Radio: $64 Question

  • Share
  • Read Later

Baggy-browed Phil Baker took the $64 Question to Hollywood this week. As custodian of the renowned question—now so much a part of the national idiom that even $64 prose stylists avoid using it—and quizmaster of one of U.S. radio's most popular shows, Take It or Leave It (CBS, Sun., 10 p.m., E.W.T.), Phil Baker was ready to put both on celluloid. But there would be one slight variation: to suit Hollywood's philosophy, the $64 Question would become the $640 Question.

For Baker, Take It or Leave It is a breeze. He merely asks questions and adlibs for a half hour once a week, picks up his $2,500 weekly salary, and departs. He suffered horribly getting together a radio show (with stooges Beetle and Bottle) from 1933 to 1939, but now he observes: "No stooges, writers, worries to worry about. . . . [Jack] Benny is crazy. Benny should quit. I wouldn't swap with him, Hope, Allen, for all the money in the world. The moment a show is over they start worrying about next week. They eat and sleep with radio every minute of the day."

Whattya Know, Joe? Baker's happiness is based on the great discovery that most people do not know very much. 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. All that Baker has to do is ask the questions — prepared by a Smith College girl who was the only one in her class to flunk meteorology—and make everyone feel good;

The latter is not quite so easy as 47 year-old Baker makes out. The audience is encouraged to heckle Baker and the contestant. If the audience thinks the contestant is not equal to, say, the $32 question, they warn him to pocket his money and leave, chanting: "You'll be sorry." Such challenges Baker must meet with his unrehearsed patter out of years of experience (beginning in Philadelphia, much of it in vaudeville).

"Old or Ramsay?" Only a dope could miss the $1, or opening question, like "Which of these MacDonalds had a farm?" (Answer: Old.) One $64 question (they are usually a cinch, because people cannot bear losing that much money) was "What is the most superfluous thing you could carry to Newcastle?" (Answer: coals.) Of the 20-odd categories of questions (movies, books, music, babies, etc.) which the contestants may choose, most people are afraid to tackle Alice in Wonderland. One reason may well be the $16 question: "What did the slithy toves do when it was brillig?" (Answer: gyred and gimbled.)

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.

Occasionally, when someone chooses the "music" category Phil Baker plays the accordion with which he rose to fame. But nowadays he does most of his accordion playing at home..