Friday, April 8, 2016

The Origin of This is Your Life

In the aftermath of World War II, there were many ex-G.I.’s recuperating from battle wounds in military hospitals; a percentage emotionally paralyzed, despairing of readjustment to civilian life. Having tapped the resources of Truth or Consequences to assist in the war effort, there was now a fresh opportunity to help in a post-war era. Little did he know that a “good gesture” act for one particular contestant, physically crippled, would ultimately lead to the creation of another successful radio/television program, This is Your Life.

“Shortly after the end of World War II, General Omar Bradley, impressed by our bond efforts, asked if we could help with the disabled veterans, particularly the paraplegics,” Ralph Edwards later recalled. “The hospital doctors told us many were afraid to go home for fear they wouldn’t be accepted and properly cared for.” Known as the “invisible wounds of war,” the result of prolonged exposure to combat-related stress, many of the wounded were depressed and reluctant – ashamed – to have family and friends see them in their debilitating condition. Edwards had multiple discussions with Al Paschall and the idea men to create a means by which the radio program could offer a second chance for veterans to advance their lives beyond a hospital bed, and double as a public service message to radio listeners from coast-to-coast.

A paraplegic at Birmingham General Hospital in Van Nuys, California, Lawrence Tranter, was selected as the first honoree. (It was at the suggestion of a doctor at the Rehabilitation Department of Veterans Hospitals, that a soldier paralyzed from the waist down be selected.) The doctors and psychiatrists were in full support that the radio program try to encourage paraplegics to talk about their past, and welcome their new future. The public needed to know the reason why the wounded, in both heart and body, were fearful of returning to their home and native communities because they felt a lack of acceptance. “We selected a paraplegic soldier from a Navy hospital in California, researched his story, and had him brought to our stage in Hollywood in a wheel chair,” Edwards later recalled. “We decided to present a young ex-Marine, Lawrence Tranter, of Murray, Utah, on Truth of Consequences and surprise him with a show of love and pride from all his family and school pals, his boss at the drug store and his favorite teacher.”

On the evening of April 27, 1946, 21-year old Lawrence Tranter, weighing a mere 91 pounds, confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down as a result of wounds he suffered on Luzon, appeared on stage as a contestant. Mentally, prior to the radio broadcast, he was close to death. Physically, he wasn’t much better. His only control was over his fingers, which he could move freely. As usually happened when a special contestant had been “set up” in advance, he couldn’t answer the question and therefore had to pay the consequences: an emotional revisit of his past. One by one, old friends, family and neighbors, were reunited with him on stage – beginning with the chief clerk of his draft board. The profile of a returning hero was dramatized through a series of dramatic flashbacks with leading events and personalities who played a part in Tranter’s life from his high school days, through his induction into the Army. One scene dramatized the day of his birth. The appearances of friends and family were a complete surprise to Tranter. Mrs. Louise Erickson of the Murray, Utah, draft board at the time when he was inducted in 1943, spoke to him in behalf of the late Mrs. Glen Howe, who was chairman of the board when Tranter was called, but had since died. Mr. Varion Morteson, the High school principal who gave Lawrence his high school diploma spoke praise of the student who impressed his teachers. Irving Olsen, Junior Madsen and Orlan Parker, friends who Lawrence used to “gang up” at Hammond’s Ice Cream Parlor back in Murray, Utah, recollect Lawrence’s job as a soda jerk in 1940. Lawrence’s brother (Leonard) and sister (Mildred), made an appearance. Mildred was now married and has a young daughter. Dr. Warren Shepherd, the physician who brought Lawrence into the world, back in 1925, re-enacted Lawrence’s first day on Earth. Frank and Lorene Tranter, father and mother, reunited with their son.

After the reunion on the stage, Lawrence was given a glimpse of his future… While Lawrence was in the hospital recovering, he was studying watch repair and had often said that he would like to make a life business of repairing watches.


Prior to the broadcast, Ralph Edwards made arrangements with the Bulova Watch Company, located at 630 Fifth Avenue in New York City, to receive complete free training, plus a regular weekly salary, while attending the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking for Servicemen in New York. John H. Ballard and Arde Bulova, along with their associates, through the Bulova Foundation, had established the school for people like Tranter. Alex Cohen, in charge of public relations at Bulova, helped work out the arrangements for this radio broadcast. A place to live would be provided for Lawrence during his attendance at the Bulova School. He was also asked to choose the city in which he would like to open his own business for a jewelry store and watch repair shop… And that store would be set up for Lawrence Tranter, completely stocked with the merchandise he needed to open business, all the tools of the watch-repairing trade, and rent paid for one year in advance for the store. Meanwhile, until arrangements for Tranter’s trip to New York’s Bulova School were completed, he was provided a few days to spend in Hollywood with his family and friends who came to visit him for the radio program. (Edwards closed the ceremony by informing “the gang from Murray, Utah” to be guests at a private supper at the expense of Truth or Consequences – and, so that Lawrence would not be late for any of his “future appointments,” he received a pullover wristwatch.)

In New York, the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking had been established to teach a craft to veterans who needed a new field in which to earn a living. Since Tranter had not yet recovered sufficiently from his injuries for the hospital to allow him to travel to New York immediately following the program, Gen. Omar Bradley and the Veterans’ Administration requested the Bulova School to open a branch at Tranter’s hospital. Once he was well enough, he would go to New York and complete his studies. Between tears of joy, the war veteran accepted the proposition. And, according to two separate accounts from staff members who were involved with the surprise consequence, there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience.

Edwards closed the act with these words: “This is a great example of what an industry can do to help the disabled veteran. Boys paralyzed as Lawrence Tranter or otherwise disabled in battle. The Veterans’ Administration hopes other industries will set up similar rehabilitation programs for veterans in hospitals. Training courses such as this help speed the recovery of these disabled G.I.’s and it may start them on a new career as it did Lawrence. Those boys didn’t forget you, folks. Let’s not forget them.”

On Truth or Consequences, surprising a contestant with family relatives was done a number of times, especially for soldiers stationed at training bases during the War who longed to see their mother, wife and/or children. The war might have been declared over, but the urgency of family reunions was still essential. Emotions rose on stage and in the studio audience, attesting Edwards succeeded beyond anything he and his crew expected. If there was any question whether the quiz program succeeded in delivering a public service message, there could be no doubt by the letters, telegrams and feedback, numbering in the thousands.


            “I have been advised by our Radio Director, Mr. Brechner, of your help in preparing the Truth or Consequences radio broadcast of April 27 involving a patient from the Birmingham Veterans Hospital. This outstanding broadcast, which I thoroughly enjoyed, was a fine contribution to our Medical Rehabilitation Program. Will you please accept my thanks and extend my appreciation to Mr. Al Pasqual and other members of your staff who helped prepare this worthy broadcast.”
                        -- Omar N. Bradley, General, U.S. Army,
Administrator of the Veterans Administration

            “I listened to your very fine program on April 27, 1946, and I want to express my great appreciation to you for your fine work in the rehabilitation of Lawrence Tranter, Murray, Utah. This young, according to your introduction, served in the Philippines and was wounded there while taking part in the Liberation of the Philippines. It gave me a great sense of pride to learn that he had received a disability that would perhaps handicap him for the rest of his life The great deed that you have performed in his rehabilitation and of other young men deserves great praise and I hope that you and others will continue the good work for the men who have given all they had for humanity.”
                        -- Joseph P. Hyman, National Commander of the
                                    National Society – Army of the Philippines

            “I listened to Truth or Consequences Saturday night and still can’t get the show out of my mind. I’ve heard many human interest spots before, and during the war had occasion to handle a number of them myself, but can honestly say that I have never heard anything done so well.”
                        -- Warren Lewis of the National Broadcasting Company

            Ralph Edwards did not forget Lawrence Tranter. Almost two years later, on the evening of April 24, 1948, the same chair was wheeled up to a microphone on the Truth or Consequences stage. Tranter had begun a new interest in life. He became mentally stimulated because he had found something to occupy his alert mind and supple fingers. He learned a trade and improved physically. Tranter had completed his course and put on 45 pounds. Edwards moved over to Tranter’s microphone to bestow his promises: a lease for the store which Tranter then signed; a check for the first year’s rent; an inventory of the stock guaranteed in writing; and a $1,000 check to open the store’s bank account from John Ballard and Ardie Bulova of the Bulova Foundation. Edwards then informed Tranter that a group of Salt Lake City jewelers had formed a committee to help him with the number plate for his store: 4881 South State Street, in his hometown of Murray, Utah.

            With the formalities over, Edwards walked back to his own microphone and said, “Oh, Lawrence, there’s just one more thing. You can’t get in the store without a key. Here’s the key, fellow… come and get it. Remember, two years ago they said you’d never be able to get out of that wheelchair. This is the future, Lawrence. This is your key to the store. Come and get it.” Slowly, Tranter rose from the chair. Leaning on a large table, the ex-Pfc. made his way across the stage, slowly walking, and took the key. “I had purposely encouraged this to demonstrate the tremendous rehabilitation that had taken place in the boy’s previous physical and psychological deficiencies,” Edwards later explained. “The audience stood and applauded.” Tranter could now get along with crutches.

Bob Barker and Ralph Edwards

            It was during this broadcast that Tranter had a surprise for Ralph Edwards. He announced that he had gotten married four months earlier, and introduced his wife, Dorothy. She was the lovely red-haired lady who served as his nurse at the Bulova School of Watchmaking. Together they stood on stage for the official presentation of his diploma from the Bulova School of Watchmaking, made by former head of the Veteran’s Administration, Chief of Staff of the Army, General Omar Bradley, speaking from Washington, D.C.:
            “Hello, Lawrence. I’m going to step out of my job as a soldier for just a minute this evening to back to those days when we were working for you in the Veterans’ Administration. I like to recall them because they were busy and productive days when we could do a little for those of you who did so much for us. Tonight, as you leave the Bulova School, as you put the hospital behind you to take your place as a business man in your home town, you are helping to prove what millions of veterans everywhere have claimed when they say to the American people, ‘Give us the chance – give us the opportunity – and we will make good.’ Lawrence, the burden of proof is not so much upon you as it is upon us, the American people, to whom you have come back. For it us up to us to show you that democracy is the measure not only of a man’s personal freedom but his economic opportunity as well. If only we will remember that this great country of ours is peopled by young men like you, men and women with the spunk and courage to make it an even better place in which to live, we will make democracy mean a great deal more to our children – yes, and to the puzzled people who live tonight in nations around the world. Again, congratulations. My good wishes to you and Mrs. Tranter for a full and happy lifetime.”

            Ralph Edwards thanked General Bradley and then spoke the works he was to repeat many times to millions of radio listeners: “This is your life.”

            Behind the scenes, the Decker Jewelry Company, wholesale jewelers, supplied the opening stock for the store. As promised on the broadcast, Tranter was given a completely-stocked jewelry store, including electric sign, all interior fixtures, window trims, a watchmaker’s bench, a safe, interior work, and other necessities. The merchandise itself, the bill of goods, was given to Lawrence Tranter. The Bulova Watch Company agreed to underwrite his credit, but Tranter had to pay for the merchandise. His stock, like any business, was to be paid for out of his profits, since, of course, he would be selling the goods and realizing the difference between the wholesale and retail price. Edwards explained this to Tranter on the evening of his initial consequence, and reminded on the evening of his return to the program, and Edwards himself agreed to underwrite his credit to the extent of $500. When it was discovered that $500 would not even complete window dressing for one of the two display windows, the Murray City Chamber of Commerce got involved and explained to Edwards that tentative dates set for the grand opening of the store had been pushed back to ensure the store would be fully furnished as promised on the program. As a result, Bulova extended Tranter with $2,000 worth of credit.

            His first customer was supposedly Gov. Herbert B. Maw of Utah.

The Lawrence Tranter broadcast was so overwhelming that Ralph Edwards discussed the proposal of doing a weekly “good gesture act” covering the life of an exceptional individual who deserved more than verbal gratitude. A few months later Truth or Consequences featured a consequence imposed on Lester Hansen, who was asked to “act” in a little dramatization in which he was assisted by radio actors Jack Moyles and Iva Green. The dramatization portrayed the actual heroism and experiences of the veteran, but the contestant was not aware until he read the “script” that he was acting out his own story. For his efforts as an actor and in recognition of his exploits during the war, Lester received a $1,000-diamond engagement ring (and wedding band to match) to give the girl he was marrying soon; a complete wardrobe for civilian life including two Hart Schaffner Marx suits and top coats; and all-expenses-paid for equipping his new car (he already had the car) so that he would be able to drive it without using his disabled limbs. Truth or Consequences arranged this special equipment for the car through consultation with the vet’s hospital.

Lester Hansen, 28, was paralyzed from the hips down. An artillery lieutenant in the war, Lester Hansen was wounded in the back in a battle on Biak Island, a dot in the Pacific Ocean off New Guinea. After two and a half years spent in army hospitals at Walla Walla and Los Angeles, he was discharged from the army as a major. In 1947, he was 28 years old, busy laying out a doctor’s career for himself. He was living in Los Angeles with his wife, Ethel, whom he married less than a year prior after meeting her in the Walla Walla hospital, where she served with the Red Cross. Doctors were puzzled by Hansen’s ailment, saying they knew no reason why he could not walk, except that nerves had been shocked. And, they claimed, another great shock might undo the damage and enable Hansen to walk again.


Two days later, on October 6, 1948, an audition disc was recorded (never aired) focusing on the life of Lester Hanson, a paralyzed war veteran from Spokane, Washington. Hosted by Harry Von Zell, who would obviously be replaced by Ralph Edwards when the radio program premiered in November, the demo was played back for potential sponsors. Hanson played the role of a “surprised” guest, with full understanding that his demo could convince a sponsor and a network to feature a similar program on a weekly basis.

The first radio broadcast of This is Your Life aired on the evening of November 9, 1948. Sponsored by Philip Morris and broadcast over NBC, the premiere episode was modeled after the Lawrence Tranter show, which was the forerunner of This is Your Life. Paul Jackson, a paraplegic, was chosen to be the first “victim” of the new radio program. Jackson was wounded and buried in the snow in the Battle of the Bulge. A medic tripped over him and saved his life. Jackson never knew who the medic was so Edwards and his crew ran down the files and presented to Jackson the young man responsible for saving his life. For his future, they provided complete equipment for a gun shop in a place he was starting in Tulare, California.

And now the good news...
A complete inventory was recently made on the scripts, along with Ralph Edwards' personal scrapbooks, newspaper clipping files, photographs and loads of other materials pertaining to the radio version of This is Your Life was recently unearthed and digitally scanned. Unlike the television version which glamorized celebrities, the radio version for the most part focused on every day citizens and until now proved a challenge identifying exactly who each of the "contestants" were -- until now. Crossing fingers, all of this material may go to print in book form within a year or two. Again, crossing fingers...

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