Gene Rayburn, Match Game, Goodbye
Gene Rayburn would not want any of us to be sad this week. In fact, he would be far better satisfied if we all sat around a table doing Dumb Dora questions and Old Man Periwinkle imitations. Gene proved one thing----he was as stingy as Jack Benny. He only gave us 82 years----or as a concession to game show guru David Schwartz: 81 years and 49 weeks.
The tribute to Gene, which originated as an obituary on our mainpage, will remain perpetually for you to peruse and we will be preparing a Legends page on Rayburn for January. The sad truth for me: I never had the chance to personally interview him.
Gene Rayburn's on-air persona was a shade of the little boy who never grew up and you never wanted him to while you were watching. He had traces of Eddie Haskell with a more lovable edge.
Seeing the old Choose Up Sides kinescopes on Game Show Network, you see an early tune-up for the off-the-wall persona which stuck to us like an arrow on a target. I'm only sad so few of the 1960s-era Match Game episodes survived on kinescope. For a show which had such a quiet format in relation to its more noted successor, the classic Rayburn humor was injected more times than you can imagine. Such as telling the audience questionmeister Dick DeBartolo had been locked in a coffin for three days to prepare the day's questions. Or when he led the afternoon's crew (Joe Garagiola and Y.A. Tittle as the celebrities) through "John and his twin had identical (BLANK)." Gene needed five repeats of the question, an all-time record, before a match was finally achieved. The question was even carried over to the next day's show. Gene asked the first player, "What did you say yesterday?" Player: "I wasn't here yesterday, Gene."
I used to live for midweek when Gene would tell the contestants they would receive a home version of The Match Game. "It'll come to you in a plain brown wrapper with no return address," Gene would say, followed by that infectious Rayburn cackle.
Art James, doing the short-lived Fractured Phrases, dropped by for a week to play against Florence Henderson. After Florence's teams rolled up the first five games, Gene said: "Art, you think you'd be better off going back to Fractured Phrases? We may have trouble getting any other contestants to play with you."
If anything, Match Game '73 was one of the most tailored-for-hosts games in television history. If you go back and look at some of the Steve Allen shows on which Gene was announcer in the late 1950s, you see Match Game-style humor (without the double entendre). A lot of Steve's brand of comedy rubbed off on Rayburn and when the producers decided to throw out the "name something" questions and go strictly with "blanks," Gene was off and running. The '70s-era show was the closest thing on television to improvisational humor created by comic questions.
One of the hardest things to watch was when Gene had to carry the load on NBC's ill-advised attempt at a hybrid of two game shows with Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour. Nobody tried harder than Gene Rayburn to make the format work. Yet, one could sense he was struggling with having to prop up Jon Bauman, who never should have been hired as an emcee, and make some semblance out of a confusing structure. He couldn't flex his comic muscles with the same vigor as on the CBS version.
Few people remember Rayburn as the original host of the Miss Universe Pageant. The contest was in Miami Beach in the early '60s and Gene was as irreverent as any beauty show host you'll ever see. John Daly and Arlene Francis were assigned the balcony to do the "serious" analysis but Rayburn cut up with the contestants almost as if Fannie Flagg and Betty White were going for the crown. When Match Game became a success for NBC, Gene had to pass the torch to Jack Linkletter (who warmed the seat for two years before Bob Barker took over for his long run). Yet, viewers genuinely missed Gene's antics and the ratings took a small dip until Barker took the reins.
Yet, for all of his wacky side, close friends knew of a depth to Gene Rayburn. On the air, one could witness it when he played To Tell the Truth in the 1970s. Gene could ask some of the most penetrating, engaging questions to the contestants and displayed a broad knowledge of a variety of subjects. Off the air, he loved all kinds of music. In our tribute, you learn of the admiration he had for the great symphony conductor Arturo Toscanini. Yet, in the years when he hosted NBC's Monitor on radio, he once admitted one of his favorite songs was Floyd Cramer's "Last Date."
On Monitor was when Gene's skills as an interviewer were on display. In one of the show's last years, I was making a two-hour drive to one of the north Florida beaches. I spent most of that afternoon listening to Gene in a conversation with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy about their stage careers. Gene's curiosity was intense and he guided the interview as if it were a visit with two close family members.
The words "in retrospect" rarely result in changing a story's end. However, one of the most boneheaded decisions in television history was when ABC passed on Gene to host its 1990 revival of Match Game. Sure, he was 72. Sure, his age meant a greater risk of a health scare. However, he had just admirably hosted a cable game the year before and was as spry as ever.
No offense to the late Bert Convy but Match Game wouldn't have been his kind of show as a host. It surely was a disaster with Ross Shafer and an excessive number of sixth-billed sitcom regulars few viewers at the noon hour knew, much less liked.
Even with a weaker celebrity lineup, Gene Rayburn could have made that show click. He was every bit Match Game as Allen Ludden was Password, Raymond Burr was Perry Mason and James Arness was Matt Dillon. Shafer---thrust quickly into the role after Convy was stricken with the brain tumor which all too prematurely took him---in particular, was like a guest in the wrong house. What viewers opted to tune in at noon missed Gene. That point did not go unnoticed with The Los Angeles Times interviewed Rayburn, Jack Narz and several other veteran emcees on the state of game shows in 1991. One line was classic Rayburn: "I guess (ABC executives) all thought if I did the show, I was going to drop dead on the air. It might have helped their ratings."
Some emcees are serious and cerebral, a la Alex Trebek. Some, as is Tom Kennedy, are the ultimate traffic cop. Gene Rayburn was the life of the party. A party we attended time after time because we knew we would have a good time if we came.
Our lives are far richer for having experienced this man's talents. Mine is poorer for one reason----I never had the chance to personally tell him so. If Gene Rayburn could, he'd probably send us an invitation to join him just now. Only he'd send it to us in a plain brown wrapper with no return address.
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