Tribute to Jack Narz
EMCEES: A SAD
He Was TV's Biggest Star
Almost no one who knew the television business in 1955-56 would dispute this assertion: for that year, Hal March was the biggest star in television. Today, virtually no one under the age of 50 knows who he is.
To say March was the unconventional host is an understatement. Hal Mendelson, born in 1920 in San Francisco where his father ran a delicatessen, was not on a career track to host the biggest phenomenon the young medium of television had yet seen. He was a champion amateur welterweight boxer but as soon as he graduated from high school, he set out for Hollywood. Most accounts suggest he lived on popcorn and water until he and comedian Bob Sweeney teamed for a successful radio show, Sweeney and March. As Hal told TV Guide in 1956, "I was the gabby barber, the pest at the movies, the fellow who always gets stuck with the check."
Because of the radio success, March was cast as the first of four actors to play Harry Morton on the original live version of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. At 30, he was 14 years the junior of his TV wife, Bea Benaderet. After a year, he moved on to a featured part of the television version of My Friend Irma.
His video roles continued to expand, even though few people knew his name. March turned up as both a doctor and a suitor on I Love Lucy. He landed a guest shot with Jackie Gleason on CBS and ended with a broken nose during a scene where The Great One smacked him with a presumably breakaway bottle. He played Imogene Coca's husband in her series after Your Show of Shows.
March thought he was hitting a big break when he signed to become Tom D'Andrea's co-star on a live NBC summer comedy, The Soldiers. After signing the contract, he was approached by Louis G. Cowan, who was about to stage a show to change the face of network television.
CBS pushed hard for Garry Moore to host The $64,000 Question, Cowan's inflationary remake of his radio favorite Take It or Leave It. Moore, skeptical of whether a quiz with those stakes could stay legitimate, politely passed. Cowan told TV Guide he "wanted a man not previously identified with quizzes, giveaways or panel shows in any form....a man who could think on his feet and one casual enough to give the show naturalness." March had never been near a quiz show. Not under exclusive contract to NBC, he opted to give it a shot. D'Andrea was not amused. Having given up a major supporting role on The Life of Riley to concentrate on The Soldiers, D'Andrea was furious at March for agreeing to a commute between New York and Hollywood in order to do both shows. He need not have fumed. The Soldiers was canceled quickly and March stayed in New York.
March's stepson, Steve (who now performs under the name Steve March Torme), told TVgameshows.net four years ago other factors were in play. "They didn't talk about such things at the time but I'm sure Hal was picked because of sex appeal," Steve March said. "The ladies liked him and he had those matinee idol looks."
When The $64,000 Question premiered June 7, 1955, no one---particularly not March---was prepared for the impending eruption in America. Within four weeks, the quiz soared to a runaway number one in the Nielsen and Trendex ratings. The nation ground to an abrupt halt at 10 p.m. Tuesday nights.
In the early going, Hal had a few characteristics of the next generation Chuck Woolery. From his days on Wheel of Fortune, Woolery has been the host whose mistakes are left in his shows because of his knack for self-deprecating humor. "Chuck is vulnerable," fellow emcee Bob Eubanks said in a 2003 interview with TVgameshows.net, "and that's what the viewers like about him." In the first 39 weeks of Question, March locked a contestant in the isolation booth then forgot to ask the $32,000 question. Another evening, he inadvertently gave the answer to the $16,000 question to baseball expert Myrt Power. On another show, he scratched a jazz record on the air when he put down the tone arm to play a selection for a contestant. The same night, he said goodnight before a scheduled final plug for sponsor Revlon.
In the words of TV Guide, that is what viewers appreciated about March. "No super-smooth perfectionist," a magazine profile detailed, "he is a refreshingly 'human' emcee."
Until March, the trademark emcee in television had been Bert Parks---known for a frenetic, almost in-your-face style. Hal was so understated that his mass acceptance paved the way for lower-key personalities such as Jack Narz, Merv Griffin and Hugh Downs to enjoy long runs in television as emcees.
Nearly 45 years before Regis Philbin was milking the drama out of contestants in the hotseat on a similarly-formatted Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, March quickly mastered the art of the two-second dramatic pause before telling a challenger if his or her big-money answer was correct. "For $16,000......you're absolutely right!," was March's cue to Norman Leyden's orchestra to strike up with the memorable winners' music.
One of the early offshoots of the megahit status of The $64,000 Question was exponentially increasing demand for Revlon products. With Barbara Britton pitching the virtues of the company's Living Lipstick, stores could not keep the items on the shelves and Revlon was forced to triple production to meet demand. March calmly and authoritatively told the nation's women, "Please be patient with us. Living Lipstick will be on your shelves as quickly as possible." He had a believability comparable to the best newscasters.
Before the first season ended, Jackie Gleason signed to do an episode of Studio One titled "Uncle Ed and Circumstance." The story, played in part on the actual Question set, opened with Gleason's character winning $64,000. The live drama unfolded the life changes of a big-money winner who came from humble beginnings. The producers wanted March to play himself as the quizmaster. Revlon nixed it because of conflicts with Westinghouse, the sponsor of Studio One.
Literally everyone in television, Broadway and movies wanted Hal March for something. His name was becoming almost as much of a brand as Kleenex tissues. Someone else wanted him. In 1956, former model Candy Toxton married him. Previously wed to singer Mel Torme, the marriage was unsuccessful. Hal eventually adopted Toxton's son Steve.
In the spring of 1956, March attracted the largest audience for a weekly entertainment program in the history of television. When Marine Capt. Richard McCutcheon became the first contestant to ever win $64,000, the national Trendex rating was a 68.2 with an 85 percent share of audience. With more than double the television homes as were available when Little Ricky Ricardo was born on I Love Lucy in early 1953, Question and March were in the stratosphere of television.
During the three-and-a-half years of Question, Hal appeared to be everywhere. He was the mystery guest on What's My Line? Oct. 9, 1955. Dinah Shore, Ed Sullivan and Jack Benny all brought him on as a guest. When Moore took a week off from I've Got a Secret in January 1957, Hal moonlighted as the guest host. Later the same year, he returned as a celebrity guest.
The storm brewing behind the scenes of The $64,000 Question was about a year away from exploding. In 1957, a child genius, Robert Strom, captivated the nation with his brilliance in math and science. Competing under a new set of rules that allowed contestants to run the gauntlet to $64,000 up to four times, young Strom ran the table three times for a pre-tax total of $192,000 (he had earlier won a college scholarship on CBS's Giant Step). Hal professed Strom as one of his favorites. The week Rob was scheduled to start his fourth climb up the money hurdles, TV Guide featured March and Strom on its cover with a major story on Strom's home and school life. As the nation read of Strom's life away from the quiz show spotlight, his parents made a decision to pull the plug on any further appearances. "The questions were getting longer and more involved," Albert Strom, Rob's father said. "This was an emotional thing that could have created a real disturbance for Rob if he lost."
The house of cards began to fall for the entire quiz era in August 1958. CBS's Dotto, the most-watched program in the history of daytime television, was the first quiz to be canceled after the network discovered the show was fixed. Rumors had rumbled in the New York media for months about suspicions of chicanery on the hotly-competitive CBS and NBC quiz shows. Once Herb Stempel, loser to Charles Van Doren on NBC's Twenty One, unveiled the step-by-step staging of his ultimate loss to the Columbia professor, viewers began to lose faith.
The $64,000 Question took a summer break for the first time in 1958. When it returned in September, it moved to Sunday nights, occupying the slot formerly held by its spinoff show, The $64,000 Challenge. Most of Question's viewers did not come back with it. Amid the torrent of investigative reporting, Question fell to a 12 rating and 73rd place in the Nielsens.
By mid-November, it was all over. While most of the initial furor did not center on Question, the guilt-by-association whirlwind could not save it. Hal March, only three years earlier the toast of television, would have to scramble to save his own reputation despite passing a polygraph test to prove he was not on the inside of any of the backstage fix.
Laying low from television for a while, March plunged into Broadway. He returned to the tube in 1959 for an episode of the fast-fading anthology Schlitz Playhouse of Stars. His name was mentioned as a possible host of everything from Candid Camera to nighttime Password to Video Village but he was never seriously considered. "I'm certain there had to be plenty of times Hal was up for something and some executive probably said, 'Oh, we probably better not use him because it'll remind people of the quiz shows.'," Steve March said four years ago.
NBC wanted March back in 1961. Distanced by three years from the scandals, the Peacock Network wanted Hal to host its higher-gloss nighttime version of Concentration. The assertiveness of daytime host Hugh Downs prevented it. In Downs' autobiography, the television veteran wrote, "I told NBC if I was not considered competent enough to do the show at night, they could get themselves someone else to do the daytime show."
For a short time during the six months between the end of Jack Paar's reign over The Tonight Show and Johnny Carson's entry, viewers were treated twice to Hal's talents at the talk desk. As one of more than 20 men who took a turn as guest hosts, March received critical praise for his two weeks presiding over Tonight. Some media speculation even had Hal as a candidate for the NBC daytime talk show that eventually went to Merv Griffin.
In the fall of 1963, ABC made an ill-fated stab at reviving the big-money quiz as counterprogramming to CBS's Candid Camera. The effort, 100 Grand, was gone in three weeks. Some sentiment ran high for March to host the new quiz but the job went to Jack Clark, the announcer on Password. The complex game, also beset by ABC's weak affiliate lineup, never had a chance. Its replacement: a cheap comedy game, Laughs for Sale. The premise, not too unlike today's Last Comic Standing, had new comedians competing with standup routines while a panel of popular comedians rated their work. The week's winner received a cash prize. The host: Hal March. Few people remember it as it perished in half a season against Candid Camera.
For the remainder of the decade, March found television roles scattered at best. Burke's Law, Gidget and The Dick Powell Show were among the few shows that took a chance on him.
March did have three other game show experiences as a guest in the 1960s. In 1963, he returned to I've Got a Secret in a sequence which featured 11 people (including himself) with last names of the months of the year (one, a child, was named August September). Later the same year, he played a week of daytime Password and became the first celebrity to navigate the lightning round in less than 20 seconds (19). In 1966, March did a week of You Don't Say! which produced one of the series' most celebrated and spontaneously funny moments. After a clue for CAPTAIN KANGAROO centered around a cap being placed on a decayed tooth, host Tom Kennedy inadvertently said to March: "I didn't know you had capped teeth." Said March: "Neither did anyone other than my wife until now."
Three years later, at a still-young 49, March was tapped for a revival of the mid-'60s Jack Narz game I'll Bet in syndication. Looking robust when taping for Ralph Andrews' It's Your Bet began in late July 1969, March was in his old form during the couples game.
Hal completed the first 13 weeks but left the set at the end of a five-show taping session feeling tired. "He went to see his doctor and they did a series of tests," Steve March said. "Hal had smoked all his life. He'd tried to quit a few times."
Late in 1969, Hal asked Steve to take a walk with him outside their Beverly Hills home. "He looked at me and said, 'Pretty soon, I'm not going to be here and you're going to have to be the man around the house,'" Steve March said. "He was told he had terminal lung cancer and had two, maybe four months to live." Tom Kennedy briefly filled in as host until a transition could be made to comedian Dick Gautier.
With syndication distribution on erratic schedules in pre-satellite days, some cities were still showing a genial, enthusiastic Hal March at the emcee podium on the day his obituary appeared across the U.S. in newspapers. March died Jan. 19, 1970. He was only 49. Most of the accounts focused on The $64,000 Question, the rise of Hal's career as a result and his ultimate struggles to regain a major foothold in television.
Speculation in the years since has centered around whether, had he lived, March would have ever returned to the top as an emcee. Television eventually forgave Jack Barry and Dan Enright, whose shows were the most investigated of the scandal era. Jack Narz survived the Dotto debacle and continued to host games for nearly 20 more years. Jan Murray overcame the scrutiny of his Treasure Hunt.
"I think he would have made a comeback," Steve March said. "He was really feeling good about somebody taking a chance on him again and he liked the conversational style format of It's Your Bet. Hal really liked people and it fit his personality. He wasn't 50 yet and if he'd lived, I believe he had some good years ahead of him in television." Steve March had a couple of good years himself with a game show. He was a featured singer on a revamped $100,000 Name That Tune during the final two years Tom Kennedy hosted the show from 1979-81.
By 1999, when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire replicated the same water cooler attention in America as The $64,000 Question created 44 years earlier, Hal March was a forgotten name. A few writers around the U.S. would recall the frenzy of Question but mostly from research, not from personal memories. Hal's name was never mentioned as a forerunner of Regis Philbin. At the time, TVgameshows.net began to refer to Millionaire's $64,000 level as The Hal March Jackpot. Some readers who had no idea of March were puzzled. Some were even irritated. What they were unaware of: Millionaire executive producer Michael Davies had told TVgameshows.net he had been developing a remake of The $64,000 Question with a $640,000 top prize at the time WWTBAM was brought to his attention.
Hal March was the right host for the right show at the right time, bringing chemistry and calm counterpoint to the excitement of television's first megaquiz. A career victim of the excesses in a genre driven by sponsor pressures and a willingness of show executives to let ethics slide in the name of ratings, March could never recapture those golden years when almost every eye in America was focused on him and his cobblers, psychologists and servicemen who became the centerpiece of mid-1950s pop culture.
The $64,000 Question kinescopes largely remain in the estate of its late executive producer Steve Carlin. At least five are available through public domain video companies. Even if they were readily packaged, no network would show them. Their black-and-white texture and the stigma surrounding the show would make it as much of a taboo as Amos 'n' Andy because of its ethnic polarization. That is genuinely a shame. To cut through the wall of shame of the quiz scandals would offer viewers an opportunity to see the work of a truly great emcee for his time. Hal March deserves far better than a legacy of broadcasting oblivion.
Miss Francis' gowns by Bonwit Teller
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