Remember the days when televised reunions with surprise guests from your past meant tears of joy, not tears of finding out that your stepsister is secretly sleeping with your boyfriend? These were the days of host Ralph Edwards and a long-running sentimental program called This Is Your Life. Born on radio, the show brought the past back to the present, putting long-lost smiles on the faces of everyone from big-time celebrities to ordinary folk like you and me.
After more than a decade on radio and television, you’d think the surprise-ees would’ve figured out the formula, but few ever did. It all began when the unsuspecting guest was lured near (or even into) the studio in time for the live broadcast. As the show began, Ralph Edwards would surprise the unsuspecting biography-in-the-making, and the guest would be invited onto the set, where a studio audience (and a few surprises) awaited.
The rest of the show was a retelling of the guest’s life, focusing on warm memories and heart-tugging stories. Edwards read the life narrative from inside the large “This Is Your Life” book, and at certain points in the story, an off-screen voice would be heard. The biograph-ee tried to guess the source of the voice—an old friend, a family member, a teacher, a partner, etc.—and the mystery person would come out and share old stories of his or her own.
Once the life tale was all told, Edwards presented the guest of honor with a set of gifts—usually a scrapbook, a bracelet with charms representing highlights of the guest’s life, and a home movie projector, complete with a copy of that day’s This Is Your Life episode. Many tears were shed, and audiences both in the studio and at home were touched.
This Is Your Life was a sentimental favorite throughout the 50’s, as everyone from Laurel and Hardy to heavyweight Joe Louis to non-celebrity housewives, professors and businessmen had his life’s tales told. Most guests were caught totally by surprise, but not in the case of Lillian Roth, the subject of one of the most famous This Is Your Life biographies. The early 30’s musical star had overcome a long struggle with alcoholism, and the pre-planned presentation of her story—sanctioned by Alcoholics Anonymous—became an inspiration to millions.
This Is Your Life stopped live filming in 1959 and left the air two years later, but the ensuing decades brought several revivals. Edwards hosted a syndicated version in the early 70’s, and a second syndicated version—this one hosted by Joseph Campanella—arrived in 1983. A handful of specials have also aired, spotlighting Betty White, Dick Van Dyke, Kathie Lee Gifford and others. And while “reality TV” may have gotten a tad uglier in recent years, there will always be a warm spot in the hearts of 1950’s TV viewers for this warm-hearted ambush biography show.
USA / NBC – Syndicated – Ralph Edwards Productions / Broadcast 1 October 1952 – 10 September 1961 and 1970 and 1983
Ralph Edwards (1952-61,1970)
Joseph Campanella Host (1983)
Bob Warren (1952-61)