In television, a signature date was spelled out by announcer William Conrad as Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) was walking away to freedom for the first time in four years on The Fugitive: “Tuesday, September 5, 1967—the day the running stopped.”
Had Conrad been available nine years earlier, he could have delivered an equally poignant sentence: “Friday, August 15, 1958—the day the house of big-money quiz shows began to fall.”
In a meeting at 5 p.m. at the New York headquarters of Colgate-Palmolive, Frank Cooper, executive producer of the CBS quiz show Dotto admitted his show had been fixed. Performances of contestants and show outcomes were controlled based on their popularity with viewers and to build drama. Cooper and his team of producers had given selected questions and answers to a young contestant named Marie Winn in advance. They had done the same for other players but Winn was the focal point of a furor which would crumble television’s biggest self-created fad.
The storm had been brewing since May 20. A contestant waiting in the wings to go on, Ed Hilgemeier, found a notebook in the show’s dressing room containing Winn’s answers. Ironically, Hilgemeier had already appeared on five other game shows, including NBC’s The Price Is Right. Over the next four months, the seas of scandal silently wavered between offers of hush money to Hilgemeier and Winn’s opponent Yeffe Kimball Slatin, later accusations against Hilgemeier of attempted blackmail-for-money schemes and utter fear of the tangled web which was about to tighten.
The practices on Dotto were mere clones of what had long been suspected but not proven about the big-money nighttime quiz shows which became America’s rage with the onslaught of The $64,000 Question in June 1955. Cooper and his production team kept the inner circle of the deception tight. The network did not know in an era before Standards and Practices departments. Host Jack Narz was not told. The technical staff had no idea. America thought it was seeing a contest as honest as the Sunday sermon at church.
Rise to the Top
To the average daytime television viewer on Aug. 15, 1958, Dotto was not only a daily appointment, it was an obsession. Conceived as Magic Money Winner, Dotto premiered nine months earlier as a question-and-answer game with a gimmick: the old children’s game of connect-the-dots. In this case, the dots connected to reveal the face of a celebrity or noted personality in politics or history.
In the fastest rise to the top of any daytime show in history, even quicker than NBC’s phenomenonal Price two years earlier, Dotto scored the highest ratings in the eight years network television had employed a serious daytime schedule.
America loved Dotto. Housewives stopped their morning work at 11:30 in the East to spend a half-hour with Narz and his contestants. Businessmen arranged their lunch hours around the game. Children were attracted to the game in much the same fashion as a generation of kids would be 25 years later to the Whammy on Press Your Luck. Three million viewers each week sent in cards for a chance to be called by Narz in the daily home viewer contest.
Dotto had become big business for CBS at a time the network needed a blockbuster in the morning. The network was losing mainstay Garry Moore the following month from his eight-year-old daytime show to a prime time variety hour. The perennial Arthur Godfrey was showing signs of cracks in his ratings opposite Arlene Francis’s Home show on NBC.
In what is still wistfully referred to as television’s Golden Age, the networks did not own their shows. They were conduits to air time which they sold to advertising agencies. The ad people developed the shows in the hopes of providing an outlet to sell millions of dollars of products for the companies they represented.
Dotto was doing just that for Colgate-Palmolive. The company which made a popular dental cream, Lustre Creme shampoo, Florient air deodorant, a dishwashing liquid and Fab detergent wanted Dotto to keep selling those products for years into the future. If the ratings were any indicator, that would happen….until Marie Winn left her notebook in view of a future contestant. Winn’s faux pas of three months earlier led to one of the highest-level gatherings in television’s brief tenure.
At the meeting: Colgate chairman E.H. Little; advertising agency owner Ted Bates, who held the Colgate-Palmolive account; Dr. Frank Stanton, president of CBS; and a name who is often ignored as a key figure in unraveling the quiz scandals: Thomas Fisher, a senior vice president of CBS and the network’s general counsel.
Fisher’s doggedness and skepticism during the network’s investigation into Dotto and, ultimately, other quizzes which fell under suspicion was a key to saving network television. After screening kinescopes of the Winn-Kimball matchups and scanning the answer-laden notebook of Winn, Fisher wrote in one of his detailed memos to his superiors: “This looks like a fixed show.”
Initially, CBS had been reluctant to believe Dotto, as a low-budget daytime show, would be rigged. The money was not close to the level of the five-figure nighttime quizzes. Further, Cooper had produced other programs for CBS and Colgate at the highest levels of integrity.
The Friday afternoon gathering was the mere beginning of the end. Only one week earlier, Cooper—who co-owned the entire package with Sy Fischer—insisted to CBS, Bates and Colgate executives no contestant had ever been given specific questions and answers in advance of their show appearances. The controls, he said, were “for dramatic effect.”
Also, at stake, was a complaint Hilgemeier had filed with the FCC, charging deceptive practices on Dotto. While grand jury testimony eventually revealed Hilgemeier—who had told investigators he made his living by going on quiz shows—had elicited hush money payoffs from the production company and attempted to obtain more money from Colgate, the FCC filing was a potentially-chilling issue for CBS and NBC.
The FCC demanded a report from CBS. Potentially at stake was the network’s ability to own its own television stations, all major profit centers. Were the FCC to conclude CBS (or NBC) had been either a willing party to or acted passively in an effort to eliminate any form of deception on its broadcasts, the regulatory agency could have revoked the licenses of any or all of the network’s five local television stations.
NBC, in one of the rare instances of dual-network carriage of a series, picked up a nighttime version of Dotto from Colgate July 1, 1958. Jack Narz appeared the previous Friday live at 10:30 a.m. on NBC’s Treasure Hunt to draw the name of a home viewer contest participant and plug the evening version. He dashed back down the street to CBS just in time to make the 11:30 a.m. live telecast of his daytime show.
NBC sold Colgate the 9 p.m. Tuesday slot for Dotto, replacing a lame detective series, Meet McGraw with B-movie actor Frank Lovejoy. Colgate and NBC went head-to-head against Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s To Tell the Truth on CBS. The contract was scheduled to run through Oct. 14, when Colgate-Palmolive would pick up The George Burns Show, the veteran comedian’s first sitcom effort without wife Gracie Allen. However, TV Guide reported if Dotto performed to the level of its megahit daytime version, NBC was prepared to offer Colgate another half-hour to continue the quiz without a break in the fall. Under consideration: any of four 10:30 p.m. slots which the network currently turned back to local stations. One New York newspaper indicated NBC might even eye a head-on collision Sundays at 10:30 with CBS’s venerable What’s My Line?
The nighttime version grew slowly but by the night of its sixth show, Aug. 5, passed To Tell the Truth in the New York-based Trendex ratings. While not on the air long enough to develop a celebrated contestant on the level of Twenty One’s Charles Van Doren or The $64,000 Question’s Dr. Joyce Brothers, nighttime Dotto did feature one future television series regular as a player. Connie Hines, at the time an aspiring actress, would go on to spend six seasons as Carol Post, Alan Young’s TV wife on the sitcom Mister Ed. Hines lasted three weeks on the show, through the series’ next-to-last nighttime edition. Eventual grand jury testimony revealed Hines had received coaching on her performances. She left with $1,400. On her final appearance, Narz announced a Hollywood studio was offering Hines a film contract.
Off The Air
After Cooper’s admissions, Fisher concluded and Stanton agreed that Dotto was a neutron bomb for CBS and should never again air. Fisher was directed to immediately inform Bates of the network’s decision. In a hand-delivered letter to the Marjeff offices, Bates—on behalf of Colgate—wrote, according to court records, “if you had told us about (the Winn-Slatin-Hilgemeier incident) in May….Colgate would not have renewed the daytime program and would not have placed the nighttime version on the air.” As was the practice in the pre-1960 era, Bates could have attempted to continue with Dotto by buying time on another network but withdrew Colgate’s sponsorship because of potential tarnishing damage to the toothpaste/washday products company.
CBS immediately informed NBC of its decision. The Peacock Network, studying the impending storm, opted not to air a scheduled Aug. 19 nighttime Dotto and effectively canceled the evening edition. One month later, NBC would be faced with a similar black eye. The network had already agreed to pick up The $64,000 Challenge from CBS for a fourth season Thursdays at 10:30. After revelations spiraled about the $64,000 quizzes in the wake of the Dotto debacle, NBC informed sponsor P. Lorillard it would not air Challenge only three days before the scheduled network switch. NBC substituted veteran panel show Masquerade Party for the remainder of the season.
Two entities had to be informed. Neither chore would be easy. Jack Narz, whose “Q” score (a market research term detailing the recognition quotient, or factor, of a film or television personality) was rivaling prime time emcee king Hal March, was no small cog in the wheel of Dotto’s phenomenal success. The other important party to be told—the American audience which had taken the game to its hearts.
Not yet 36, Narz was on the verge of stardom. A fighter pilot during World War II, Narz had ventured to California from a childhood and youth in Louisville, Ky. A father of four, Narz had enjoyed success for a decade as an announcer/sidekick to such television favorites as Tennessee Ernie Ford, Betty White, Bob Crosby, Gisele MacKenzie and his own brother-in-law Bill Cullen. On the two-part opener of TV’s Superman, Narz was the narrator who told the story of Clark Kent’s birth, youth and how the Man of Steel came to Earth. “I went to Glen Glenn Sound and recorded that one day,” Narz said in an interview with TVgameshows.net in 1999. “I think I may have received $150 for doing it. I still occasionally get a check in the mail for $1.98 for the reruns.”
When Crosby’s daytime variety show for Betty Crocker was canceled in 1958, CBS and Colgate wanted Narz for his own show. The seven-year-old Strike It Rich was running out of steam and running into negative headlines in the New York media. The exploitative game, in which couples and families often down on their luck would tell sob stories (a la Queen for a Day) and receive contributions via the show’s telephone “heartline,” was blamed when scores of families journeyed to New York in the hope of exposure on the show and ended up on the city’s welfare rolls when they were rejected as contestants.
Made for Each Other
Dotto and Narz were virtually made for each other in temperament and style. Narz, whose easygoing style was often compared to Perry Como’s singing demeanor, quickly became daytime’s Hal March. Within four weeks, Dotto had become daytime television’s number one show and overwhelmed Bob Barker’s Truth or Consequences in the ratings.
In Game Show Annual 2000, Narz recounted how he was told the show was over. He was paged to a telephone while he and his wife were in line for tickets to a Broadway play. “It was someone from Colgate-Palmolive and I was told, in so many words, ‘Don’t come in on Monday.’ Some guy named Hilgemeier found a notebook one of the contestants was using with the answers in it. He’s gone to an attorney and the producers. CBS knows all about it.” Narz, no one’s fool, knew what the implications of a rigged show could mean to his career. “Just like that, it was over,” he said. “CBS got in on it and decided not to air us any more….that day. You can understand how that sent me into a deep funk.”
Narz was eventually called to testify before the grand jury. He took and passed a polygraph test and was cleared of any and all implications. However, the worry of guilt-by-association and how the public would react did not escape him. “You think of a lot of things,” Narz said in the 2000 interview. “But I had the support of Colgate-Palmolive. In those days, the sponsors owned the shows and bought the time periods from the networks. They hired the producers. So, Colgate-Palmolive still had the time slot. Their people called and said, ‘We’re still behind you. You’re still our guy. Just sit tight. We’re going to keep paying you. But we think we need to let this thing cool off a little bit.” In almost record time, Colgate agreed to rush together a daytime version of a Saturday night CBS quiz, Top Dollar. “Warren Hull (who hosted Strike It Rich) had agreed to host it for 13 weeks. I was told they would bring me on after that in a totally reformatted show (similar to Wheel of Fortune). That’s what they did.”
One casualty of the Dotto scandal was a sidebar financial premium for Narz. “Colgate-Palmolive had cut a deal with Dot Records and I went into the studio and cut an album of a lot of country and folk songs,” he said. “Things like ‘Tom Dooley.’ We were going to push it through Dotto. You send in 50 cents and a label from a Colgate-Palmolive product and you get the album. They had already done an advance marketing study and estimated we would probably sell half a million copies of the record.” Listening to a cassette copy today, one hears a rich bass voice which was not unlike that of the icon with which Narz once worked, Ernie Ford. “I was to get a percentage of each album,” he remembered. “They were just about to release the record and start the marketing on the show the Monday after we were canceled. Now, maybe you understand why that sent me into a deep funk for a few months. That cost me an awful lot of money.”
Top Dollar was not a success but Narz would bounce back to host several more games over the next 20 years. Children of the early ’60s still associate him as the beloved mayor of Video Village despite his early departure from that CBS game which Monty Hall went on to host for two years. Throughout the decade, he would helm Seven Keys, I’ll Bet and Now You See It, though none came close to the impact of Dotto. His longest-running success: a revival of Concentration in syndication from 1973-78.
The American public was a different story. Aside from a couple of throwaway stories in New York newspapers, what was about to become a major turning point in television’s young history was in its final days as a secret. CBS spent a significant portion of Sunday evening and early Monday morning alerting its affiliated stations of the impending change. The network was limited in its explanation, other than to encourage station managers to insert local announcements of the premiere of daytime Top Dollar Monday, Aug. 18. WRBL in Columbus, Ga., was where announcer/newsman John Hodges offered live voiceovers of the new 11:30 show every half-hour. The station, as were most of the 200-odd CBS affiliates, was flooded with phone calls inquiring what happened to Dotto.
At 11:30, the camera focused directly on announcer Ralph Paul, who matter-of-factly told viewers: “Dotto, the program which normally airs at this time, will no longer be seen. Instead….welcome to Top Dollar!” Even the studio audience, which had originally obtained tickets to Dotto was eerily reserved when Hull was introduced by Paul.
Later in the day, afternoon newspapers across the U.S. were full of the details of the cancellation, though some reports were still sketchy as to why. Ten days later, the New York Journal American finally reported Herbert Stempel’s allegations of the rigging of his Twenty One matches in 1956 with Columbia University professor Charles Van Doren, who became the most celebrated contestant in early television quiz show history. In no small irony, the two shows which began the domino effect of ending the big-money era of the 1950s involved the same institute of higher learning. Van Doren, the All-American professor, and Winn, the 18-year-old Columbia student, became lightning rod symbols of the first major black eye in the infant medium.
The falling house
The bricks began to fall with racetrack speed. By November, both $64,000 quizzes—which started the entire life-changing jackpot spiral—were gone. NBC, which dragged its feet on addressing its own ethical cesspools, canceled Twenty One early in the 1958-59 season. With the exit of Name That Tune in the fall of 1959, network television was purged of all existence of five-figure quiz broadcasts.
More than 200 contestants, producers, or other quiz show figures were estimated to have perjured themselves before the New York grand jury. Two dozen were convicted but given suspended sentences.
Winn, the student, and Van Doren, the professor, charted two different paths. Winn eventually became a feminist of mild note and wrote three books, including “The Plug-in Drug,” an indictment of television’s influences on children. The work and Winn are still widely-heralded in academic circles. Excerpts of Winn’s book were still being used in “Mass Media: Annual Editions,” a Dushkin-McGraw-Hill communications textbook into the late 1990s. A member of the book’s review board was finally questioned in 1998 as to why Winn’s background as a quiz show cheater is never revealed and her credibility hailed as a critic of television. The reviewer could not provide an answer. Van Doren, on the other hand, was fired from Columbia and found difficulty obtaining steady work until the mid-1960s when he was finally hired by Praeger, a small publisher, and as an associate editor for Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Had the first public brick not fallen with Dotto, the scandals which kept big-money game shows from television for nearly 15 years would have surely started with allegations against another show. The deceptive practices of coaching and rigging, which bore more resemblance to the booking of pro wrestling matches rather than scripting dramatic programs, were learned by producers and question writers from peers on other shows. Herb Stempel had already talked long before Ed Hilgemeier revealed his discovery of a notebook. Charles “Stoney” Jackson of The $64,000 Challenge was a minister and ready to come clean.
Before the grand jury began its probe, before Congress felt compelled to conduct hearings, before a Television Quiz Show Act was written in 1962 to make rigging a competitive broadcast contest a felony, parents were the first ones who had to deal with the scandals. Many of the fans of these shows, particularly Dotto with its connect-the-dots game, were children who were home from school for the summer. This was August. In more than a few U.S. cities, youngsters cried at the loss of Dotto and parents, most of whom had themselves never experienced the scenario of grown adults cheating, were at a loss as to how to explain it. They had spent time teaching their children to play games honestly.
Some of the shows tarnished by the scandals were given second chances in later decades. Tic Tac Dough became an enormous success in the ’70s and ’80s as an honest show. Treasure Hunt, which had seen its producers receive financial kickbacks, was reformatted into a four-year hit of the mid-’70s. The $128,000 Question, an attempt to recapture the days of Hal March, limped through two unspectacular years from 1976-78. Twenty-One was prematurely canceled by NBC in 2000 after delivering respectable ratings when network executives simply decided they did not want the show. In 2000, reports surfaced of a possible revival of Dotto. At one point, Wendell Niles Jr.—son of a former television announcer—attempted to repackage the show. The effort went nowhere.
As for two other key figures, Hilgemeier and Kimball-Slatin both faded into oblivion. According to attorney Stone’s 1992 book, Slatin received $2,666 in payments from Frank Cooper Associates as a payoff to keep quiet about the Winn notebook until she was subpoenaed by the grand jury. Hilgemeier threatened a lawsuit against Jack Paar after jockey Billy Pearson, a megawinner on the $64,000 quizzes, accused the Dotto whistleblower of blackmail on Paar’s Tonight Show. Hilgemeier, who aspired to a show business career and failed to find success in the industry, was never again used as a contestant on a television game show.