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The Original Version

A special thanks goes out to Dixon Hayes for the text and pictures on this page!!!

The set during a game...notice the dramatic lighting similar to the 2000 The circumstances leading to the creation of Twenty-One were ironically identical to those that brought it back in 2000.   It has to do with a response to another big-money game show on another network that found itself finishing the season at number one.  In this case it was The $64,000 Question on CBS, which dethroned I Love Lucy as the top show of the 1955-56 season.  
NBC's response was to ask Jack Barry and Dan Enright to develop Twenty-One.  The show premiered on NBC on September 12, 1958, in a format loosely based on the card game Blackjack.  Each player remained in an isolation booth, with sound turned on and off by host Jack Barry during the other's turn.  The player is informed of a category and chooses a question worth between one and eleven points. (The questions worth the most points are the most difficult.) Unlike its millennium descendant, this Twenty-One did not offer multiple choice questions.  In fact, the questions were often multipart (example: name the second, third, fourth and fifth wives of King Henry VIII and describe the fates of each).  The first player to reach 21 wins.  There was no end game. Occasionally, the players were given a chance to stop the game.  Games started out at $500 a point with the point values going up in the case of a tie.  If a champion lost, his challenger's winnings would be deducted from his total.  But the challenger could keep the rest.

Another similarity with the game/reality craze of the turn of the millennium: contestants often became celebrities.  We have The $64,000 Question to thank for the fact that we know Patty Duke, Barbara Feldon and Dr. Joyce Brothers. The most celebrated Twenty-One player perhaps was Elfrida Von Nardroff, who won $220,500 on the show.  But we know two other contestants--Herb Stempel and Charles Van Doren--for all the wrong reasons.  Stempel won a tidy sum of money and came into the December 5, 1956 broadcast with over $69,000.  By the end of the show he had been dethroned by college professor Van Doren who was on his way to fame, riches...and shame.

Van Doren and Stempel deciding whether to continue the game or stop. What the viewers didn't know at the time was that Stempel had been fed the answers in advance, and that Van Doren was being done likewise.  The producers of Twenty-One were rigging the game to favor contestants liked by the audience, and when the welcome began to wear out, the player would be
retired.  On the night of December 5, it was Stempel's time to take the dive.  One of the questions he missed was the identity of the Best Picture of 1955.  It was his favorite film, "Marty."  (That was not the question that lost him the game, though...he actually answered several other questions, some even correctly, before he finally lost.)  An irate Stempel (who claimed he had
been promised work on another show) tried for the longest to tell his story about what the audience didn't know about the show, but others were slow to listen or take him seriously.  (His unfortunate image, rightly or wrongly, as a spiteful whistle blower probably didn't help.) Only when a contestant from another show, Dotto, went public with the same claims did people begin listening to Stempel's claims--including a grand jury and a congressional committee.  

Jack Barry with Charles Van Doren (left) and Herb Stempel at the beginning of By then Van Doren had not only racked up winnings of $129,000, he had become a national sensation.  He became the first game show contestant in history to make the cover of Time magazine, and even became a regular on NBC's Today Show .  But he found himself face to face with the congressional committee, and he confessed that he had, indeed, gotten many of his answers in advance.  The scandal spread to the producers, who admitted their part, claiming it came out of pressure from NBC and the sponsor, Pharmaceuticals Inc., but both groups denied knowledge.  (Then again, the company also ran ads claiming Geritol helped relieve something called "tired blood.") Van Doren went on to write children's books and rarely appeared in public again; Barry and Enright would be in de facto exile until CBS gave them a chance with The Joker's Wild in 1972.   And the networks purged themselves of the other tainted shows as well (The $64,000 Question was also guilty) and investigated every single other game show on their airwaves, even seemingly rig-proof shows like Beat the Clock, You Bet Your Life and What's My Line?

But before that happened, B & E developed one more show and sold it to NBC.  Concentration premiered in NBC daytime in August 1958 and joined NBC's prime time lineup in October of that year, for four weeks, replacing the disgraced Twenty-One.  A pilot for a Twenty-One revival was shot in 1982 but the show never saw the light of day again until it returned in the year 2000 with Maury Povich as the host.

Some Other Pictures of Interest
(mouse over picture for caption)

The twin models putting the names on the front of the isolation booths (Barry     Jack Barry, Geritol salesman.

Charles Van Doren listening to a question...    Herb Stempel's dejected expression after missing the "Marty" question.

Van Doren and Stempel tie in the last game before Van Doren finally dethrones     Van Doren pretends to be relieved about getting that last question right.


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