Friday, March 7, 2014

Jack Benny and The Walking Man Contest

Jack Benny
The date was December 20, 1947. Radio’s popular quiz program, Truth or Consequences, recently concluded another Miss Hush Contest, this time revealing Martha Graham, a professional dancer in New York City, as the elusive voice heard weekly on the program, stumping radio listeners for weeks. For the holiday season, Ralph Edwards and Ed Bailey, the producer of the program, established a special three-way set-up to present a special broadcast from the Long Beach Naval Hospital, in Long Beach, California, and a pick-up from Greenville, Tennessee (with several different locations in Greenville). Through this three-way set-up, a wounded veteran in the hospital, Hubert Smith, received a surprise visit from his mother and father and his fiancée, Lila Morrell, and with cut-ins from his home town of Greenville. From 8:41 to 8:44 p.m., the program originated from Greenville, Tennessee with friends of Hubert Smith, providing warmest wishes. These remote pickups originated from a high school party, the George R. Lane & Co. Department Store; Main Street; and the Asbury Methodist Church where the bells of Asbury were heard ringing, and Ida Ripley, church organist, said “hello” and played for the Christmas carolers, who sang during the program. Rev. M. Guy Fleenor, of the same church, extended Christmas greetings to Hubert Smith. Smith’s high school principal was at the high school party pickup. Naturally, Smith was brought to tears.

Back in the Hollywood studios, Ralph Edwards made the first announcement of a new contest soon to be explained in detail. And a sound effect was heard over the microphone, footsteps of a man walking, and Ralph Edwards asks the audience, “Who is the Walking Man?” For the next two months, Truth or Consequences kept faithful listeners glued to their speakers and a craze that became the talk of water coolers. Today, fans of old-time radio know who the Walking Man was: Jack Benny.

Broadcast of December 27, 1947
As with most of the Truth or Consequences, this broadcast originated from the Hollywood Studios at NBC (Sunset and Vine). Offering the usual “stunt,” which varied every week, this broadcast featured a cut-in from a Hollywood home in Bronson Avenue where a live camel is delivered in a lady’s kitchen while her husband talks to her in a two-way set-up between the home of the couple and the radio studios. The husband made arrangements about the camel but the wife did not know.

Meanwhile, the “Prizeless Christmas Wish” letters which were requested the week prior, were discussed on this program. According to the producer’s handwritten notes, more than 75,000 letters were received in answer to the “Wish.” The ten top “wishes” were read: Peace, Understanding, Faith, Love, God, Happiness, Contentment, Tolerance, Health, and Friendship as the “one gift” a person might choose to give the world at Christmas time.

The program concluded with the Walking Man, who was once again heard over the air. Listeners were told that full details would be given next week when the contest officially opened.

Broadcast of January 3, 1948
From the Hollywood Studios with a two-way set-up to the home of Jack Dempsey, who lived at 5254 Los Feliz Blvd., in Hollywood. Jack Dempsey, ex-heavyweight boxing champion of the world, took part in the stunt with contestant Jack Bayuth, of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bayuth was sent to force his way into Dempsey’s home without realizing that he was being sent to the home of the boxing champ. Announcer Charles Lyon appeared on the broadcast, taking part in the scene from the Dempsey home.

Contestants listening to the program the last two weeks were not surprised to hear the Walking Man’s footsteps again. But now the details of the contest were finally revealed. Ralph Edwards read the rhymed riddle, which had clues to the identity of the Walking Man:

            “Bing – Bong – Bell! It’s ten and only one can tell.
            Master of the Metropolis, fits his name quite well.”

The Walking Man was described as a well-known American male, not a female. To enter the contest, radio listeners were asked to write a letter to “Walking Man, Hollywood, California,” completing in no more than 25 words the statement: “We should all support the American Heart Association because…” Contestants were instructed not to state the name of the person they believe was the Walking Man. Included with the completion of the statement, listeners were instructed to include their name, address and telephone number in the upper right hand corner of their letter. They were to include a contribution to the American Heart Association. The judges of the letters would not see the financial contribution, because the amount of money donated was not taken into consideration. Only the closing half of the statement was considered. The winners of the three best letters each week would be telephoned and asked to give their guess at the identity of the “Walking Man.” This particular qualification was no different from the prior “Miss Hush” contests. According to statistics, 9.5 percent of the contestants did not submit their letters as instructed. Some failed to include their phone number. Others did not provide their mailing address on the envelope or the letter.

The first of the listeners would be called during the broadcast of January 17. Letters received by Monday of each week would be judged in the contest for the following Saturday; those letters received after Monday will be held over for the next week. Listeners could continue to submit letters every week, provided they followed instructions and made another donation to the American Heart Association. Any amount was accepted.

Prizes to be awarded to the winner of the contest included a Bendix Home Laundry (washer, dryer and automatic ironer), a $1,000 Diamond and Ruby Wrist Watch, and a four-door Cadillac car. For each week the contest continued, three new prizes would be added to the pot. All listeners who were telephoned during the contest would receive a set of Sterling Silver flatware, regardless of whether they won the contest or not.

Broadcast of January 10, 1948
Once again, the Walking Man is heard. Ralph Edwards repeats the jingle clue. Three new prizes were added to the pot this week: a Tappan Kitchen Range, a 16mm picture sound projector and screen with a complete reel for the picture I Walk Alone (and arrangements for the winner to receive film for one moving picture for each month during an entire year), and two weeks paid vacation for two in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Producer Hal Wallis, whose movie I Walk Alone was about to be released theatrically, took advantage of the free publicity on the quiz program with this special offer.

The celebrity guest for this broadcast was Lizabeth Scott, who took part in a stunt by serving as the real date for a high school student at Fairfax High. She went to the ROTC ball at Fairfax with this student after his “date” called off the original date and it was learned that he had no girl to go with to the ball. One can only imagine what went through the minds of the other students that night!

Broadcast of January 17, 1948
The first three telephone calls were placed to contestants on this broadcast. All three were incorrect: Harry Truman, Louis B. Mayer and J. Edgar Hoover. New clues in the contest were added: the whinnying sounds of a horse, the howling of wind, rushing of water, and growling noises of cats and dogs. Added to the pot was a vacuum cleaner with attachments, a 1948 console FM and AM radio-phonograph combination television set, and a $1,000 diamond ring.

The celebrity guest for the evening was William Bendix, star of radio’s The Life of Riley. The stunt involved a hotel maid who called her hotel for a reservation as part of the stunt. She actually got a suite with all service for one week at the Town Hall Hotel, where she was employed.

Ralph Edwards publicity photo
Broadcast of January 24, 1948
Three more telephone calls were placed to contestants on this broadcast. All three were incorrect: James E. West, Boss Ed Krump of Memphis, Tennessee, and the third person did not provide an answer. They hesitated too long. Prizes added to the pot included a Sevel Refrigerator, Art-Craft Venetian for every room in the house, and a Sherwin Williams Paint Job inside and out for the entire house. Clues included the sounds of a horse cantering.

The celebrity guest for the evening was Jerry Colonna, who took part in a stunt about the song My Honky Little Donkey and Me. As a special “gift,” Ralph Edwards presented Colonna with a live donkey. And yes, the donkey was on the show. (The donkey also made a mess on stage and had to be cleaned up, but this factoid was not disclosed over the air.)

Broadcast of January 31, 1948
Three more telephone calls were placed to contestants on this broadcast. Two were incorrect: Herbert Marshall and Henry J. Kaiser. The third listener called did not answer the telephone. Contestants were notified in advance by telegram to be ready for the phone call and instructed on what time the call would be placed. That contestant was not phoned the next week. They lost their chance. Prizes added to the pot included a complete wardrobe of women’s clothes for every season in the year (Fay Foster design), a new 15-foot Coolerator home freezer filled with Birdseye Frozen Foods, and a Luscombe Silvaire Standard 65 airplane made in Dallas, Texas. Birdseye made a similar donation for the prior “Miss Hush” contests, understanding the value of advertising on the program.

The celebrity guest for the evening was Frank Sinatra, who was cut-in for a few words from the NBC studio where he was doing a warm-up previous to going on the air for his own show, Your Hit Parade. A contestant from Truth or Consequences was sent to Sinatra to collect a “kiss” from Frankie. She asks for it over the air and gets it. Sinatra’s verbal response after the kiss was also broadcast over the mike.

Broadcast of February 7, 1948
Three more telephone calls were placed to contestants on this broadcast. All three were incorrect: Richard Dix, Edward J. Baker and Bing Crosby. Added to the pot were three more prizes. Complete installation of “Pomona Space-Rite” tile in the kitchen and bathroom, complete Ida-O-Pine furniture for both the living room and dining room, and a $2,400 Normel Trailer coach equipped with modern kitchen and sleeping quarters for four.

The feature stunt for the evening was a surprise reunion of members of a barbershop quartet which had been disbanded 20 years prior. The members, after the reunion, sing several numbers. They also received weekend entertainment, all expenses paid, in Hollywood. The four members of the original quartet were Thomas Rawlings of Santa Monica, California, Carleton Scott of Birmingham, Michigan, Joseph Jones of New York City, and Herman Smith of Highland Park, Michigan. The members of the quartet talked about the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartette Singing in America. They also told about the way this society really exists throughout the land and about the fact that President Truman was one of the members.

Broadcast of February 14, 1948
This broadcast originated from the Masonic Auditorium in Davenport, Iowa, where the cast was entertaining at the Mississippi Valley Home and Food Show. (Commercials originated from Hollywood.) While in the Midwest city, Edwards was the star attraction of the Home and Food Show and acted as “guest manager” of the NBC affiliate station there. Special guest for this broadcast was Arthur Kropach, Mayor of Davenport, who took part in a stunt in which a contestant “runs for Mayor” (for one week, the contestant ran errands for the Mayor.) The special stunt featured Iowa’s animals: an Iowa mule, two puppies, and a trained monkey. The monkey appeared with his master and organ grinder, William, who came from Chicago for this personal appearance.

Three more telephone calls were placed to contestants on this broadcast. All three were incorrect: Walter Huston, Eddie Cantor and Winston Churchill. The new clues added were sounds of gun shots and the statement, “Go back to your field -- will you walk again next week?” Prizes added to the pot were a Remington Noiseless typewriter, an Outboard Motor Boat and a $1,000 full-length Persian lamb fur coat.

Broadcast of February 21, 1948
This broadcast originated from New York City. (Commercials originated from Hollywood.) Ralph Edwards announced that he was in the Big Apple to attend the current dance recital presented by Martha Graham, the Miss Hush of the recent Truth or Consequences contest, which ended shortly before the Walking Man contest began.

Three more telephone calls were placed to contestants on this broadcast. All three were incorrect: James Petrillo, Robert E. Hannegan and Joe Louis. Prizes added to the pot included two years’ supply of Lady Pepperell Sheets, $500 worth of electrical equipment for the winner’s home (equipment chosen by the winner and installed free of charge) and a brand new piano. The clue added to the contest was the whistling of Annie Laurie.

The stunt concerned orchestra leaders and special guests included Guy Lombardo, Horace Heidt, Frankie Carle, Dick Jurgens, Louis Prima and Larry Clinton. The boys played their favorite instruments and, with one contestant from Brooklyn, Mrs. Brook, “leading” the orchestra without realizing how famous her orchestra members were until after the fact.

Broadcast of February 28, 1948
Program originates from Hollywood, having returned from New York City. Three more telephone calls were placed to contestants on this broadcast. All three were incorrect: Alvin C. York (Sgt. York of WWI), Andy Varipapa, and Bulldog Drummond. The last guess referred to the radio actor, Ned Weaver, who played the role on radio and whose footsteps were heard on the weekly program. Clues added to the contest included “Remember we say the Walking Man, not the Waking Man, or the Laughing Man” and “Listen to the squeak of his shoes – doesn’t the squeak tell you anything?” A third clue was provided: “Bing-Bong-Bell, when do bells ring Bing-Bong-Bell?” A Fiddler plays the scales during the delivery of the rhyme.

Prizes added to the pot included electric blankets (one for every bed in the winner’s home), three Coronado suits for every male member of the winner’s family, and an electric sewing machine.

Special program guest was Jim Backus, who did his “Hubert Updyke” characterization. The feature stunt was a Leap Year stunt in which the contestant was sent out with a real live kangaroo named “Bouncing Betty,” and instructed to collect girls who will leap through life with him. He received $10 for every girl who returned with him to the studio. The feature contestants were Mr. and Mrs. Bob Dyer of Sydney, Australia, who talked about the land “down under.”

During the week of February 23 to 27, Jack Eigen, a disc jockey at WINS in New York, brought down the wrath of Ralph Edwards (among others) on his head for revealing the identity of “The Walking Man” on his radio broadcasts. A number of newspaper columnists and radio broadcasters had, on occasion, learned the identity but refrained from publicizing it because of the charity angle. Eigen attempted to justify his actions by stating “freedom of the press,” but after pressure from his employer, offered a public apology. As a result, however, Edwards and his staff had to make the hard decision whether or not to include radio contestants from the state of New York, fearing unjust and unfair practices to contestants residing in other states. The decision was ultimately made to randomly select contestants without bias, as it had been done weeks prior, since radio listeners of Jack Eigen could have phoned friends in other states. A winner to the contest was expected on the evening of February 28, as a result. Surprisingly, no one guessed correctly. Nothing has been found to verify whether Florence Hubbard, on the broadcast of March 6, took a wild guess, an educated guess based on the clues, or heard the rumor leaked as a result of Eigen’s radio broadcasts.

Broadcast of March 6, 1948
The Walking Man was correctly identified on this broadcast: Jack Benny. The winner of the contest was Florence Hubbard, widow, of 40 North Waller Avenue in Chicago, where she was employed as a dress checker in the Carson-Pierie-Scott department store, commonly referred to as Carson’s. Mrs. Hubbard and Jack Benny were both heard on the program.

Special studio guest was Brig. Gen. Leonard D. Weddington (retired), who took part in a stunt that received an appeal to young men to make a career in the Army.

Over $1,500,000 had been gained for the American Heart Association from the Walking Man contest.

Ralph Edwards, Florence Hubbard and Jack Benny with all the prizes.

Broadcast of March 13, 1948
Special guest was Florence Hubbard, winner of the Walking Man contest. She described herself as 68 years old and told the story about the way she became interested in the contest because the proceeds of letters entered went to the American Heart Association. Her late husband was a physician who died of heart disease. She sent in a total of 30 letters to the contest, with each contribution of one dollar. She paid tribute to her employers, the Carson-Pierie-Scott Department Store in Chicago and told how they gave her a luncheon and had the store stylist outfit her in a complete new wardrobe for her trip to Hollywood. "I can hardly believe it happened to me," Hubbard told a reporter for a Chicago newspaper, explaining the same details on this radio broadcast. "I came home Saturday from work, wet from the rain, hungry and tired. I took a hot bath and just had an opportunity to get into a bathrobe when the telephone rang. It was conductor Ralph Edwards of the Truth or Consequences program, sponsors of the ‘Walking Man’ program. He asked me who was the ‘walking man’ and I replied: ‘Jack Benny.’ Mr. Edwards congratulated me and told me I was the winner.”

An announcement was also made on the program that Truth or Consequences was given the Radio Mirror magazine award for the Best Quiz Program on the air, according to a Radio Mirror listeners’ poll. Ralph Edwards hinted that a new contest would begin soon but provided no details or dates, suggesting it might be the “The Laughing Lady.” The next contest, however, would be “Microphone X,” inviting the radio listeners to guess the mysterious sound and where it originated.

The origin of the “Walking Man” contest began in December of 1945, when Ralph Edwards began the “Mr. Hush” contest, originally intended as a spoof of giveaway shows. Each week a man whose identity was kept secret, whispered clues to his identity. Radio listeners were given a chance to guess the identity and win prizes. Jack Dempsey was the first “Mr. Hush,” which took five weeks of broadcasts for someone to win the contest. After a number of “Mr. Hush” contests, Edwards tried a variation-on-a-theme with a “Mrs. Hush” contest, which culminated to a jackpot between $17,500 and $18,000. Her identity was that of silent screen actress Clara Bow. The ratings (according to which service you consulted) verified Truth or Consequences as one of the highest-rated quiz programs of 1946 and 1947. The Clara Bow stunt was phenomenon and only once did Edwards ever top his stunt… with “The Walking Man” contest.

The mail department provided an accurate count and it was evident that The Walking Man contest outdrew all prior “Miss Hush” contests. By May of 1948, C.E. Hooper revealed a startling statistic that Ralph Edwards was already aware of: Truth or Consequences was the second highest rated evening program, falling behind Fibber McGee and Molly, especially during the months of January and February as a result of the Walking Man Contest. As expected according to Hooper (another ratings system), the Truth or Consequences radio program, when the contest was blown, millions turned off their sets to learn who the Walking man was. They were correct. Ratings dropped the week after the contest concluded.

Many radio producers believed their programs were worth the cost factor when they paid off better than one Hooper point to each $1,000 of program cost. After the success of Truth or Consequences, radio producers started wondering if the answer came from contests with immense giveaways.

According to multiple inter-office memos at CBS and NBC, the Miss Hush and the Walking Man contest set a bad precedent, claimed a growing number of radio executives. The Truth or Consequences hooplas, with their spectacular rating and publicity payoffs, touched off the most widespread prize contest and giveaway epidemic on record. “Most feel it’s approaching the critical stage, that it’s unhealthy for radio advertising in general – an artificial stimulant to listening and buying; that it’s giving people a feeling that radio’s a big lottery, and it isn’t helping to raise broadcasting standards.” A great bulk of the merchandise given away was donated by manufacturers for free advertising, which Ralph Edwards accepted with open arms. The only exception was medicine and drugs since the weekly sponsor for Truth or Consequences, Procter & Gamble, was a drug manufacturing firm (promoting their popular product, Duz). The sponsor also had to approve of all the prizes before they were officially accepted.

Ralph Edwards
According to newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan (years before he became a major television personality), the contest put a strain on the relationship of Jack Benny and Mary Livingston. 

On the third Saturday night on which he came home late, Mary Benny said to her husband: "Jack, I’m getting fed up with this every week. What’s the alibi this time?" She looked at him with the curious glint in her eye that husbands accept as the last calm before the storm. "I haven’t any alibi, Doll," said Jack weakly. Jack pledged not to tell even his wife the truth. 

Every Saturday afternoon, Jack Benny drove from the house to play the "Walking Man" for the quiz program. As a result, he was late for dinner each Saturday night, and as Sullivan described, "he was rapidly getting himself into a peek of trouble with the irate missus. The tension started easing about two weeks ahead of the formal revelation. At that time, in Los Angeles, enterprising hawkers were peddling handbills in the street, price $1, giving a regular racing sheet rundown of the possibilities. Mary bought one of them, saw that Jack was high on the list of probabilities. From then on, when he came home late Saturday nights, she just looked at him coldly but stopped bawling him out."

“I got a call from Mickey Rockford, of MCA, to rush to NBC to discuss something he couldn’t divulge over the phone," Jack Benny later recalled. "He met me and told me to follow him to an office. He unlocked the door, looked up and down the corridor, entered quickly and beckoned me in. When I saw Ralph Edwards alone in the place, I figured that it was one of Ralph’s contests, and it was. . . . ‘This is the only time I’ll ever talk to you, Jack,’ said Ralph. ‘From now on, we can’t ever be seen together.’ Then he gave me my instructions and I had to pledge I’d never reveal our secret to a soul.”

“It was funny at Hollywood parties,” Benny laughed. “Van Johnson is a nut on mystery contests, and this contest really drove him batty. One night, at the Billy Goetz house, Van was sitting with me and saying how exasperated he’d become at his failure to identify ‘The Walking Man.’ He wouldn’t talk about anything else. ‘Ding, dong, bell,’ reasoned Van, ‘must be a church. Do you think it’s Winston Churchill, Jack?’ I said it probably was. Weeks later, after the announcement, I met him at a party. Van looked at me and whispered: ‘You no-good louse.’”

Jack Benny's radio writers started suspecting that it was their employer, laid a Saturday trap for him instigated by Mary’s brother, Hilliard, (Benny’s program is written every Saturday afternoon). Hilliard and Sam Perrin, pretending they’d left their cars at home, asked Jack to have dinner with them after the program was drafted and then drive them home. Throughout dinner, Jack couldn’t look at his watch. Then he drove them home, and after dropping off Perrin, he drove away very slowly. Once around the corner, Benny tore at high speed up to the house in Hollywood hills, reaching his destination moments before he was needed for the broadcast.

“If a motorcycle cop had grabbed me, I’d have been a dead pigeon,” Benny recalled. For fear of tipping off contestants, the Benny program following Ralph Edwards’ announcement could not be written in advance. On Saturday afternoon, the Benny writers completed the regular Sunday night program. A few hours later, Ralph Edwards named the winner. Benny had to assemble his writers and, with the exception of the Phil Harris spot, they had to write a whole new program. They finished it at 2 a. m. Sunday.

On the evening of March 14, Florence Hubbard made an appearance on The Lucky Strike Program, starring Jack Benny. Her radio appearance was courtesy of her employer. After winning the contest, she told Ralph Edwards over the phone that she would come to Hollywood only if her employer would give her the time off. Considering the publicity value to the department store, there was no hesitation. Jack Benny and his writers rated a low curtsy from the trade for his hastily thrown-together show that featured Florence Hubbard. As described above, the script in advance for the usual Sunday evening broadcast was shelved as a quick script had to be quickly drafted as a result of the contest. The program was built around Benny’s “Walking Man” character and made full capital of the lighter side of the contest. Tradesmen in multiple newspapers and magazines agreed that it was one of Benny’s funniest shows of the season.

A critic for Variety magazine remarked in his April 5, 1948, column, “Every season is made noteworthy by an incident, character or even a punch line. Year’s best yock in our book was delivered by a non-pro, Mrs. Hubbard, who won ‘The Walking Man’ contest. Her show-stopper was, ‘I’m lonely but loaded.’”

As for Florence Hubbard, winner of the contest, mistakenly referred to with the wrong prefix as “Mrs. Florence Hubbard” in newspapers (remember, she was a widow), spent the remainder of March in Hollywood at the expense of the producers of Truth or Consequence. She was provided a tour of the Paramount lot and reportedly somebody sold her a ticket for a $15,000 drawing to be held at the St. Timothy Parish. Seems even after winning the contest and all those prizes, she could not resist buying a one dollar ticket for a drawing. The total estimated value of the prizes she won on the radio quiz contest was $25,000.

Topping his own mark of eight weeks to a contest, the radio competition raised more than $1,500,000 for the American Heart Association and staggered mailmen with over 2,000,000 letters for an average contribution of 70 cents per letter.

Ralph Edwards later explained his clues thusly: “Bing, bong, bell could mean Sunday church bells, Big Ben or the NBC chimes; ‘10 and only one can tell’ refers to a deck of cards, eleventh card being the jack, or J is the tenth letter; ‘master of the metropolis’ refers to his man-servant, Rochester. Benny was chosen as the Walking Man because Waukegan is from the Indian of ‘walk again.’ The heavy tread of Benny’s walk was to indicate that he carried his money in his shoes.”

The system was set up carefully to ensure the least number of people were in on the gag. Even Mary Livingston did not know Jack Benny was the Walking Man. Every Saturday evening Benny was hidden away with an NBC engineer in the Laurel Canyon home of producer Al Pascal. The engineer set up the microphone and floor mat to ensure the sound came through perfectly. No recordings were used. Benny supplied his own shoes.

In late February 1948, what had been a good-natured rivalry between the contending camps of Truth or Consequences and People Are Funny took a rancorous turn with the announcement of a new “Raleigh riddle” on the Art Linkletter radio program. Somehow or other the word leaked to the Compton Agency and Procter & Gamble radio executives that the giveaway device too closely resembled the Ralph Edwards format for the “Miss Hush” and “Walking Man” contests. A protest was lodged with NBC in New York, which was said to have given its blessing to the John Guedel, producer of People Are Funny. According to the agency, this setup would follow the same general patter of Consequences even to the three phone calls made during the show. Louis Titterton, radio director of Compton, flew to New York to consult with executives at Procter & Gamble on the demands to be made to NBC.

In late March 1948, a proposed exploitation stunt for the Molle Mystery Theatre radio program was slated for the junk pile as a result of complaints by Ralph Edwards. Truth or Consequences, also on NBC, bleated to Niles Trammel, president of the network, on the grounds that Molle’s projected “Shaving Man” contest, a sort of satire of his “Miss Hush” and “Walking Man” gimmicks, would damage his “Laughing Lady,” which was being readied next fall. Molle’s “Shaving Man” contest, with a $25,000 giveaway, and a letter gimmick on “Why I like Molle shaving cream,” was to have been a gag for publicity and mail pull, with Fred Allen obviously the unknown man to be identified.