Friday, July 24, 2009

Saying the secret word, or not, with Groucho

By Steve Crum

Groucho Marx met Fr. John Bremner during the 1958 season of You Bet Your Life, Groucho’s popular TV comedy, quiz show. The show began on NBC radio in 1947, and transferred to television for a successful run from 1950-61. Groucho, accompanied by his announcer George Fenneman, would chat and joke with guests. Most guests were non-celebrities.

After five minutes of cajoling, it was time for the quiz. Prize money was not that much, compared to big time quiz shows of the mid-1950s like The $64,000 Challenge. A winning couple on You Bet Your Life usually cashed in for several hundred bucks. But they could take home $10,000. A gimmick was to reward contestants with $100 if the “secret word” were spoken. As Groucho would say each time a couple would enter the stage, “Say the secret word, and divide an extra $100 between you.” If either contestant would say the unknown word in regular conversation, like “soap,” a gangly looking, toy duck [with a Groucho mustache and cigar] would drop by wire from above. Two $50 bills were attached.

Enter John Bremner. In 1958, Bremner was a Roman Catholic priest, and had finished a stint as political columnist for The Tidings, a Los Angeles Catholic newspaper. He would spend 25 years as a priest before devoting his career to teaching the importance of words. From 1969-85, Bremner served as professor of journalism at The University of Kansas. He was Dr. Bremner then, and one of the most respected names in journalism not only on campus but throughout the United States. His two books, Words on Words and HTK are still required reading in journalism schools and by newspaper and magazine writers and editors. When he died from cancer in 1987, students and colleagues were stunned. I was among them.

During my 21 years of teaching journalism at J. C. Harmon High School in Kansas City, Kansas, my students and I were fortunate to sit in on lectures and seminars at KU featuring Dr. Bremner. Many of my students later had him as an instructor at KU. He was an imposing figure at 6’ 5” with white hair. He intimidated students with theatrics and purpose. He cared about the use of words, and he wanted others to care. His students and colleagues knew that, and respected him for it. He certainly changed my writing for the better.

That Bremner agreed to appear as a contestant with host Groucho Marx is somewhat apt. Groucho also loved words. Marx’s quips and puns were central to his lightning wit. Remember these were the pre-journalism professor days of Bremner. He was appearing on the show with the hope of raising money for his church. Groucho knew him only as a priest, and Bremner was dressed as such.

You Bet Your Life has not been rerun for at least 15 years, and that is a shame. But when I chatted with Bremner while he was preparing to lecture my students in 1978, the show, called The Best of Groucho in reruns, had for years been regularly broadcast at various times nationwide. He seemed to know I was going to ask him about his appearance on the show that had just aired locally. For the umpteenth time over the last 20 years it had aired.

“I get calls from friends, relatives and former students all over the world every time that show airs,” Bremner said with forced smile. “Sometimes they call me in the middle of the night while I am asleep. I always tell them, ‘Yes, it was really me,’ and, ‘Yes, I was a priest then’.”

The shocker that sticks with me regarding our conversation is neither that Groucho was both funny and a nice guy nor that the several hundred dollars Bremner made was given to the Catholic Church.

The scoop is that Bremner was tempted to cheat. He and his partner had already won the initial cash, and were waiting backstage to reenter later in the show to answer questions for the big bucks. A producer told him he was so popular with the studio audience that they would like him to win the jackpot. "Since a charity would get my winnings," Bremner said, "I was told it would work out well for everyone. All I had to do was read the questions, supplied with correct answers, before going back on stage."

He refused to cheat. As it turned out, Bremner and his partner lost during the final round, but left with decent winnings nonetheless.

A question begs: Was this the only time a contestant on You Bet Your Life was offered the answers? The quiz show scandals of 1958 involved widespread cheating on such programs, yet Groucho’s show kept running to 1961. By then, virtually all other quiz shows were absent from TV, and remained so for years. Had Bremner gone to authorities and told them of what the Marx show had offered him, maybe Groucho’s reputation and career would have suffered. However, You Bet Your Life remains a legendary quiz show that stayed on the proverbial up and up, without scandal.

“To love words, you must first know what they are,” Bremner later wrote. No doubt he would have a field day editing this piece.
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Unfortunately, the Bremner/Groucho show is not available, but here is a clip from another You Bet Your Life episode from Dec. 5, 1957...featuring opera singer John Charles Thomas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=askyshysvbw

John Bremner tributes: a wonderful piece, The Legend of John Bremner, hosted by Edwin Newman, that includes rare footage of Bremner lecturinghttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Wgi1rJK5gU 
plus a great story by one of his KU students: http://www.journalism.ku.edu/resources/facilities/bremner/tribute

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