By Ed Staskus
I didn’t watch TV growing up because we didn’t have a TV. It wasn’t until a couple of years after we moved from Sudbury, Ontario to Cleveland, Ohio that my parents bought a used 1955 Philco Custom 400. It was a 21-inch model in a cabinet of white oak with a finger-tip tuning system. It had a Double Gated Automatic Picture Control tuner that never worked during storms of any kind, whether it was breezy and slightly damp or thunderstorms.
At first, I wasn’t impressed. The shows were the likes of “McHale’s Navy,” “Car 54, Where Are You,” and “My Three Sons.” I had no use for “Hazel” and “I Love Lucy” drove me nuts. Lucy was a nut, and everybody hollered and played pratfall like there was no tomorrow. I liked watching baseball and football games, although baseball games went on forever and football games were only broadcast on Sundays. The Cleveland Browns were a powerhouse, and everybody stayed patriotically stuck to the tube when they were playing.
Cartoons were fun and Westerns were my favorite, especially “Maverick,” “Bart Masterson,” and “Have Gun – Will Travel.” My parents enjoyed “Bonanza” and watched it every Sunday night which meant my sister, brother, and I watched it almost every Sunday night. They took in all 431 episodes, whether we were there, or not. I didn’t care for it, the Cartwright’s being hopeless do-gooders, but I couldn’t and didn’t say anything to my parents about my point of view.
My favorite was “Route 66.” It was about two young men driving around the country in a Chevy Corvette convertible. Besides the adventures, what I liked about the show was that it was shot on location in a new state every episode.
I had been to the Shaw-Hayden Theater plenty of times and seen plenty of space adventure and monster movies. My friends and I always sat in the front row. Movies were the real deal and TV was lame compared to the big screen. Movies were stupendous while TV was furniture.
At about the same time the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters. After praising the professionals in the room, he said that television should uphold the public interest. Then he said TV was a “vast wasteland. When television is bad, nothing is worse.”
When I started watching “Queen for a Day” I watched it every day. It didn’t matter that my friends were riding bikes playing ball messing around outside. I watched it laying on my stomach on the floor a few feet from the TV. When I stopped watching it, I went cold turkey and never watched it again. I only watched it for two or three weeks one summer, although it was more than enough to make me sweat bullets. I wasn’t growing much older watching the sob show, but I seemed to be growing up way too fast.
It was originally a local affair on radio in Los Angeles but became popular enough that NBC picked it up and started broadcasting it nationally on television. The show’s ratings got so high that the network increased its running time from 30 to 45 minutes so they could sell more commercials. They were raking in $4,000 a minute, a premium price nobody else was getting. Sponsorships poured in. Every single prize came from sponsors. Models in slutty faux medieval outfits plugged the advertisers. They had to put up with Jack Bailey the host saying things like, “Let’s give Mary Ann a big hand for finally doing something right.” Pre-recorded commercials ran between segments. Naming all the sponsors at the end of the show took more than five minutes.
The show went to ABC from 1960 to 1964 until it finally folded up its circus tent. The television writer Mark Evanier has called it “one of the ghastliest programs ever produced, tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting, and utterly degrading to the human spirit.”
The idea behind the show was simple and savage.
“Queen for a Day” was about four women sharing their stories of unhappiness and tribulation in front of an all-female audience. There was always a box of Kleenex on the curtained table behind which the women sat. The host was a pencil mustached smarmy man who always looked like he needed another drink. The stories were about dead husbands and sons crippled with polio. One woman wanted to win so she could repair the bullet holes in her bedroom walls where her husband had committed suicide. He missed several times before getting it right. Determined widows with healthcare problems were a staple. If they had, to boot, a small dying child, they were sure to win.
“I had two handicapped sons,” one woman said. “I lost them, and then I took care of an elderly lady in a wheelchair. She passed away, along with my mother and my father, and then my husband passed away. I feel that I would like to have a vacation.” She got her vacation.
A threadlike woman related the tale of her legally blind uncle. They were a poor farm family in Kansas. Everybody in the family had serious eye troubles.
“On the show when Jack Bailey introduced my mother, he made a big deal about her being a long-lost cousin because her last name was Bailey,” the woman’s daughter recalled. “Since she was a farm girl, he asked her if she milked cows, and she demonstrated on his fingers. She became the queen that day. My uncle was given everything my mother asked for and more. He got a complete piano tuning tool set and a scholarship to a piano tuning school in Seattle. My mom got a full set of living room furniture and an Amana freezer that lasted for twenty-five years.”
“My husband died,” one contestant explained. “Then we were evicted and were out in the cold winter.”
“Well, ha, ha, ha!” Jack Bailey laughed like a drain. “Today is your lucky day, getting to tell your story here and having the chance at being chosen QUEEN FOR A DAY!” Sometimes, unable to help himself, he guffawed and threw out sarcastic remarks, immediately explaining that he was just kidding.
After the ladies finished, the audience applauded for the woman they wanted to see become “Queen for a Day.” The winner was determined by a decibel-reading Applause Meter, what I called the Thing-O-Meter. I didn’t always agree with the contraption, but what did I know. The winner was crowned with a jeweled crown and robed in a sable-trimmed robe. She got money, appliances, clothes, and a vacation, among other things.
“I always thought losing was the worst,” said Bill Costello, who like me found himself glued to the boob tube. “Your life sucks, but not enough.”
Not just anyone was picked to be on the show. They had to somehow appeal to the live audience and the tens of millions watching at home. One woman explained she wanted to be on the show because “it would help me to regain my identity, which I seem to have lost somewhere between the maternity ward and the washing machine.” The best approach was delivering enough pathos and bawling to turn the trick. One woman said she would give her right arm to be on the show.
My mother spotted me on the living room floor one day staring up at the TV, engrossed in the black and white. She put her dish towel away and sat down in a sofa chair behind me. When the day’s episode was over, she shut the TV off. “Don’t watch that show anymore, ever,” she said.
She had never forbidden me to watch anything before. I knew there was something wrong with the show but couldn’t put my finger on it. It held me in its morbid grip. The women told fantastic stories, whoever got the most applause for her miserable tale won, got crowned, and walked away with prizes up the wazoo.
One winner said her husband was killed in a car crash, the family was poor as church mice, their savings exhausted, and needed help bad. “My mother was 28, pregnant, my sister was 8, and I was 5,” her daughter remembered years later. “My father promised my sister that if she got good grades, he would buy her a pony. She did but he died before he could fill his promise. My mother won two bedroom sets, a living room set, a dining room set complete with a set of dishes for a service for eight, a set of silver ware, a cook-set, a built in mixer, a hot water heater, a 7-piece patio set, a complete set of Tupperware, twelve complete outfits that included dress, matching shoes and handbags, twelve pairs of stockings, a complete set of Sarah Coventry jewelry, a complete set of rhinestone jewelry, a diamond encrusted watch, a four piece matching mother-daughter outfit, a swimsuit, a check for $1,000, and a Shetland pony.”
Jack Bailey always said in his trademark signoff, “Make every woman a queen, for every single day.” He never said what the losers got, although I always assumed they got nothing. Once my mother put her finger on the show, she disliked it instantly. My parents were World War Two refugees from Lithuania and didn’t believe a word about getting something for nothing.
“I was babysitting my aunt’s four children in 1944 when the Russians came,” she said. “We ran away on a cart pulled by a horse with a cow tied to the back. On our way through East Prussia, we had to sell the cow for food. There was no milk for the baby. We slept under the cart every night and every night either the Germans or Russians bombed us. After the war I lived in Nuremberg in one room with three other women and worked at the Army Hospital. When I went to Sudbury where I had gotten a visa and a job, the job was as a nanny for a family of thirteen. When your father joined me the next year, he had no money and went to work in a cement factory the next day. When we got married, we had no money, but we had the three of you and bought a small house. It’s shameful to go on a TV show, telling all the world your troubles for prizes and money.”
She hadn’t seen her parents uncles aunts brothers sisters cousins for almost twenty years. The Iron Curtain was locked up tight. My parents never complained about it. They both went to work weekdays and on weekends worked around the house when they weren’t doing something at the church or with the scouts. They didn’t help us with our homework or drive us to the library. We did our own homework and walked to the library.
She wasn’t telling me anything about “Queen for a Day” I didn’t already know, although I couldn’t if my life depended on it have put it into words. I knew I didn’t like the clapping like crazy for the most miserable story of the day. I suspected there was something wrong with that.
“Sure, the show was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste,” the producer Howard Blake said after the program’s nine-year run ended. “That was why it was so successful. It was exactly what the public wanted.”
He didn’t stop there. He knew it was a trashy reality show that played on people’s misery, while those same people played out their tearjerkers to cash in on the American Dream.
“Everybody was on the make, NBC and later ABC, the producers, the sponsors, and the suppliers of gifts. And how about all the down-on-their-luck women who we used to further our money-grubbing ends? Weren’t they all on the make? Weren’t they willing to wash their dirty linen on coast-to-coast TV for a chance at big money, for a chance to ride in our chauffeured Cadillac, for the free tour of Disneyland and the Hollywood nightclubs? What about one of the most common wishes they turned in? ‘I’d like to pay back my mother for all the wonderful things she’s done for me.’ The women who made that wish didn’t want to pay back their mothers at all. They wanted us to do that.”
We never clapped when anybody in our grade school class at St. George’s had a bad day. None of us clapped when a nun slapped one of us and made him or her stand in the hall. Nobody clapped when somebody was a step slow getting to the CTS streetcar taking us home. We yelled and slapped on the windows for the driver to stop.
None of us wanted to be a sleazeball.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”