A good sharp sense of the absurd is a great asset in life, and there was a lush crop of 50s TV shows ready and able to help us develop it. “Queen For a Day” resonates down through the decades as one of the goofiest, most bizarre and fabulously insane shows to ever walk the earth. Like so many 50s shows, this one started out much earlier as a radio show. Some people adhere to the fond dogma that radio was fundamentally superior to TV because it stimulated the brain to produce its own pictures. I’m willing to concede that maybe for certain fiction shows, like mysteries, detective tales and action stuff, radio was marvelously effective in that way.
But not even the richest imagination could have produced the visuals brought into our living rooms every afternoon at 4:00 by the long merciless nose of the live TV camera. The show’s host, Jack Bailey, was an actual former carnival barker, and looked it. With his pencil-thin mustache, slicked-back hair and oily ability to milk sob stories out of the female contestants, he was like a combination vampire, false lover and confessional priest.
The way it worked was ingeniously simple: four women told their tales of woe, and the winner was the one whose story made the audience clap the loudest, causing the needle on the Applause-o-meter to swing way to the right. A brilliant idea, and it worked so well that the show was on for twenty years (until 1964) if you count its radio incarnation. The women were real, chosen on the same day of each show by a selection process that started when you stood in line outside the Moulin Rouge theatre/restaurant in downtown Hollywood, whence the show was broadcast. Every woman in line got a card to fill out, telling what she wished for and why. Eventually four were selected to appear onstage with Jack and his bevy of lovely assistants.
Bailey said at the beginning of every show: “It’s not what they want, but why they want it that counts with us!” That was true in a sense. Since the main sponsors of the show were companies like GE and Spiegel, though, it helped if you could somehow make your sob story appliance-related. If your child had cancer, for instance, and your husband had died in a car crash, then you’d certainly tell that to Jack and the audience to make them feel as sorry for you as possible, but you’d say that you needed a new TV to fill the child’s lonely days, and of course you couldn’t afford one because your husband was dead. Something along those lines.
If you won, then you’d get your TV, along with a cascade of other merchandise, mostly household stuff of all kinds—furniture, dishes, washer and dryer, as well as clothes, jewelry, and the occasional new car. Every episode had a fashion show. Between the tragically real sobbing of the contestants as they told their stories, unctuously and masterfully coaxed along by Jack, and the gasps of awe from the audience at the opulence of the goods and the munificence of the sponsors, and then more sobbing when the winner was crowned, throned and robed and the losers had to sit there swallowing their bitter disappointment and pretending to be happy for the winner, the show was a total wallow in bathos, the camera zooming in for relentless close-ups of wet, distorted faces, running mascara, and Jack’s gleaming greasy hair.
And we loved it, would rush home from school to watch it. When somebody whose story we thought was the saddest lost and they gave the crown to somebody we didn’t think deserved it, we’d yell and jump up and down like rabid fans at a ball game when the umpire makes a bad call. Like when the woman won who said she ran a boarding house and needed a new stove so she could cook for her tenants, even though another woman’s house had burned down with all her children in it or something truly ghastly like that. On QFD, though, the audience ruled, and I got valuable insight into mob psychology that day. I saw that they turned away from the really unfortunate woman because her problems were just too awful for them to think about.
I remember a QFD where one of the contestants was an Auschwitz survivor. I kid you not. This time, the audience did the right thing and chose her. Imagine being one of the other contestants, though. You travel all the way from Oklahoma or Duluth or wherever, wait in line for hours, fill out your card, get on the show, tell your story, and then find out what you’re up against…
They did have consolation prizes for the losers, but they were definitely loser items—lame, useless stuff like a bottle of perfume, a year’s supply of soap or a toaster. We’d groan, roll on the floor, and sympathize with the underdogs. And a glimmer of awareness of more complicated issues started to creep in on a subterranean level—for instance, that a lot of the women’s problems had everything to do with simply being women in a man’s world. And wasn’t going on TV and crying for help really a public, magnified version of what a lot of women had to do all the time anyway, just to survive? It was too cruel to contemplate the shattered hopes of the ones who weren’t selected by the Applause-o-meter. I decided that Jack Bailey and his female assistants, who could only have been as kind as they were lovely, would never just coldly turn the losers away empty-handed. The women must have all got what they asked for, later, off-camera, when the audience was gone. I understood the requirements of show biz, that only one of them could actually wear the crown and robe and walk down the runway and get showered with roses and extra goodies. But surely no one went home without her stove, her TV, her sofa or washing machine that was going to change her life.
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