Jewish World Review Aug. 30, 1999 /18 Elul, 5759
Don't scoff. Vanna, the letter-turner on the "Wheel of Fortune" game show, is destined to be remembered far longer than most novelists, scientists or philosophers who have shared the planet with her during the last half of the 20th Century. That this says more about us than it does about Vanna. . . .
Well, let's just leave it at that.
And if "Wheel of Fortune," when it first came on the air, seemed to represent a certain dumbing-down of what America expects its quiz-show contestants to be able to demonstrate knowledge of -- i.e., filling in letters to complete words -- a new game show airing this summer seems to take it one step further.
"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" not only offers multiple-choice questions -- one asked where the blue dress worn by a certain former White House intern was purchased -- but allows contestants to call friends on the phone in search of answers they can't quite think of.
So Vanna's life story is soon to be immortalized on "Biography"; contestants in pursuit of a million dollars are given a list of answers to choose from, and are allowed to call their buddies if they still don't know. . . .
This is where we are as we approach the next century.
How long did it take us, as a nation, to become quite so stupid? At what level was general knowledge in the United States less than 50 years ago?
To find out, I checked my archives (all right, there are no archives; it's just a stack of old columns), and found a list of what quiz show contestants were expected to know in the 1950s, when television was new.
Today on "Wheel of Fortune," a contestant might be asked to solve this puzzle: -LL TH-T GLITT-RS IS NOT GOL-. That's in 1999. Now, compare:
In the 1950s, on "The $64,000 Question," an Italian-born shoemaker named Geno Prato was asked: What was the name of the Verdi opera that started Arturo Toscanini on his conducting career; in what country did he conduct it; where was the opera originally premiered; and on the eve of what holiday was it originally premiered?
Prato unhesitatingly answered correctly: "Aida"; Brazil; Cairo; Christmas Eve.
Bill Pearson, a jockey from California, was shown six portraits. He was told to respond with the subject, the artist and one teacher with whom the artist had studied.
He got all six: (1) Erasmus; Hans Holbein the younger; his father Hans Holbein the elder. (2) Pope Innocent X; Velasquez; Francisco Herrera. (3) Madame Carpentier and her two children; Renoir; Couture. (4) Charles I; Van Dyke; Rubens. (5) The Wyndham sisters; Sargent; Carolus-Duran. (6) Don Manuel Osario De Zuniga; Goya; Jose Luzan Martinez.
Richard McCutchen, a Marine captain, was given a menu from a 1939 Buckingham Palace dinner for the president of France and his wife. He was asked to describe each of the seven courses.
He did. Consomme, he said, "is a broth of either meat, fish or fowl stock. Cannelle is what is called a forcemeat -- a meat, fish or fowl dumpling." Truit saumone "is trout born, hatched in fresh water, which migrated to the sea and returned. Steelhead, we call them in this country." Maltaise "is a Hollandaise sauce with orange juice and a little orange peel in it." Corbeille "is a pure French word meaning either a basket of fruit or a basket of flowers, so let's say a basket of fruit." Chateau Yquem "is a sweet dessert wine from the Bordeaux district of Sauterne. . . ."
And on he went, until he had given every part of the answer correctly.
You may be thinking: Some of the quiz shows of the '50s were fixed, right?
Yes. But the point is, the American public believed that average citizens could answer questions like those. If you were smart enough to appear on a television quiz show, it was assumed that you possessed that depth of knowledge.
And today? We leave you with the words of Vanna White:
08/27/99: Fun and games at Camp Umbilical Cord