quiz Shows

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About 1940, the country was beginning to emerge from the Depression, and the tall poles bearing electric wires were marching deeper into the rural areas of the country. More families could now afford a radio which brought the outside world into isolated areas. Soon these small, wooden boxes became the home's entertainment centers as families gathered around in the evenings to listen to favorite programs. One type of show that captured the nation's fancy was the quiz show. People marveled that ordinary people just like themselves could win money just by answering questions.

The most popular quiz show in the country was "The $64 Question." Contestants from the studio audience were asked a series of general questions, each one doubling in value from one dollar up through $64. The questions got harder the higher the value. This gave rise to the expression around the country - when a difficult question was posed about anything - "that's the $64 question." You don't hear that expression anymore except among the very old who still remember the show. In those days, $64 was a lot of money. Of course, a contestant could stop at any level and take their winnings. Many stopped at $16 or $32. Sometimes if a contestant was going well and really connected with the audience, the emcee would allow him or her to go for $128. Now that was real big money.

Occasionally, the show would have celebrity contestants. Jack Benny appeared several times. He was always portrayed as a very cheap person and would always try to stop and take the dollar rather than risking the two-dollar question.

During World War II, there were a lot of servicemen and wives of military men as contestants. Sometimes the emcee would fudge a little and give them a special break on a question. Nobody seemed to mind. I remember the emcee asking one woman whose husband was fighting in Europe what her one wish would be. She answered, "I'd wish that when I woke up in the morning and opened my eyes, I'd see my husband standing by my bed with his discharge in his hand." It brought down the house. In those days, the show was live, and there was no way to bleep anything.

Another popular show was "Dr. I.Q." The good Doctor stayed on stage and had six to eight floor men scattered throughout the audience to pick contestants who only got one question. The show was rapid-fire and went like this: "Let's now go to Jim Jackson on my right downstairs."

"I have a gentleman, Doctor."

"Eight silver dollars to that gentleman if he can tell me ..." (Money was always in silver dollars.)

"Now to Bert Smith in the center downstairs."

"I have a lady, Doctor."

And so it would go. I can't remember any question being valued at more than 20 silver dollars. One of the Doctor's favorite questions was the "tongue twister." "Ten silver dollars to that gentleman if he can repeat after me, 'Moe said to Joe put down your hoe and row against the flow so we can get to the show before the star has to go but Joe said back to Moe I cannot row because I've hurt my toe ..." You get my drift.

There was one floor man, stationed in the balcony, who would always respond when called upon: "I have a lady in the balcony, Doctor." That line became popular in many off-color jokes of the period.

Yet another popular quiz show of the era was "Kay Kaiser's College of Musical Knowledge." Kaiser had a band. This was, after all, the Big Band era. Publicity pictures showed him dressed in an academic robe and mortarboard. His questions were of a musical nature, and he always opened the show with "Come on chillun, let's dance." There were many sermons preached denouncing his perverted influence on the youth of our country.

These and other quiz shows entertained as well as provided considerable education for one young, backwoods boy.

Lucas G. "Luke" Boyd's career spans 48 years in the field of education, retiring after serving as principal of Battle Ground Academy in Franklin for 19 years. He has published two books, eight short stories and an article in "Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture." He may be contacted at

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