Friday, January 23, 2015

Yes, there is a Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Ralph Edwards
Most people are familiar with a quiz program titled Truth or Consequences. Very few are aware that there is a town in New Mexico named after the radio quiz program.

The first five or six years of the quiz program was primarily a novelty program, offering prizes such as U.S. War Bonds and cash, if the contestant could answer the question correctly. If they failed -- and usually they did -- they had to suffer the consequence in order to win the prize... and yes, this sometimes included pies in the face and seltzer bottles. By 1946, the program picked up momentum with the Mr. Hush contest (Jack Dempsey), followed by two Mrs. Hush contests (Clara Bow and Martha Grahame), and of course, The Walking Man Contest (Jack Benny). To avoid the legalities of a lottery, Edwards instructed radio listeners to submit a donation to a particular charity in order to enter the contest. As a result, Edwards raised tons of money for The March of Dimes, and helped start what we now know as The American Heart Association -- literally. Thanks to The Walking Man contest, Truth or Consequences truly become a national sensation.

Truth or Consequences was also responsible for selling more U.S. War Bonds than any other radio program in history, helping to jumpstart the Jimmy Fund (click here for more details), and other charitable accomplishments that provided Ralph Edwards, the creator and host, a special place in Heaven for him.
In early March of 1950, one of Edwards' idea men suggested approaching a town in the United States to change the name to Truth or Consequences to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the radio show. Half a dozen towns vied for the opportunity, realizing the potential for out-of-state tourism and free publicity. The Denver Chamber of Commerce offered a suburb, the small town of Martin City, Montana, population 600, put itself in the running, and another small town in Oregon. Hot Springs, New Mexico, won over the producers for numerous reasons. Hot Springs was known for its warm and dry climate, medicinal mineral baths (which Geronimo and his men soaked to nurse their battle wounds), and low tourism as a result of much needed publicity. The city was nestled in the mountains along the banks of the Rio Grande and had more to offer the health seeker and the sportsman than advertised in pamphlets and newspapers. 

The deciding factor, which appealed to Ralph Edwards, was the presence of the Carrie Tingley Hospital for Crippled Children, which opened in 1937, named for his wife by then Gov. Clyde Tingley. Children were sent from all over the state suffering the effects of polio, as well as other crippling diseases. Edwards, ever the philanthropist, had someone in his office contact city officials

On the evening of March 21, 1950, at a regular recess meeting of the city of Hot Springs, fifty-five people attended the council meeting and on a show of hands 54 favored the change and one opposed. Jack Morgan, a resident in town, stated he would not have invested money in a court had he known the possibility existed of a name change. He cited Montgomery Ward with having trouble shipping his merchandise to Hot Springs if the town changed names. “Here was a man talking about building Hot Springs and still he sends his money out of town,” Paul Tooley reported in his newspaper. “This man and another who opposed the change are not members of the chamber of commerce.” J.W. Scott, a resident of town, began voicing his disapproval among the streets of town, following the meeting. Andy Anderson, another resident, said he was glad the town was changing the name. “I’ve been wanting to move to another town, now I can do it without getting out of my room.”

With this matter taken care of, Ralph Edwards, on the evening of March 25, 1950, told his estimated 19,000,000 listeners throughout the nation: “We are announcing the biggest thing that has ever happened to Truth or Consequences. Listen, everybody, across the nation. I have a letter in my hands from Hot Springs, New Mexico, a beautiful city of some 8,000 people, located in the middle of the Rio Grande Valley, on U.S. highway 35. A letter from the mayor, J.G. Mims, of Hot Springs, New Mexico, and countersigned by eight councilmen of Hot Springs, the state senator, representative, and other officials.” Edwards informed the audience that he and the entire Truth or Consequences gang would journey to the small town to officially dedicate the city and put Truth or Consequences on the map. Edwards also informed the radio audience that the entire crew would arrive a few days early to go fishing and take a motor boat ride on beautiful Elephant Butte Lake, the third largest body of impounded water in the world, 44 miles long, behind the dam where large mouth bass reside.

On March 31, the day before the scheduled radio broadcast, the citizens of Hot Springs went to the polls with open minds and cast their ballots for whichever they considered would be for the betterment of their city. As one citizen described the affect it seemed to have, “The whole town seems to be jumping up and down.” By a vote of 1,294 to 295, Hot Springs voters Friday elected to change the name of the city to Truth or Consequences. Nine minutes and 40 seconds after the polls closed, an extra edition of the Hot Springs Herald, retitled the Truth or Consequences Herald, was on the streets carrying the election returns. (The newspaper would revert to the original title of Hot Springs Herald with the next edition.)

It was headline news in some areas of the country. As a result of the nation-wide broadcast, letters, telegrams and telephone calls poured in on weary secretaries and other citizens. Besides the chamber of commerce, hardest hit was Roy Stovall, appointed by Edwards as “Public Relations Director” for Truth or Consequences. “I think this is the smartest action my people could have ever taken,” Mayor Glen Mims said to the press. “Now the whole United States will know of our fine facilities, our ideal climate, our excellent fishing, our health-giving water and sunshine, and the many other wonders that we have to offer.”

Sen. Burton Roach and the Christening
State Senator Burton Roach and Mayor G.J. Mims said they anticipated a glorious future for the resort town, which was noted for its mineral springs, dry climate, boating and fishing. To christen the event even further, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Passmore named their new-born baby Ralph Edwards Passmore in his honor on Friday, the day that the town was voting to change its name in honor of the tenth anniversary of the radio quiz show. Tourism ultimately came about and the town flourished. 

The broadcast of April 1 over NBC may have caused a number of radio listeners to wonder if the entire program was an April Fool’s joke. Edwards assured the town citizens that the plan was no gag. “I have my own reputation and show to protect and I want to go along and make this town one of the greatest health centers in the nation.” During the broadcast, the Christened town of Truth or Consequences was made official via  ceremony – a bottle of mineral water was broken over the head of State Senator Burton Roach, as a representative of the city during the broadcast. The Woman’s Club, represented by Mrs. Walter Knox, placed in charge of the Truth or Consequences Museum of relics and props used during the ten years of the broadcast was given a 72-piece set of Fine-Arts Sterling Silver for club use. W.A. “Skinny” Davis was presented the “County Seat” which turned out to be an overstuffed chair which he sat in and found to be a “hot seat” to place at the entrance of one of the drug stores in town. “There was an electric cord connected to the chair,” Davis later recalled. “The problem was someone forgot to turn on the electricity. So I faked the shocks and went along with it the best I could.” Later, Davis received a letter addressed “Hot Seat Davis” from San Bernardino, California.

Every year to mark the program's anniversary  Ralph Edwards and his gang returned to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to broadcast the quiz show from the stage of the high school auditorium. Edwards not only kept his promise to give the little town its million dollars in publicity, he ultimately fell in love with the community and returned to the town every year, accompanied by an entourage of talent from Hollywood, for the annual April Fiesta. In doing so, Edwards became an adopted son and something of a local hero. The local park and a street were named after him. The local museum features a wing devoted to him and the quiz show. Edwards himself donated mementos and items for the museum. To this day, many curiosity seekers flock to the small town. Circa 1991, construction was completed for Route 10, which allows travelers to bypass the small town. Social commentary in Pixar's Cars rings true here as tourism progressively dropped as traffic through town has become weakened as a result. The town still flourishes, but it is a reminder that sometimes we all need to take a short detour and check out the local attractions. 

You'll probably be pleased to know that I finished the rough draft of my next book, TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES: A History of the Radio Quiz Program. That's the tentative title. (If you can come up with a better one, feel free to send me suggestions. I would prefer the words "national phenomenon" to somehow be worked into the subtitle.) Like most old-time radio programs, listening to existing recordings is entertaining but the history behind the program is equally -- if not more -- fascinating. A few months ago I took three days out of my busy schedule to fly out to Albuquerque, rent a car and drive down to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The scenic drive was great but so was the town. Evident from the numerous photos I am about to share with you. If you happen to be traveling through the MidWest, consider checking out the small towns and their hospitality. And, of course, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. My up-coming book about the quiz show will feature an entire chapter devoted to the Hot Springs-Truth or Consequences name change; much more detail than what I summed up above.