“And the $64 question is ….”

May 5, 2019

James Holzhauer - abc

JAMES HOLZHAUER/ABC photo

I have never watched Jeopardy, and consequently I have no vested interest in how James Holzhauer has run up his record-setting winning streak. I can’t help knowing, however, that there is a kerfuffle over it in which some critics say Holzhauer is ruining the game for others. If I understand the complaint correctly, the issue is that Holzhauer’s success has as much to do with his mastery of the buzzer as it has to do with the breadth of his knowledge. Considering other moral and ethical issues confronting the Republic at the moment, I’m not sure now much urgency to assign to this one.

Joyce Brothers - Denver Post

Dr. JOYCE BROTHERS/Denver Post

The dust-up did remind me, though, of Dr. Joyce Brothers, the psychologist, who was known for the bulk of her career as a television personality and author but who first burst into the public’s consciousness as a contestant on The $64,000 Question. Several of the contestants on that show become instant celebrities. In Joyce Brothers’ case, the immediate interest was in the fact that this young woman was presenting herself as an expert on boxing. I have read that the producers recommended that topic to her, but I don’t know if that is true.

Dr. Brothers decided to seek a spot on the show in 1955 in order to shore up her family’s finances while she was caring for her daughter and her husband, Milton, was in a low-paying medical residency. She had quit teaching positions at Columbia University and Hunter College in order to stay home with her child.

Hal March

HAL MARCH/Host of “The 64,000 Question”/TV Guide

Whether she or the producers chose the topic, Dr. Brothers was not historically a boxing aficionado. Apparently a person with a strong will and outstanding capacities for concentration and retention, she memorized dozens of reference books on boxing. As a result, she won the top prize. Two years later, she won the top prize on The $64,000 Challenge in which she was pitted against seven experts on the prize ring.

The $64,000 Question was later mired in scandal as it was revealed that some of the contestants had been fed answers in advance, but Dr. Brothers was not implicated in any such scheme. In fact, it has been reported that the producers tried to derail her progress by throwing obscure questions at her, but she answered them correctly.

Whether Dr. Brothers’ approach was any less in the spirit of the show than Holzhauer’s, I’ll leave to minds more acute than my own.

Phil Baker

PHIL BAKER

Meanwhile, the name of The $64,000 Question obviously derives from the idiomatic expression “The $64 question,” meaning the most important or perplexing question in a given situation. The idiom itself originated on a radio show of the 1940s, Take It or Leave It, on which the top prize was $64—about $925 today—which a person won by answering “the $64 question.” The big prize was paid in 64 silver dollars.

Time magazine reported at the time as follows:

“Take It or Leave It gives each of five people from the studio audience a chance to answer seven questions correctly (or quit with a cash prize after any number of correct answers less than seven). Seven correct answers in a row nets the maximum $64.”

Members of the studio audience would encourage or heckle the contestants with each decision to take the money and run or move on to the next level.

The host of the show was a comic actor named Phil Baker. Time, reporting in 1944, gave this account of an incident that reflects the character of the show:

“The program pays out about $250 a week, mostly to servicemen on leave and other citizens who can use the money. Men are much more apt to shoot the $64 works than women. Men are also more apt to get Phil Baker in the kind of trouble he encountered recently when a sailor, asked to give the navy definition of ‘noise,’ gave not ‘celery,” which was right, but ‘Boston beans.” Baker gave the sailor $64 and told him to get back to his ship.”

Apparently, the producers of Take It or Leave It didn’t have to worry about ringers.

 

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