THE BOOTLEG FILES: WHAT’S MY LINE? – THE MYSTERY GUESTS Image

BOOTLEG FILES 284: “What’s My Line?”: The Mystery Guests (Classic segments from the long running TV game show).

LAST SEEN: Available on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The episodes were never released on DVD.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely, although the show has been on the Game Show Network.

One of my favorite time wasters on the Internet is to go over to YouTube and to look up bootlegged video clips from the old-time TV “What’s My Line?” That program ran in prime time from 1950 to 1967, and the basis of the game was to have a four-person celebrity panel try to guess the profession of the seemingly mundane individuals. But the highlight of the program involved the Mystery Guest: the panel would be blindfolded and a notable personality would arrive on the stage. Host John Daly would prod the panel along as they poked about with vague questions in order to figure out who was the celebrated Mystery Guest.

What is utterly fascinating about watching these Mystery Guest clips from “What’s My Line?” is the star power on parade. For the most part, the Mystery Guests came from the entertainment world, although many prominent political, social, and cultural figures also turned up. All told, the Mystery Guests were not the type of notables that would normally be found on a game show.

Just off the top of my head, here are some of the Mystery Guests who tried to stump the “What’s My Line?” panel: Elizabeth Taylor, Gary Cooper, Kim Novak, James Mason, Charles Boyer, Judy Garland, Eleanor Roosevelt, Edward R. Murrow, Barbra Streisand, Leontyne Price, Sophia Loren, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum, Buster Keaton, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walt Disney, Fred Astaire, Richard Widmark, Carl Sandburg, Billy Graham, Salvador Dali, the Supremes, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. That’s Jayne Mansfield’s picture illustrating this article, from when the blonde bombshell visited the show during the peak of her movie fame.

In viewing these rare clips, there is an astonishing pattern – very few of the Mystery Guests were able to get away with fooling the panel. During the show’s peak years, the panel consisted of three regular players – actress Arlene Francis, columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, and publisher Bennett Cerf – and a fourth player who was brought in for comedy relief – funnymen Fred Allen, Steve Allen, and even Woody Allen were included for the laughs. One memorable episode had Frank Sinatra, of all people, as the fourth panelist – and the Mystery Guest he had to guess after was then-wife Mia Farrow. Ol’ blindfolded blue eyes, realizing what was happening, asked: “Do you have my name?”

Clearly, the panel (at least the three regulars) took their work very seriously and would routinely study the entertainment media in New York (where the show was based) to determine which stars were in town for a nightclub engagement or a publicity junket. Their homework paid off, as the Mystery Guest was usually nailed in a matter of minutes.

The pre-game strategy was clearly in place in a 1961 episode with Sophia Loren as a Mystery Guest. Her presence set off a fury of wolf-whistles and extra loud applause from the show’s studio audience, and the blindfolded panelists had no doubt pinpointing the Mystery Guest’s gender and appearance. Arlene Francis noted that a “visitor from across the seas” was known to be in New York to help with the opening of the film “Two Women,” and Loren’s attempt to fool the panel was quickly torpedoed.

Of course, the generous audience response to the Mystery Guest played for the other gender. One of the more amusing episodes found Ronald Reagan as the Mystery Guest. Despite his bravura attempt to disguise his voice in a manner similar to the cartoon character Goofy, Arlene Francis wondered aloud if the Mystery Guest qualified as a “dreamboat” based on the female audience response. (Yeah, Ronald Reagan was once a “dreamboat”!) Again, the identity of the Mystery Guest was easily determined.

Musical guests, in particular, had it rough since any well-promoted New York club engagement was the immediate clue of a star vocalist’s presence on the show. Harry Belafonte’s turn as a 1959 Mystery Guest was instantly disrupted by Dorothy Kilgallen, who was aware of the singer’s upcoming nightclub engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria. When asked how she quickly identified Belafonte, Kilgallen openly acknowledged that she was aware that Belafonte would be performing in New York and correctly surmised that he would stop by the program.

In order to avoid detection, the Mystery Guests would go through great lengths to disguise their distinctive voices. Strangely enough, many of the Mystery Guests had great difficulty realigning their voices into an impenetrable artifice. For example, Judy Garland was immediately pegged when her well-known laugh tipped off Bennett Cerf, while Barbra Streisand’s attempt to evade apprehension by speaking Italian was sunk when her native Brooklyn tones laced their way through the quasi-Neapolitan dialect.

However, some stars attempted to avoid detection through a series of falsetto hums and whistles. Gravelly-voiced comic Eddie “Rochester” Anderson nearly lost his voice during his appearance, as he was barely able to keep up the squeaky “mmm-hmms” that barely hid his highly-recognized growl. Conversely, Metropolitan Opera soprano Leontyne Price lowered her glorious voice to a deep, masculine bass –leading to an inquiry if she was a man!

Some stars with a gift for dialect mimicry tried to throw off the questioning with expert display of vocal prowess. Art Carney and Sammy Davis Jr. used their respective appearances to show off their flair for multiple vocal effects – though, alas, their talents were so well-known that they were pegged for being too clever with their voice performances. Other actors with highly localized voices – Yiddish-accented comic actress Gertrude Berg and Dixie-fried Andy Griffith – used flawless British accents during their Mystery Guest appearances. While Berg was identified, Griffith was among the relatively few Mystery Guests to sail through undetected.

Perhaps the oddest vocal guesswork came with the Supremes as the Mystery Guest. The blindfolded panel was initially unable to realize Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard were taking turns answering the first volley of questions in identical squeaky voices, but Diana Ross’ phony deep voice input raised the red flag that more than one person was occupying the Mystery Guest chair.

The one Mystery Guest who was no mystery was Tony Curtis – host John Daly had the blindfolded panelists unmask themselves, and he then explained that a newspaper leaked Curtis’ scheduled appearance, thus spoiling the possibility of a genuine surprise. Curtis, however, had no problems coming out for his scheduled appearance, which included a plug for his then-current film “Six Bridges to Cross.”

The Mystery Guests rarely took up more than seven minutes, yet each appearance was a rich reward. The stars brought genuine glamour and prestige to the TV show, and they were clearly enjoying themselves – even a supposedly cranky Groucho Marx, who allowed himself to get named almost immediately, was obviously having fun. For the viewer, it is hard not to get caught up in the light mystery of having the panelists identify the Mystery Guests. Plus, the sheer star power on display was without precedent in game show history.

“What’s My Line?” has never been commercially released on DVD, although Alpha Video compiled four episodes that lapsed into the public domain into a single DVD release. The program has been running on the Game Show Network, and the clips of the Mystery Guests have been snipped from those broadcasts and posted without permission on YouTube. And as any bootleg aficionado can testify, nothing beats YouTube for viewing copyright-trampled works.

If you’ve never seen or even heard of “What’s My Line?” take a YouTube spin and look up some of the Mystery Guests. You will be surprised who turned up there, and you will be endlessly amused at their unlikely but delightfully appearances on that old-time game show.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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