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the new age of television in the 1950s, things had to be bigger and better. Radio game shows had become part of the overall fabric of American life. Even some of their vernacular had crossed over—the phrase “the $64 Question” was something people referenced all the time. But, Americans in the post-World War II era were not going to watch a complete stranger compete for $64. The prize money had to be more and the “storyline” had to be more engaging.

And so, the first new game show for television was created: The $64,000 Question. It was, in those days, a truly large sum of money for almost everyone and especially large considering it could be won by playing a silly game. The $64,000 Question aired in June of 1956 to a good amount of success. Seeing this was enough to make the famous journalist Ed Murrow, serious and professional but a little dull by game show standards, wonder just how much longer he could last at CBS. The contestants that appeared on the show became the literal definition of Andy Warhol’s idea of fame. They would appear in front of both a studio and television audience for half an hour, win over a few hearts and then disappear back into their regular lives once more. The $64,000 Question was the first of many new game shows to essentially use that format. The floodgates had been opened and those eager to make the most of television as a new medium had rushed in.

For a time, each new show would have its place in American homes. But steadily, one would rise above the rest, for both good and bad reasons. By 1956, the nation seemed captivated by these game shows. People adored them and loved the drama they created. But because of that, the demand for “characters,” people that would be cast to play a part like that of a Hollywood actor, steadily grew behind the scenes. The public really resonated with the shows. They loved some who participated and even seemed to enjoy disliking others. It was no longer enough to simply have random people that Americans could only connect with for half an hour. It was now of prime necessity to find a hero and a villain.

Herbert Stempel (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Daniel Enright always believed that for his new show Twenty-One to succeed, he would need to find people to play the parts. The first to be cast on the show was a man named Herbert Stempel. In the months leading up to his casting, he had sent Enright several letters claiming that he could win the grand prize rather easily because the questions were not that difficult. He claimed to have a photographic memory and yet at the time, he was an impoverished graduate student at City University in New York and had married into a wealthy family who thought him to be beneath them on the social ladder. Enright invited his potential first “cast member” to the office to see him in person. He was accepted immediately but with an unknown condition. He would be cast as the nerd, the intellectual computer, the villain to the attractive hero in the other booth.

Twenty-One Finds A Hero And Digs Themselves Hole

Stempel was short, stocky and had thick-rimmed glasses. Years later, when asked what he had thought of Herb Stempel when he first met him, Enright claimed that he found him almost disagreeable. Whenever he asked him a question, Stempel would respond with short, quick, to-the-point answers and nothing more. He was socially awkward and clearly from a poor family. His father had been a postal clerk and had died when he was young. His mother had been on welfare ever since. The combination of all of those things, Enright believed, made him the kind of person that people would want to dislike.

At first, Stempel would come out as the winner against his opponents. But, in a context in which a man’s only real value is to be the loser and the one that everyone dislikes, Enright soon realized he needed a dashing and supremely confident young hero, one that would beat this unlikeable villain. He found his next “cast member” in Charles Van Doren. He was, as many associated with the show remembered in the years that followed, the perfect player for the perfect role. His father was the celebrated Columbia University professor Mark Van Doren. Charles was an avid reader, apparently blazing through two to three books a day. He was an aristocrat with modesty. Like his father before him, Charles was a teacher of English at Columbia when a representative from Twenty-One found him. It was just another thing that made Van Doren perfect for the role of hero. Regular people everywhere would love the fact that he was teaching the younger generation on a daily basis. As Enright said later, Charles Van Doren was the kind of young man that parents everywhere would be willing to let their daughters marry. Slowly, Van Doren would be coached by the staff of Twenty-One on how to answer the questions. He was told when to pause, when to smile, and even told when to stutter before a response. At first, he would lose, but he would eventually begin to win more and more. And the more that occurred, the first of those happening in December of 1956, the more Herbert Stempel resented his role as the nerdy loser. Ironically, Van Doren resented his role just as much.

Charles Van Doren. It is easy to see why people liked him so much. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Stempel naturally hated the fact that everyone disliked him and rooted for him to lose. And Van Doren, for all his success as the hero, seemed to dislike the idea that he had to give in to the show’s team of writers who wanted him to appear as someone that he really wasn’t. As the script began to take a turn in favor of Van Doren, Stempel privately began to attack both Van Doren and Enright, saying that he wanted a chance to play the game fairly. Eventually, still bitter about the lack of action, Stempel began to blow the whistle on Twenty-One. He looked for journalists that would be willing to talk to him, and although reporters were initially wary of picking up a story that may not have had any real merit, a New York newspaper finally took the bait. And thus the scandal was revealed.

In our world today, a reaction to such a scandal would likely not be all that extreme. We have been conditioned, especially with the rise of reality television, to trust nothing. It doesn’t matter how convincing it might seem, it’s probably not real. But in the 1950s, in a time when television was a new medium, that was certainly not the case. And so, instead of the Twenty-One scandal ending in apologies and resignations, the whole ordeal was taken to a United States congressional committee. Accusations were made and charges were pressed. In the end, none of them came to anything, but those involved never truly recovered.

Daniel Enright was unable to work in the US television industry after that, instead having to move to Canada to continue pursuing his interests. Van Doren, for his part, thought he would be returning to Columbia after the scandal. He was beloved by people, a perfect example of all the good that America had to offer. But it was not to be. Fearing what could be if he remained on staff, Columbia officials decided to release him from his duties. He moved to Chicago shortly after and never again really spoke of what happened, except for one occasion in 1985. He seemed to find some peace. The same could not be said for Herbert Stempel. When Van Doren testified in front of the government officials in Washington, Stempel traveled down by train just so he could see them put the professor in his place. Bitterness towards everyone still rushed through him long after it was over.

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