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» Monday, August 11, 2008A Man at Random
I probably found it downtown, most probably in Read-All, the little book/card shop on the narrow street connecting Weybosset Street and Westminster Street (it's been years; I think it might have been Union Street). Or it could have been at Woolworths or in the Outlet, perhaps not even in Providence. In any case, it was the first paperback book I owned that wasn't a Get Smart novel. It was called Laugh Day and a greying, avuncular man in glasses was on the cover, half-seated on a stool. I picked it up and said, "Look, Mom, it's full of jokes." It was sixty cents and she bought it for me.
And this was how I became a fan of Bennett Cerf in print. I already knew him from television, as a panelist on the Sunday night CBS network series What's My Line and later in the syndicated version until his death in 1971.
Laugh Day was a book I picked up when I needed a lift. It grew dog-eared, battered, and finally fell apart. By that time I had a couple of other Cerf anecdote collections and never did replace it. But it was a companion of my late elementary and later school days.
Ever since I found out Game Show Network is still showing a pair of black-and-white game shows in the very wee hours of the morning, I've been DVR'ing them and we've watched at odd hours. Mostly it's been a pairing of What's My Line and The Name's The Same.
Even forty years later and without the benefit of color, these shows are still very funny. Certainly I prefer these to anything on network presently. There was a corker of a What's My Line on this morning. It was filmed the day before Hallowe'en 1955, about six weeks before my birth, and John Charles Daly and the guest coordinator had a grand time "tricking" the panel with guests who included a Buckingham Palace Scots Guard in full dress regalia, for which the panel had to wear the masks usually reserved for the presentation of the celebrity guest.
In the last few years I've been able to learn a little more about my favorite Mr. Cerf, including reading his posthumous autobiography, At Random. I also found out that he was one of the early "St. Nicholas League" kids. But I'll always remember an elfin Bennett Cerf with a twinkle in his eyes asking mischievous questions of the guests...and sometimes being uncannily smart about who was in the chair.
A slightly lopsided crayoned Bennett Cerf Time cover and the accompanying article "A Cerfit of Riches."
Here's his bio on Wikipedia, some quotes (with puns, of course), a passage from his biography At Random, about his friendship with Ayn Rand, and Bennett acting as host on What's My Line with mystery guest Julie London.
And speaking of What's My Line, here's the very last episode of the original series (it returned not much later in a syndicated color version; the host was then Wally Bruner) where host John Charles Daly was also the mystery guest. ("Related Videos" on the side holds more WML moments and here's what happens when you search on What's My Line.)