Saturday, May 22, 2010

Would YOU like to read about 'QUEEN for a DAY'?!

Jack Bailey is flanked by his TV hostesses as he regally sits on the throne occupied by hundreds of needy women through "Queen for a Day's" long run.

By Steve Crum
On Sept. 24, 1959, JACK BAILEY got the on-the-air signal and yelled to the camera, “Would YOU like to queen for a day?!” My aunt and grandmother both responded “YES!” in unison with hundreds more ladies in the audience at the Moulin Rouge in Hollywood as NBC-TV’s QUEEN FOR A DAY, “the Cinderella Show,” kicked off another daily foray into enthusiastic fun, extravagant prizes, and heart breaking stories of tragedy and despair.
By the time my Aunt Ada (Holley), Grandma (Jo) Axtell, and Grandpa (Hugh) Axtell, had been seated at the then famous Moulin Rouge theatre-restaurant located on Sunset Blvd. near Vine Street, Queen for a Day had been broadcast for nearly 15 years. Beginning on radio in 1945, the show had yet another five years airtime following my relatives’ incursion. In its initial run on both radio and TV, Queen for a Day mopped up gallons of tears and delivered refrigerators by the ton. The half hour show was so popular and financially successful, the network increased the running time to 45 minutes, just to jam in more commercials at the then astronomical price of $4,000 per minute.
The show’s format was simple. Each woman in the audience filled out a card, describing why she should be chosen as a contestant. The more emotional and needy the reason, the better. “My son needs an iron lung and my husband I can’t afford to pay for one,” said one woman. Another might write, “My husband has been out of work for a year, and is disabled. We need a new stove to help feed our 12 children.” The four best--or really, worst--stories were chosen by the Queen staff, and these four women were the day’s contestants. This was the ultimate sympathy show, a daily dose of pathos and pride swallowing. By the way, this was a woman’s show with only women as participants, not counting emcee Jack Bailey or the smattering of men sitting in the audience.
The four women were each given about five minutes to tell their stories, guided by Bailey’s pseudo-sympathetic questions. Toward the end of the show, it was time to vote on which lady should be crowned queen. And crowned she was. Bailey held his hand over each lady’s head, as the studio audience applauded. An “applause meter” would appear in the corner of the screen, registering 1-100 on the audio scale. The one with the highest applause rating won. Bailey would then shout, “Number....TWO!” (Or One, Three or Four.)
Outfitted in a sable-trimmed, red velvet robe and jeweled crown, the “Queen” would parade around the stage as Pomp and Circumstance (the old graduation march) blasted. She would then be led to her velvet covered throne, and accept a dozen long-stemmed roses, moistened by her dripping tear ducts. She was then told of what the show was providing to fulfill her wish, like a new iron lung. (This iron lung thing is one I particularly remember seeing.) In addition, she received a king’s...uh, queen's ransom in gifts, including a mink coat, a vacation trip, frozen food, appliances, etc. While all this occurred, the camera avoided showing the three contestants who lost, as they were escorted off stage.
Jack Bailey, in his best carnival pitchman voice, ended each show thusly: “This is Jack Bailey, wishing we could make EVERY woman a queen, for every single day!” This is not meant to put Jack Bailey down. He was perfect for the show, and probably meant what he said.
By 1964, when the show ended, perhaps the country had changed enough to move on and away from exploited poor souls in what was really the earliest reality-based show ever broadcast. It was the time of Civil Rights and Vietnam. One critic labels Queen for a Day as “tasteless and demeaning.” Another calls it “one of the most ghastly shows ever produced.” Sounds like the Jerry Springer Show of its time. Unlike the Springer vulgarity, however, Queen for a Day did maintain propriety and decorum amidst its human indignation.
An addendum: Both Grandma Axtell and Aunt Ada WERE picked from the audience to come up on stage for final contestant consideration. Unfortunately, their wishes did not stack up against another contestant’s need for a hearing aid, or that lady whose electricity had been shut off for the past month. My aunt and grandmother did not make the final cut. Aunt Ada’s Cinderella wish was to have a mother-in-law bed. Grandma just wanted her own pool table so she could finally learn Minnesota Fats’ game. Neither request would have spiked the applause meter. Pictured above is the back side of Aunt Ada's ticket to the show. Jack Bailey’s “word” regarding one’s wishes is particularly choice. Where is the rule prohibiting the use of an onion to evoke tears? [from Steve Crum’s showbiz memorabilia collection]
Try not to sob while watching this unusual Queen for a Day clip that opens like The Jackie Gleason Show:

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