“Walking Encyclopedia” is the term which had become associated
with Clifton Fadiman’s board. Himself literary editor of the New
Yorker magazine, Fadiman queried three of the country’s
best-informed people. Franklin
P. Adams, better known as F.P.A., noted author and columnist whose
“Conning Tower” was a feature of the New
York Post. Sports
Editor of the New York Times was John Kieran’s official title, but his interests
were widespread according to the steady stream of knowledge, which
poured from him like tap water on ice.
Oscar Levant, who usually shined at the questions devoted to
music, was an authority on other subjects as well being as an
outstanding composer, arranger and director.
Dan Golenpaul was the genius behind the program’s success, an
idea man who finally stuck a rich ore of knowledge and shared it
with radio listeners. When
he first conceived the idea of the Information
Please radio program he was very down on his luck.
He hunted up the wittiest, most literate men he could find
for his “experts” and quizzer – a revolutionary notion for
radio. At that time,
none of the four he found were known outside the small circle of New
York’s Literati Society. But
three years after the program premiered, Fadiman, Adams, Kieran and
Levant were regarded as the smartest people in the country, and
Golenpaul was the proud owner of several cars, two homes and all the
impedimenta of a radio magnate.
At its peak, Information
Please had an estimated audience of fifteen million listeners a
week. In the opening
scenes of the 1941 movie, Woman
of the Year, Spencer Tracy, playing the role of Sam, sat in a
bar listening to Information Please over the radio.
Just a year earlier, RKO began releasing a series of movie
shorts based on the popular radio programs and the movie audiences
flocked to see their favorite experts answer questions about topics
ranging from elements on the periodic chart to the moons of Saturn.
“For me the charm of Information
Please lies in this kind of banter,” quoted writer Harriet Van
Horne. “That a
program can be consistently and intelligently entertaining without
the services of a comedian, a set of stooges, a band and a girl
singer pleases me every time I think of it.
If anything, radio suffers from standardization.
A good idea is born and imitations take root immediately,
most of them festered lilies right from the start.
Information Please actually has no imitators, because there are no
substitutes for wit and wisdom.”
Foreign Correspondent John Gunther knew immediately that Riza
Pahlevi was Shah of Persia.
“Are you shah?” quipped Clifton Fadiman.
“Sultanly,” answered Gunther.
Fadiman: Mr. Kieran,
was that a look of intelligence on your face?
Kieran: Not a bit.
Levant: I like to
play with about five million people behind me – on orchestra I
Political Guest: How
would you like to have Congress behind you?
Fadiman: Depends on
how far behind.
Fadiman: Who traveled
in the air for seven hours, 28 minutes, 25 seconds?
Levant: Well, I’ve
been in the air that long.
been in the air for longer than that.
By way of refreshing the program and avoiding dullness, guest
artists were introduced from week to week, from political figures,
musicians, columnists, actors and authors.
Three considerations were the chief factors in their
selection: they had to have a definite contribution to make to the
program; they had to have a facile wit or a likable personality and
they must be well known.
In spite of all the precautions that were taken to make the board
feel at home before the microphone, the usual reaction of most
guests was that of extreme nervousness.
There were a few exceptions, according to Golenpaul, who
pointed out that even such seasoned performers as Basil Rathbone and
Lillian Gish found it difficult to feel at home when on the air.
Guest celebrities included Gene Tunney, Stuart Chase, Sinclair
Lewis, Will Durant and hundreds of other “Who’s Who” folk.
While many of these luminaries had acquitted themselves
creditably, scores of them have flopped miserably. James Roosevelt,
son of President F.D.R., for example, appeared on the show and a
bright quizzer submitted a quoted comment on current affairs,
requesting Jimmy specifically to identify its author.
Jimmy was nonplused. To
his embarrassment he learned that the quote came from his mother’s
syndicated column, “My Dad” and had appeared in the newspapers
only the day before!
When Warden Lewis E. Lawes was asked to supply the name of a man
who had served time as a common criminal in a New York State
penitentiary, then became a warden of Sing Sing prison, he was
stumped. The answer was
Thomas Mott Osborne who, in October 1913, entered Auburn Prison
disguised as a convist and served one week in order to study prison
conditions before being appointed warden at Sing Sing.
Rex Stout, famed mystery writer and creator of the fictional
detective Nero Wolfe, a culinary crook-catcher, appeared on one
program amid a fanfare that touted his latest book, Too
Many Cooks. One the
same program Stout, the armchair chef, was asked to name the savory
dish that would result from a given list of ingredients.
Stout fumbled and gave up.
The recipe Fadiman told the author faster than he could flip
a pancake, had been culled from Stout’s own book!
Questions involving simple powers of observation most frequently
knocked the mental marvels off their five-foot shelf.
When one ingenious contestant asked the experts to name the
congressmen of their respective districts, the oracles were silent.
Then on different occasions, the wise guys of the air failed
to remember their home telephone numbers, their social security
numbers, their automobile license numbers and other personal
memoranda. (no joke.)
On one particular broadcast, John Kieran was able to recite
Shakespeare line by line at the request of Fadiman. Yet, when one Midwestern housewife asked interlocutor Fadiman
to quiz Kieran on the birth date of Mrs. Kieran, the living library
was stumped! Franklin
P. Adams was bowled over when one of his fans submitted a poem,
specifying that F.P.A. could identify it.
He admitted that he didn’t know.
The poem as it turned out, was his own and originally
appeared in his column, “The Conning Tower,” several years
“It was upsetting when Clare Booth Luce appeared as a guest with
us in Baltimore at the time, when, as a Congresswoman, she had
incited the wrath of President Roosevelt,” recalled Oscar Levant. “Bright as she is, the questions simply weren’t geared
for her. She was very
well informed about politics and should have made a better
showing.” When asked to mention a character from a stage play who
portrayed a member of the German diplomatic corps in the U.S.,
letter-perfect Luce was stumped.
The character, she learned to her chagrin, was in her own
play, Margin for Error,
then doing big business on Broadway.
“I myself attended an Information
Please broadcast [c. 1945] and watched the experts strut their
stuff,” recalled columnist Mort Weisinger.
“I noticed one fact. While
Fadiman was busy introducing the question, the experts would all
study the audience, or keep an eye on the clock.
The next day I mailed in my own question.
It was accepted and when Fadiman read it over the air it went
like this: ‘The next question, gentlemen and Miss Barrymore,
demands your closest attention.
It cannot be repeated. It
comes from Mr. Mort Weisinger, of Great Neck, New York, and is
divided into two parts. The
first part: what is the name of the author of this question?
The second part: where does he live?’
Not a soul could answer.”
A similar stunt was pulled in a Canada Dry broadcast when a
listener submitted a question, asking the experts to repeat the
opening lines of each Information
Please broadcast that was recognized as the signature opening.
No one could answer “Wake up America!
Time to stump the experts!”
On the broadcast of January 2, 1940, when asked who the author of Rebecca
of Sunnybrook Farm was, none of the panelists knew the answer.
Gloria Stuart, the guest of the evening admitted her
embarrassment on the air for not knowing the answer, when Fadiman
pointed out that she actually played the role of Gwen Warren in the
1938 film of the same name!
Some questions answered wrong on the program prompted letters from
faithful listeners asking for the mistake to be amended.
On a number of occasions, the letters were so overwhelming
that Clifton Fadiman was given the chore of explaining their mistake
on air, and setting right what was made wrong.
John Kieran made an error in a question about baseball on one
broadcast, giving the wrong name of the town in which the game was
supposedly played. Apparently,
according to Fadiman, 724 letters were brought to Golenpaul’s
attention before the end of the week.
In October of 1938, a sports question was asked and someone made a
mistake regarding 10 men on a lacrosse team. This mistake was corrected by Fadiman before the program went
off the air, because NBC was being swamped with phone calls.
On March 14, 1939, the question was asked: “Can you name the
Presidents of the Colleges at which of the following is the football
coach?” The wrong
name was given for the President of the University of California, so
Fadiman was forced to make the correction at the beginning of the
next broadcast, admitting that they were wrong.
This was apparently brought to his attention as according to
Fadiman, “the entire population of California apparently contacted
us almost immediately after the broadcast.”
On the broadcast of December 26, 1939, a question came about
asking to name titles of books or plays in which there were only
male characters – no females whatsoever.
Adams remarked Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor
Jones and Fadiman accepted the answer.
Shortly after the broadcast, a woman phoned Fadiman at the
studio to inform him of the error, claiming she was an actress, and
played a role in the very same play.
On May 22, 1942, the board of experts rejoiced for having a
perfect score, answering all of the questions correctly.
Soon after, their rejoice turned to sorrow when they learned
that one of the evening’s questions, submitted by Mr. J. Burn from
New York should have earned him a $50 Savings Bond and a set of Encyclopedia
Britannica for his question about U.S. Presidents.
Apparently they had made a slip in one of the answers.
On the September 10, 1940 broadcast, author Jan Struther answered
according to a famous quotation, “What is better than rubies?”
Struthers said “a virtuous woman.”
A great number of letters came in to her defense, because
Fadiman had not accepted the answer. The answer he was asking for was “wisdom” from Proverbs
8:11. Fadiman stood
vigorous on his answer, explaining the situation on air a month
later (October 8), hoping his explanation would calm down the letter
writers who were still upset over the verdict.
The broadcast of September 10, 1940 also marked Jan Struther’s
first of many appearances on the program. She was guest on at least eighteen broadcasts between 1940
and 1945. Struther was
the author of Mrs. Miniver
and delighted the experts with her charm, and ability to take a
wisecrack – as well as throwing it back.
Struther, however, was dropped abruptly years later after
innocently answering an Agatha Christie question by using the
English title Ten Little
Niggers, released in the U.S. as Ten
On the broadcast of February 7, 1939, Fadiman announced another
correction. In a
previous episode from the weeks past, Cornelia Otis Skinner said
“peeping” was a crime and Fadiman as the judge and jury, did not
accept it. Through the weeks after, however, brought in a deluge of
letters from attorneys disputing, claiming peeping was a crime, so
Even though the United States was not at war with Japan at the
time, very few letters arrived at NBC over a comment said on the
broadcast of June 20, 1939. Foreign
Correspondent John Gunther, when commenting about John Hay
initiating the open door policy, remarked over the air that “the
Japanese closed it, a friend of mine said, so you can’t even see a
Chink in it.”
For those attempting to keep count, in the fourteen years and 500+
broadcasts Information Please
attempted to stump the experts, more than 1,800 dial-twisters had
successfully hopped aboard radio and television’s quiz program,
throwing the experts for frequent losses and winning over $75,000
worth of savings bonds and exactly 1,366 free sets of the
Martin Grams, Jr. is
the author of many books about old-time radio. This article features copyrighted excerpts from the book Information
Please, published through BearManor Media.
Reprinted with permission from both the publisher and the
author. For more information about this book and other BearManor
Publications, check out www.bearmanormedia.com.