Would you like to be Queen for a Day?

Queen for A Day promoAfter “What time is it, kids?!” this was the best-known opening line on early boomer television.

It could have been called“Misery Loves Company.” It was the first pop culture reality show and there’s never been anything quite like it. Originating on radio, it moved exclusively to television in 1956. For nine years, young boomers and their parents couldn’t keep their eyes off Queen, much like the compulsion to rubberneck an auto accident.

The underlying theme: Sure, there are pockets of hardship in prosperous baby boomer America, but this is still the land of rags-to-riches opportunity and bountiful compassion. We were, remember, fighting an ideological Cold War. And the secondary theme: If you think you’ve got it bad, sister, get a load of these hapless characters.

It was a simple formula. Pluck five hard-luck women from a live studio audience who would compete to tell the most pitiful story and her need for relief. The tales were gut-wrenching tear-jerkers: the more problems, the greater the angst, the better one’s chance to get the top “applausemeter” rating and win a bevy of prizes.

One distraught poverty-stricken lady described how her saint-of-husband perished in an auto accident while she was carrying their 10th child. Her wish: some paint and supplies to repair the house. She won and got it, along with typical gifts like washers, refrigerators, silver-plated flatware and clothes. But first, to the music accompaniment of Pomp and Circumstance, resplendent in sable-trimmed red velvet queen’s robe, she was awarded a crown and scepter and handed a dozen roses for her coronation walk. Adding insult to injury, the losers got cheap consolation gifts. A son is dying of cancer and your house just burned down, but here’s a toaster and some hosiery.

The show was a queen for a day logomerchandising bonanza for sponsors who donated the gifts. To spice up the event, shapely young models would showcase the latest in fashion to be awarded.

Queen was immensely popular and commanded some of the highest advertising rates of the day. TV Guide put the show and its host Jack Bailey, a former vaudevillian and fair barker, on a 1957 cover. Apologizing all the way to the bank, the producer acknowledged the show was “vulgar” and “sleazy” but rightfully proclaimed: “That’s why it was so successful. It was exactly what the public wanted.” As for exploiting vulnerable women: “Everybody was on the make…the show, NBC, the sponsors…Weren’t the contestants all on the make, too…willing to wash their dirty linen on coast-to-coast television for a chance at big money?”

Each episode ended with: “This is Jack Bailey, wishing we could make every woman a queen, for every single day!”

Terry Hamburg writes the Boomer to You blog about the exciting and revolutionary baby boomer years.

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