The following is a speech that I gave in September 2013 at Vienna Public Library in Vienna, WV, to commemorate the release of the book Quizmaster: The Life and Times and Fun and Games of Bill Cullen.


Show of hands—who knows ANYTHING about Bill Cullen other than “guy that Adam wrote a book about”?

From as far back as I can remember, as a toddler, I’ve been a game show fan. I remember the game show hosts when I was a kid: Jim Perry – handsome, jet black hair, 100 teeth, ran across the stage when he was introduced. Marc Summers – boyish face, good-looking, wore sneakers with his suit. Wink Martindale – hair that wouldn't move in a wind tunnel, and thousand watt smile.

And then there was one guy who didn't fit that mold. He hosted a show that I really liked called Hot Potato. He didn't run across stage; in fact, he never walked. He sat down; only game show host I saw who sat down. And he was old, and he wore thick glasses. And his name was Bill Cullen.

For the longest time, I was a fan of game shows. Bill Cullen died when I was seven. When I was a teenager, I began turning game shows in my hobby, collecting photos, collecting board games, collecting videos, and collecting information. I finally started reading about these guys that I was a fan of. And I began reading stuff about Bill Cullen, pleasant old man that I knew from one show at the very end of his career.


I'm reading about him; and it was around the time that I was 15, I'm 30 now, so 15 years of reading about Bill Cullen, and I find out he was the host of The Price is Right for nine years before Bob Barker came along. Huh. And there's a restaurant in New York City with a fresco of him on the wall. And he had the #1 radio show in NYC for five years. And at the same time he had that number one radio show, he was also the star of the highest-rated daytime TV show AND two of the top ten shows on prime time TV. AND he was in a movie with Doris Day. Woah...this pleasant old man was kind of a big star. He released a record. And he was on the cover of TV Guide more than any other game show host; he was on the cover of TV Guide twice in one month. Groucho Marx called him the second-funniest man on television...This guy was AMAZING.

And the crazy thing is, for all that, the general public doesn't remember him. Game shows are not the most appreciated field in television. They don't get DVD box sets, they don't air in reruns every afternoon on your local stations, TV critics HATE them with a deep purple passion, and the result of all that is, when a game show gets canceled, it is FORGOTTEN. When a TV sitcom is a hit, the people who are a part of it are remembered forever. Every living American knows the names of the six Brady kids, and that show's been off the air for 40 years. On the other hand, as soon as a game show gets canceled, the general public immediately forgets the host, and half the time, it's presumed that the host is dead. Bob Barker only retired six years ago and people are amazed to hear he's still alive.

And even when game show hosts are alive, nobody is completely sure who they are. I spent part of my summer working with Bob Eubanks of The Newlywed Game, and Bob talks about how people recognize him but they don't know exactly who he is. Most of the time, they say “Hey, you're Jim Lange from The Dating Game!” He said the kicker is they won't even tolerate being corrected. Bob says he's actually stood there and argued with people about WHO he is because they're positive he's Jim Lange. That's the legacy of a game show host.

Game show hosts are not terribly appreciated, and for those of you who aren't part of this game show subculture, first of all, what sad, unfulfilled lives you must live, but the thing that might surprise you is that when you ask game show fans “Who's the best game show host of all time?” it's a bit different from asking a baseball fan who the best baseball player was. “Best game show host of all time” is surprisingly unanimous. It's Bill Cullen. If you get 100 game show fans in a room and ask them, 99 will say “Bill Cullen.” And its not just limited to fans. Television network executives said that. Producers would say that. Even other game show hosts said it—Pat Sajak, Alex Trebek, Bob Barker, Dick Clark, Richard Dawson, Wink Martindale, Monty Hall, Tom Kennedy, Bob Eubanks, Peter Marshall, Chuck Woolery, Regis Philbin—ALL of those people have said in interviews that Bill Cullen was the best game show host. And somebody that revered is somebody that people just don't talk about anymore. And I wanted to write this book to get people talking about him again.


So let's talk about him. Bill was born in Pittsburgh in 1920. When he was 18 months old, he contracted polio. And the doctors told his parents Bill would never walk. Well, Bill did walk. He needed a leg brace until he was nine, and even after that, his muscles never fully healed in his left leg, so he walked with a limp for his entire life, but he walked. And when he was ten, he got his driver's license—laws were apparently different back in those days—and got a job driving a tow truck. And when he was 15, he got his pilot's license. And when he wasn't driving or flying, he spent a good bit of his teenage years boxing, playing baseball, competing in auto races, and competing in boat races. And when he was 19, he became a disc jockey and a sportscaster. He was briefly the voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In 1944, he moved to New York City and became an announcer for CBS, and in 1946, he finally found his true calling: He became a game show host, and even from day one, it was apparent that he was meant for this kind of work. When he hosted his first show, his payday was $55. Within three months, the producers agreed to pay him $750. He was that good.

The show was Winner Take All. And once Bill and everybody around him had figured out that game shows were his calling, they just kept giving him game shows to work on: Give and Take, Hollywood Jackpot, Catch Me If You Can, Hit the Jackpot, Quick as a Flash, Beat the Clock, Act It Out, Meet Your Match, Fun For All, Matinee in New York, Strike It Rich, Break the Bank, I've Got a Secret, Why?, Who's There?, Where Was I?, The Name's The Same, Bank on the Stars, Walk a Mile, Name That Tune, Stop the Music, Place the Face, Down You Go, The Price is Right, Eye Guess, You're Putting Me On, He Said She Said, To Tell the Truth, Three on a Match, Winning Streak, Blankety Blanks, The $25,000 Pyramid, How Do You Like Your Eggs?, Pass the Buck, The Love Experts, Chain Reaction, Password Plus, Blockbusters, Child's Play, Hot Potato, and The Joker's Wild. Did you get all that?


And the wild thing was how many of those shows had overlapping runs. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, every Monday night, you could watch CBS at 8:30 pm and see Bill on I've Got a Secret, then change the channel to NBC and at 9:30 pm you would see him hosting The Price is Right. For most of the 1970s, he was on TV 11 times a week. In the summer of 1976, he was on 22 game show episodes in a single week.

And he was never supposed to walk. And in his spare time, he piloted airplanes and set up a photography studio in his apartment. What's your excuse?

Bill wasn't self-conscious about the way he looked when he walked. He was the first one to acknowledge that he looked a little strange when he was in motion. He freely talked about it when giving interviews to newspapers and magazines. He even wrote an essay about it, but on the air, he wanted to be discreet about it. The way he put it was “I don't want to sell it.” He didn't want people to think of him as “the guy with polio” or come off as a guy who merited special attention or special consideration for it. So even though he was open about it throughout his career, he never acknowledged his disability on his shows. And not only would he not acknowledge it, but the production crews he worked with would help him hide it. If you ever watch Bill's shows on YouTube, you'll notice that at the beginning of the show, he's either already seated, or he's so close to where he needs to be that he only has to take one or two steps to get there. Any time that he actually had to walk across the stage, they would either cut to a commercial, or cut to a shot of the contestants and just stay on that until Bill was done walking.


I didn't learn until after the book had gone to press that they took it even further than that. I found out that on at least one of Bill's shows, Winning Streak in 1974, the production staff had an intern who came in for every taping, and his sole job for the taping was, whenever Bill emerged from his dressing room and walked onstage, this intern walked directly next to him and stayed side-by-side with him and had a conversation with Bill until he reached his lectern, and that way, the audience in the studio wouldn't notice his limp.

So you had this guy who was a prominent television star, he was handicapped, he openly discussed it in the press, but he never discussed it on his TV shows or his radio shows. Even in his own time, there were plenty of people out there who did not realize that Bill Cullen had polio. One of those people who didn't realize it was Mel Brooks. One of Bill's games, Eye Guess, had a special celebrity week; instead of contestants, they had celebrities appearing and playing on behalf of their favorite charities. For one episode, they had Mel Brooks competing against Julia Meade, who was an actress of some renown. More than forty years later, in an interview with GQ, Mel Brooks referred to his day on Eye Guess as the most embarrassing experience of his life.

When the taping was over, Brooks decided to walk over to Bill's lectern to give him a handshake and thank him for a fun half-hour. Bill got out of his chair and walked toward Mel. Mel saw the way Bill was walking; he later described it to GQ as “feet are flopping...hands are flying everywhere...wacky walk-of-the-unfortunates that Jerry Lewis used to do.” Brooks presumed that Bill was just doing a funny walk to get a final laugh from the audience, so he joined in, mimicking Bill's walk while Julia Meade, horrified, tried to make him stop. Bill looked at the walk Mel Brooks was doing, walked over, smiled, and warmly embraced him.

“You know, you're the only comic who's ever had the nerve to make fun of my crippled walk,” Bill told him. “Everyone's so careful, it makes me feel even worse.”

Bill continued his grateful hug while Brooks awkwardly smiled and tried to play it off as if he had known the whole time.


Now as far as Bill Cullen's relevance to an audience today, if you were listening to that list of titles I rattled off earlier, you may have caught The Price is Right in that list. This month, The Price is Right is starting its 42nd consecutive year on CBS. Drew Carey is the host now and of course Bob Barker was there before that, and for most of its run it was #1 in network daytime television. And at best Bill Cullen today is the answer to a trivia question: “Who hosted The Price is Right before Bob Barker?” And for the next part of this, I'd like to read you another passage from the book, about how the show evolved to its finished form.

Producer Bob Stewart came into Mark Goodson's office, with an idea inspired by his lunch breaks over the past several months. Stewart had wandered into a store auctioning off its wares, and he was mesmerized by the auctioneer's particular twist to the way he conducted the proceedings. After auctioning off each item, the auctioneer would announce the retail price of the item. Whenever the item turned out to be worth more than what the winning bidder paid for it, the other shoppers would offer a round of applause. When the item was worth less than the final bid, the winner was treated like, well, a loser.

Stewart was convinced that there might be some merit to a game in which contestants would try to zero in on the retail value of a prize. Goodson didn't like the idea much at all, but he kept enough of an open mind that he rounded up some employees and brought them into the office. Goodson began pointing to various items in his office—the desk, the lamp, and so forth—and asked everybody what they thought he had paid for each of them. To his amazement, the conversation flowed. There were debates. There were arguments. There was excitement. There was fun. People genuinely seemed to enjoy trying to guess the prices.

The original intended format of the game was actually very close to a real auction, with many contestants competing onstage. That proved unwieldy, so Stewart and Goodson whittled it down to only four players. Stewart formulated a game in which the four players would participate in a series of auctions for prizes. Each prize would go to the contestant who had bid the highest amount without going over the actual retail price.

With the idea perfected, Stewart intended to title the program Auction-Aire, but Mark Goodson disliked that and suggested a new title that Stewart admitted sounded much better: The Price is Right. Bill Todman went to work pitching the program to the major broadcast networks, and before long, NBC and CBS both said yes and offered to put the show onto the daytime line-up. They went with NBC.


The time came to find a host. Goodson-Todman wanted a dependable, familiar face, Bud Collyer, best known at that point for his tenures on Beat the Clock, Break the Bank, and numerous other games on radio and TV. But Bob Stewart had a personal aversion to Bud Collyer. It dated back to radio days when Stewart was listening to a radio game show hosted by Collyer. As he recalled, Collyer asked a contestant, “What does your husband do for a living?”

“My husband is dead,” replied the contestant.

“Hey, that's terrific,” Collyer absently replied, revealing that he really wasn't paying attention to her.

Stewart was repulsed by what he perceived as phoniness from Collyer and never forgot that. Goodson-Todman gave him a say in who would host his own creation, and Stewart emphatically said “no” to Bud Collyer.

The next candidate was Dick Van Dyke, still an up-and-coming comedian with a small batch of TV credits at that point. Van Dyke needed the work badly but said “no” because he was incredulous at the show's premise when he heard it. Like Goodson, initially, Van Dyke didn't think there was any possible way that thirty minutes of guessing a price could be interesting. He was sure the show would fail.

Bob Stewart spoke up in favor of Bill Cullen, fancying him the ideal master of ceremonies for any game. Goodson & Todman were quite naturally fond of Bill themselves, but he seemed to be out of the running because of a schedule conflict. The Price is Right was to go on the air live at 10:30 am every morning, and the staff already anticipated that the show's presentation would be complex enough that every episode would require a rehearsal before going on the air. The problem was that Bill was on the air with Pulse every morning until ten o'clock and the walk to the theater would take about fifteen minutes. There was no way he could rehearse.

Yet, when that problem was voiced, Stewart had a ready answer: “I'd rather have Bill Cullen with no rehearsal than any other host with a rehearsal.”

Bill had no daytime TV obligations stopping him, but he didn't say yes immediately. He invited Stewart over to his apartment to talk it over. Stewart sat down and laid out the game.

“It's called The Price is Right.”

“What's that?” Bill asked.

“Well, the people try to guess how much an item costs, and the one that comes the closest gets it.”

“Oh, brilliant,” Bill replied with just a hint of sarcasm.


Stewart simulated a game while Bill got the hang of hosting and wrapped his head around the rules. Afterward, Stewart asked if Bill was still interested in hosting. The premise of the show seemed so staid to Bill that he didn't have high hopes, but he wasn't about to say no. Bill had, the previous year, been divorced, moved into a new apartment, and brought a new wife along with him. The divorce alone had left him with nothing. Bill said yes to The Price is Right because, frankly, he needed the money.

Stewart eagerly left to tell his bosses that they had a host. As soon as he was gone, Bill asked Ann what she thought of the game and got the impression that she didn't think too highly of it. Bill later recalled that he was expecting “the bomb of the ages,” but the show had a guaranteed contract from NBC, which meant thirteen weeks of extra cash that Bill could really use, and he figured at that time he could just move on and look for another job.

As confident as Bob Stewart was, Bill had reservations about what he had to offer for the new format. Even with all the experience he had as a game show host, even with his reputation for being quick with a quip, he just didn't think he had it in him to keep the show interesting.

“It's thirty minutes of numbers,” Bill lamented privately to Ann. “How can I make a number funny?”

Bob Stewart paid another visit to the apartment, briefcase in hand, and eagerly chatted with Bill. Bill liked Bob Stewart and respected him, but he felt he had to level with him about his reservations.

“Who's gonna watch this?” Bill asked him.

Bob Stewart calmly responded by picking up his briefcase, holding it up toward Bill, and asking, “What do you think I paid for this?”

Bill had seen a briefcase just like it recently and told him to the cent what he thought it cost. Bob shook his head and said, “No, it's made of leather.”

Ann responded by offering her own guess. Bob told her she was wrong. Bill and Ann got roped into playing a game with that briefcase, guessing over and over again while Bob Stewart coyly waited for them to zero in on it. The producer had turned Mr. & Mrs. Cullen into believers.


Yes, Bill was there for the old Price is Right, which aired on NBC and ABC for nine years. And here are a few stats to give you an idea of how popular this show was. It aired live five days a week; when it first went on the air, it was broadcast from a 600-seat theater on Broadway. After a few months, the show had so many ticket requests that it had to be moved to a thousand-seat theater, and by the end of its first year on the air, it was moved again to a twelve hundred-seat theater and they added a sixth episode each week for prime time. And even with six shows a week and a 1200-seat theater, there was a six-month waiting list for tickets. The daytime version was the highest-rated show on daytime TV, the primetime version was #8 on prime-time TV. Every week, the show held a contest called the Showcase Sweepstakes where a Showcase of prizes was presented and home viewers could mail in postcards to bid on it. They averaged 19 million entries each week.

And Bill Cullen was part of that success. Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, who oversaw the show, gave him a ton of credit for the show's popularity. Bob Stewart, the producer who ran the show, insisted on giving him credit too. NBC published a book that they distributed to potential advertisers in which they talked about how advertising on The Price is Right was more valuable than advertising on another program partly because Bill Cullen was hosting it.

Now, what exactly is it that makes a good game show host? In Bill's mind, not much. He actually referred to his own line of work as “a racket,” he called it “the easiest darn thing in the world.” But the thing is, as a game show fan, I've seen plenty of examples of bad game show hosts.


What Bill brought to a show was he cared about his contestants; he told the staff “It's better to make a friend than make a joke.” He would really have a conversation with the players and really get to know them well before the game started. He policed the game well; Bob Stewart called him an “on-camera producer”; when things went wrong, he could joke about it or he could call an audible and fix the problem with a solution of his own that worked and that was appropriate. He didn't make himself the center of attention; he made every contestant the star of the show and he would celebrate their big wins. He connected with the audience and the viewers at home. Game show hosts again are not a well-respected breed but the truth is not everybody can do that job and not just anybody should try.

And the most important thing I can say about Bill is that as hard as the job was, he made it look fun. Dick Clark talked about how, when he was a kid, he would listen to Bill on the radio, and he said when he listened to Bill Cullen, he thought to himself, “If I ever got to do what he did, wouldn't that be fun?” And ever since this book got released, I've done interviews with TV and radio broadcasters in West Virginia, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Mississippi, New Jersey, and all of the people I've spoken to, all of these professional broadcasters knew exactly who Bill Cullen was, and told me about watching his game shows or listening to his radio disc jockey shifts. And they spoke very fondly of him and some shared memories of watching him, but I've come to find in promoting this book, there are two generations of professional broadcasters who know exactly who Bill Cullen was, and I don't think that's a coincidence. Whether they loved game shows or not, they loved Bill. And I think Bill helped plant that little bug in their ears that said, “This could be a fun way to spend life.”




As Dick Clark mentioned above, Bill was truly a master - and Dick credits Bill's radio work as one of his inspirations. A lot of Bill's work as a game show emcee is out there to be sampled, but Bill was a man of many talents. With that in mind, we'd like to offer a couple of extras for your listening pleasure:

With thanks to Matt Ottinger bring you all five episodes of Bill's aforementioned 1982 radio series for the National Goose Council:

GOOSE WHO'S COMING TO DINNER
quackquackquackquackquack


Plus, gather the family 'round the internet for a treat from Bill's 1950s radio show, "Pulse." Courtesy of Matt Ottinger & Fred Wostbrock, we now bring you Bill's reading of:

"THE JUGGLER OF OUR LADY"

Lastly - the page you just read was originally a speech given to promote my biography of Bill. If you're interested in learning more about Bill - I've got you covered. Just click Bill's smiling face on the book cover below - Bill was a very, very interesting person and I think you'll find this book a fantastic addition to your home library.

book1

 

 
       

Before you go:

Up One Level to: Bill Cullen's World
Up Two Levels to: Game Show Utopia