Question: My husband and I agree on one thing about You Bet Your Life. When someone said the secret word, a toy duck came down with a prize for them. But even though he says I'm wrong, I remember other animals and people giving the prize away, too. Am I right? Thank you. Ruth V., Anacortes, Wash.
Televisionary: That you are, Ruth, but the change came into play only in the last couple of seasons of the show's 1950-61 run on NBC.
For years, a moustache-wearing toy duck dropped from above to bless contestants on Groucho Marx's popular TV and radio quiz show who stumbled on the secret word of the night an everyday word like "gas" or "fire" with $100. (The audience, of course, had already been clued into what the word was. Today's young whippersnappers probably think Pee Wee Herman made that up.) But Groucho being Groucho, he had to mix it up and get a pretty woman in on the act. Thus, the prize was sometimes delivered by bathing-suit-clad model Marilyn Burtis or another fetching gal. Other times prize givers ranged from a man in a gorilla suit or Sam Ben-Ami (Groucho's barber) in a diving outfit to producer John Guedel's dad dressed as Whistler's Mother.
Such things may have seemed wacky and off the cuff, but the show was a carefully orchestrated production that was anything but. As fans like you remember, contestants answered rounds of questions, betting a portion (or all) of a purse based on how well they thought they knew the topic. Of course, the game served as a framework for Groucho's famous one-liners and barbs and that was the whole point. "The game was nothing but a way to get Groucho to be funny with people, raise his eyebrows, finger his cigar and be himself," ad man Bob Foreman, who created ads for Chrystler's De Soto division and was the sponsor's liaison with the host and producers, wrote in TV Guide in 1972.
Thing was, the De Soto execs didn't quite realize how much Groucho intended to be himself when they signed the contract for the show. They assumed he'd wear the trademark frockcoat and painted eyebrows and moustache of his younger years. But after the deal was set, Groucho refused to don the get-up and the company lawyers were forced to admit that nothing in the contract required him to do so. "Detroit begged me to beg Groucho to dress up. In a pepper-and-salt business suit he looked like a Midwest bank president and they were sure no one would recognize him," Foreman recalled. "I tried to argue with Groucho, but he shut me up with, 'If I can't be funny on television without funny clothes and make-up, to hell with it.' He turned out to be right; You Bet Your Life was in the Top 10 for years and Groucho, without a funny costume, made heroes of the De Soto division, their ad agency and me."
Groucho made it all look easy, but it took a lot of work. For one thing, contestants were carefully screened even though it appeared as if they just happened to be plucked from obscurity. First off, producers wanted at least one attractive woman for each episode, so they hit dancing schools, women's colleges and airlines to mine for female contestants. The lucky candidates would go before the show's audience, who would then vote for their favorite. Then the process was repeated for other "types." Schoolteachers were popular. Actors and reporters were out, the former because they tried to steal the host's thunder and the latter because they were too low-key. But people with all sorts of other distinguishing achievements made it in. One week a woman who climbed more mountains than any other woman was on, followed four months later by a woman aqualung diver who'd gone lower. ("Now," said Groucho, "all we need on this show is a woman who never did anything." That prompted 150 letters from women who'd never been kissed, had an operation, or been anywhere; one of them subsequently ruined her perfect record by winning $145.)
Most interesting was Groucho's mix of contestants, country-wise. A decade into the show, he'd matched wits with people from 58 different countries, ranging from a 7-year-old Japanese girl to a 102-year-old Norwegian man, and brought people like Kashmir-born amateur singer Kuldip Singh, who released a couple records as "Cool Dip," into the public eye. Introducing his first show of the 10th season, the host opened with an uncharacteristically serious and moving speech. "I think we've proved that all people are basically the same, even though their skin is lighter or darker and their costumes are different," he said. "The color of their skin and the costumes they wear aren't very important. What's important is that they all have the same sense of humor, the same troubles, the same desires and the same little faults that we have here in America. What it all boils down to is this: No matter what country you're born in, we're all members of the same race the human race. And we'd better learn to like each other and live together, lest we all disappear from this Earth."
Sobering words from a funny man. Even though they weren't secret, given how desperately the world needs to grasp that sentiment today, I'd say they were worth a whole lot more than $100 each.
But lest anyone think Groucho took his chosen medium too seriously, make no mistake he didn't. "I think television is fine," he said in 1957. "When it's on, I go upstairs and read."