TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES: The Quiz Program That Became a National Phenomenon
Popularly known today as a radio and television quiz program designed to humiliate their contestants through practical jokes, Truth or Consequences, raised the bar for audience participation and inspired imitation. If visitors from outer space were to listen and watch these programs, they might think we were a nutty bunch. Over the last few decades, aficionados of game shows have faced a major disenchantment with the rising decline of quiz programs. The decline stems from an era where soap operas and quiz programs make way for reality-themed programs which can be produced on the cheap, and satisfy potential sponsors. This book will document the history of the quiz program, the major carry-over consequences that made headlines across the country, and stories that have remained untold — and undocumented — that reveal the charitable nature of Ralph Edwards, who attained accomplishments that can be considered unequaled in the history of mass entertainment, raising millions of dollars for various health agencies and wartime projects. A half-billion dollars in “E” Bonds sold through the Truth or Consequences shows, playing to audiences all over America. The quiz program played before a live studio audience, willing to purchase a war bond in exchange for admission to the program. The practical jokes pulled on the contestants was entertainment for the masses, not just the audience sitting in the theater.
A grand-national opening for a tiny delicatessen in uptown New York, with the dignified Milton Cross doing the commentary, was one of many gags that made it to the front page. Filling Town Hall in New York with a music-loving audience to hear the first American concert performance of “the great European violinist, Madame Yiffnuf,” billboards heralded Yiffnuf’s appearance. What the audience had no knowledge until it was too late was Yiffnuf turned out to be a little lady in a dainty little hat, who Edwards chose right out of the audience, just before airtime. She was sent over to Town Hall, somewhat apprehensive of her assignment, to say the least. Milton Cross introduced Madame Yiffnuf and the crowd went wild. It didn’t take more than a few seconds for the audience to realize that had been tricked.
For Thanksgiving, Truth or Consequences gave a contestant a Turkey dinner; that is to say, he was sent to Turkey – the country – for dinner. A young male contestant was told he would receive a thousand dollars if he could call the correct heads or tails when a penny was flipped. The penny was tossed into the air, landing in the Hudson River, encased in cement. In the intervening week, the young man practiced deep-sea diving in a diving helmet; and on the Truth or Consequences broadcast, down he went to the bottom of the Hudson River to broadcast the results. In Hartford, Connecticut, two old ladies had to wash an elephant before the show was over.
At the Roxy in New York, one of the most talked-about stunts involved a real bear. A man and woman stood on stage before the radio audience. The man, wearing a complete bearskin with bear head that made it impossible for him to see, embraced his supposed wife, who he imaged also would be wearing a bearskin. But the “wife” proved to be a live bear – and was that husband surprised when he got a real bear hug!
Ralph Edwards later claimed that other game shows latched onto the idea of giving away lavish prizes, from his Cinderella act, giving away ridiculous prizes for ridiculously easy questions. This was where the famed Hush Contests originated – voices of famous people giving riddles and clues to their identity, which grew out Edwards’ attempt to build a backfire to the give-away contests. “The Hush Contest was called, originally, not ‘jackpot’ but ‘crackpot,’ satirizing the situation by giving away fantastic prizes for identifying the mystery subject,” Edwards later recalled. “The first Mr. Hush was Jack Dempsey. People flew in from all over America, wearing crazy hats and carrying signs to gain my attention when I was selecting contestants. When I saw all the greedy hands go up in the audience to get a crack at the ‘crackpot,’ I realized we had an enormous agent for good if we opened other mystery contests to our radio listeners benefiting the March of Dimes, the Heart Association, etc. So in our next contest, ‘Mrs. Hush’ (Clara Bow), we suggested to the listeners that they include a donation to whatever health agency we aligned to the show, along with their reason ‘in 25-words or less’ for supporting the particular health agency.”
“The result were phenomenal,” Edwards continued. “ Not only did millions of dollars come in for these health agencies, but with Jack Benny as the Walking Man, it raised us to the Number One rated show in America, and with the million and one-half dollars contributed, started the American Heart Association as a full-fledged health agency.” His statement about starting the American Heart Association was not an exaggeration.
The American Cancer Society tremendously benefited by a series of stunts and acts on the Truth or Consequences radio show, based on the inspirational appeal of brave, young people, such as little Bobby Riggio, the paralyzed boy to whom dimes were contributed by the radio audience to the March of Dimes. Trough the magic of radio, the program was able to go into homes and hospitals, as they did in New Jersey where a little boy named Buster Roos talked with Roy Rogers, Frank Sinatra, and met Babe Ruth, to influence the American public to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Cancer Crusade.
In 1948, the famous Jimmy Fund of Boston was created through a Truth or Consequences act, talking from Hollywood to Boston with a little Leukemia victims named “Jimmy,” who loved baseball. The entire Boston Braves Championship Baseball Team visited the boy in the hospital, took him out to the ball game; and the end result was that through the funds received from that broadcast, plus the tremendous work of the New England Variety Club, the Jimmy Fund has been responsible for building not just the original Sidney Farber Cancer Clinic, but now two Cancer Research centers.
Perhaps the largest of all stunts was to induce the city of Hot Springs, New Mexico, to change its name to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, on the show’s tenth anniversary in 1950. “I couldn’t get over the wide range of entertainment we covered,” Edwards later recalled, “from the unbelievable pranks we put our contestants through, to the heart-strings we pulled within the homes all over America.”
From The Walking Man Contest, The Laughing Man, Mr. Hush, Microphone X and many other stunts, the story of Ralph Edwards and Truth or Consequences is told in this 800 page book. With a foreword by Bob Barker.