This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES: THE RADIO PROGRAM
by Martin Grams, Jr.© 2015
(From Radio Recall, August, 2015)
Popularly known today as a radio and television quiz program designed to humiliate their contestants through practical jokes, Truth or Consequences raised the bar for audience participation, inspiring imitation. Aficionados of game shows have faced a major disenchantment with the decline of quiz programs. The decay stems from an era where soap operas and quiz programs, facing obsolescence, step aside for reality-themed programs which can be produced on the cheap.
While preservation in a digital age ensures the longevity of past quiz programs, an official accounting of Truth or Consequences verifies a disturbing statistic: thousands of episodes no longer exist in recorded form. A sad statement when you consider how much was accomplished during a heyday when quiz programs reigned supreme.
It was from 1945 to 1950 that Truth or Consequences reached the pinnacle of success, becoming a true national phenomenon. Ralph Edwards, creator and producer of the program, attained charitable success that remains unequaled in the history of network broadcasting entertainment; raising millions of dollars for various health agencies and wartime projects, including a half-billion dollars in "E" Bonds sold via the Truth or Consequences broadcasts. The quiz program played before a live studio audience, willing to purchase a war bond in exchange for admission to the program. No one in Hollywood achieved such sales figures ... a record that has yet to be broken by any charitable cause.
The practical jokes pulled on the contestants, referred to as "consequences" on the program, were entertainment for the masses, not just the audience sitting in the theater. For Thanksgiving, Truth or Consequences gave a contestant a Turkey dinner; that is to say, he was sent to Turkey - the country - for dinner. A man was once made to play a piano upside down, hanging from the ceiling, while strapped to a number of contraptions. Edwards conducted a race between one man on a pogo-stick and a man in an airplane, made another fellow live for three weeks on a traffic island, and sent a sea lion to France to swim the English Channel. After performing a Cinderella act, giving away lavish prizes for a worthy beauty temporarily down on her luck, Ralph Edwards quickly discovered how producers of other radio quiz programs latched onto the idea, giving away ridiculous prizes for ridiculously easy questions. This was where the now-famous Hush Contests originated - voices of famous people giving riddles and clues to their identity, which gave contestants a chance to win a jackpot of prizes that grew with each passing week.
The Hush Contests originated from Edwards' disdain for the quiz programs giving away so much for so little. "The Hush Contest was called, originally, not 'jackpot' but 'crackpot,' satirizing the situation by giving away fantastic prizes for identifying the mystery subject," Edwards later recalled. "The first Mr. Hush was Jack Dempsey. People flew in from all over America, wearing crazy hats and carrying signs to gain my attention when I was selecting contestants from the audience. When I saw all the greedy hands go up in the audience to get a crack at the 'crackpot,' I realized we had an enormous agent for good if we opened other mystery contests to our radio listeners benefiting the March of Dimes, the Heart Association, etc." In the following contest, "Mrs. Hush" (a.k.a. silent screen actress Clara Bow), Edwards suggested to the listeners that they include a donation to the health agency aligned with the contest, along with a brief essay for supporting that particular charity.
"The results were phenomenal," Edwards continued. "Not only did millions of dollars come in for these health agencies, but with Jack Benny as the Walking Man, it raised us to the number one rated show in America, and with the million and one-half dollars contributed, started the American Heart Association as a full-fledged health agency." To say that The Walking Man contest was a national phenomenon would be an understatement. As you will soon discover when you read this book, Truth or Consequences was more than a radio quiz program.
The American Cancer Society tremendously benefited by a series of stunts and acts on the Truth or Consequences radio show, based on the inspirational appeal of brave young people, such as little Bobby Riggio, a paralyzed boy to whom dimes were contributed by the radio audience to the March of Dimes. Through the magic of radio, the program was able to go into homes and hospitals, as they did in New Jersey where a little boy named Buster Roos talked with Roy Rogers. Frank Sinatra, and met Babe Ruth, to influence the American public to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Cancer Crusade.
In 1948, the now-famous Jimmy Fund of Boston was created through a Truth or Consequences act, talking from Hollywood to Boston with little leukemia victim named "Jimmy," who loved baseball. The entire Boston Braves championship baseball team visited the boy in the hospital, took him out to the ball game; and the end result was that through the funds received from that broadcast, plus the tremendous work of the New England Variety Club, the Jimmy Fund has been responsible for building not just the original Sidney Farber Cancer Clinic, but now two cancer research centers.
The resilience, the power, the total platform Truth or Consequences offered for almost every kind of emotion in entertainment, proved to be its staying power. Truth or Consequences served as a public service message for rehabilitating war veterans, following the Second World War, proving miracles could come true and setting the stage for another of Edwards' success stories: This is Your Life. "I couldn't get over the wide range of entertainment we covered," Edwards later recalled, "from the unbelievable pranks we put our contestants through, to the heart-strings we pulled within the homes all over America."
The largest of stunts, however, was in 1950 when the producers of Truth or Consequences induced the city of Hot Springs, New Mexico, to officially change its name to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, in recognition of the show's tenth anniversary. Known for its medicinal climate and hot springs, the town expanded from a natural health resort to a major tourist attraction. Following the success (and legal technicalities and minor opposition from some of the locals) of putting Truth or Consequences on the Rand McNally maps, the quiz program went one further by helping put Hollywood on the map - literally.
It was inevitable that numerous efforts would be made to cash in on variations of the quiz parlor game formula. As it happened with all success stories in primetime network broadcasting, imitation spawned competition, and Truth or Consequences, having made a successful transition to television, was relegated to the status of a daytime quiz program. Spanning decades amid a healthy and lengthy run on television, the quiz program has since been demoted to academic entries in both electronic and print encyclopedias.
Long forgotten are the stories of war veterans who owe their rehabilitation and new purpose in life as a result of those broadcasts. Long forgotten is Al Baker and his challenge to hit a golf ball from Los Angeles, California, to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, an improvised golf course stretching 823 miles … completed in six weeks. Trivia Pursuit fanatics are quick to point out Jack Benny was The Walking Man. How many remember the name of the woman who won the contest, the prizes she won, or the details regarding contest applicants?
Today's game show aficionados are often preoccupied with the television counterpart of their favorite quiz programs, thinking no more of the radio version than a brief facet of broadcasting history. Thankfully, a major effort began in November 2014 to document and preserve the history of Truth or Consequences, along with a full accounting of surviving recordings (both radio and television), the stories involving the contests and consequences that made national headlines, and the digital preservation of more than 1,000 behind the- scenes photographs. An 800 page publication in early 2016 will provide said documentation as well as family relatives the opportunity to find out which episode their next of kin participated in.