ALL IN THE GAME
The Day They Took Away You Don't Say!
The last Friday in September 30 years ago was an absolutely low point for me. One of those days you don't realize until much later in life marked a transition.
My family lived in a south Georgia town which had terrible television reception. We couldn't even get a satisfactory picture except from Jacksonville, Florida's CBS affiliate---and even then with sparklies. However, a visit to a neighbor's house one afternoon in 1964 brought me relief from my mother's daily magnet to The Edge of Night and The Secret Storm. The Altmans, who lived two doors down, were loyalists to You Don't Say! and The Match Game.
My friends, Tommy and David, had one of those super-duper, all-purpose antennas with about 187 elements on it. Word had it in the neighborhood on a clear, spring night with thin air, they could pick up the stations 240 miles away in Atlanta. For certain, they had the only clean picture on the NBC station from Jacksonville.
Tommy, the brain of the family, suggested I come over after school and watch this game show his family had been fans of for about a year. I had read about You Don't Say in TV Guide and had tried every way in the world to get channel 12 to come in at 3:30 in the afternoon. My best shot was a picture with more snow than a Pennsylvania winter.
I don't know if it was the Altman boys' infectious enthusiasm for the game of famous names or just the fact I had never seen an NBC station look so clear. I was crazy about You Don't Say!. And I found myself captivated by its host, whom I'd never seen before.
Tom Kennedy had all the basics: a strong vocal delivery, good policeman for the game and its rules, and kept the game moving. But he had something else. This guy actually seemed to be having as much fun as the celebrities and contestants and actually laughed out loud at some of their wackier clues. A novel idea: a host who actually lets his sense of humor play into the game. I didn't even know Tom was Jack Narz's brother.
I immediately began to pester my father to get cable TV, which had just come to town. Took me a solid year to wear him down. I wanted cable for one reason and one reason alone---You Don't Say! and that fun show after it, The Match Game.
Thankfully, the Altmans were generous friends. They invited me over the next Tuesday night to see the nighttime version of You Don't Say!. Jacksonville didn't carry it. However, that blowtorch of the Altmans could pick up Daytona Beach at night, where Tom was holding fort. One of his guest celebrities that night was Pat Carroll, the one game show personality---along with Steve Allen---who can break me up almost the moment she comes onscreen.
I still wasn't familiar enough with what constituted an illegal clue on You Don't Say!. Pat gave the clue to her partner, Rochelle: "When you eat something that does not agree with you, you sometimes hear a sound, which is like a....." At that moment, what later would become labeled by Peter Marshall as "NBC's tacky buzzer" erupted, almost as if on cue for Pat's clue. Tom was almost buried in the desk in laughter. The audience exploded for what had to be the longest laugh in that show's history. Tom finally composed himself enough to say, "I'm sorry, Pat, you have been disqualified." Pat shot back, "That's not ALL, Tom!" The studio erupted again and Tommy and David and I were all on their floor.
However, I also zeroed in on another item that night. TWA gave both players a trip for two to anywhere in the world. The only prizes like that were given away on The Price Is Right.
When the Altmans weren't home or when my mother was at a school meeting, I would struggle to adjust our set to see You Don't Say!. Some days, I could barely make out the picture. Other days, I had to hang it up.
Finally, in 1965, my father broke down and ordered cable. School ended at 3:15 every afternoon and I raced home the seven blocks to see Tom and company. Even when I made the school basketball team, practice wasn't until 4:30, so my viewing was uninterrupted. I even became the first kid in Waycross, Ga., to have the home version of You Don't Say!.
So many memories were crammed into those late afternoons. The week when I found out one of my idols of the '50s, Jack Narz, was going to host the show while Tom played the game with Pat and two other celebs for the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library (they raised $6,000). Jack was his ever-cool self and TV Guide told us of the brother relationship. The night when NBC offered a 17-minute version of You Don't Say! on Saturday night to fill time when the network movie fell short of the allotted two hours. The gripes from the celebrities when they were told the name they unsuccesfully attempted to ascertain was Fearless Fosdick. The impromptu chorus of celebrities singing "John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith" after guessing that legendary name of fictional song. The contest to give away "prizes fit for a half-millionaire" on the day the show awarded its half-millionth dollar in cash. And the musical signature of You Don't Say!----a live band, highlighted by the marimbas, which could always be counted on to offer a tune topically connected to the name in each round. One will never forget the day the musicians broke up Tom when, after a contestant correctly guessed "Gina Lollobrigida," the band struck up with "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts."
When The Associated Press story hit my local newspaper of the cancellation of You Don't Say! in late September 1969, I was ready to bite nails. That show and Tom Kennedy were intertwined in my childhood as Roy Rogers and the Saturday westerns were at the movies for my father. When you have those diversions for six years, you feel you have a piece of ownership in them when you're a child/teen.
That final Friday, I was sure NBC would see the error of its ways and change its decision. That was like expecting the Kentucky Derby to be raced in Houston. The next Monday, another infernal soap, Bright Promise, was where Tom should have been. NBC hung with it for nearly three years and it never once won its time period. The only thing that show had going for it was Anne Jeffreys, television's one-time "ghostess with the mostess." Anne wasn't enough to make me lose my anger at NBC.
The You Don't Say! of the mid-'70s on ABC wasn't even close to its original counterpart. Not because of Tom. He made the best of a confused situation. Bill Carruthers produced that version and tried to remake it into a mini-version of Hollywood Squares. Four celebrities were across the studio from the two players and the show never had the intimacy or natural humor of its sire, particularly when some of the clues had been prepared by the producers.
Tom Kennedy went on to earn a spot in this century's Emcee Hall of Fame with the work he did on Split Second, which brought my father and me together summer days in the '70s to watch what became one of his favorite games, and my all-time favorite, Name That Tune. Yet, Tom did something he had no idea he was doing in the show which put him on the map. He was a big influence in my going into broadcasting, a career I have pursued for 30 years----though now on the teaching side. I wanted to be like him, to have the skills like him, to be as natural on a game show set as he always has been. I never had the guts (and sorely lacked the talent) to attempt a career at Tom's level. However, I did the best I could with the talents I was given.
When NBC took away You Don't Say!, the network took away my phantom mentor and a part of my growing up years. I'll never forget the gap which existed the Monday after the show disappeared. Those were wonderful afternoons, rain or shine outside. Tom was right about one more thing, too. It's not what you say that counts....it's what You Don't Say!
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