INFORMATION PLEASE
by Martin Grams, Jr.
 
“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 mean.
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.
Fadiman:  You’ve 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 before.
 
“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 Little Indians.
 
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 Fadiman conceded.
 
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 Encyclopedia Britannica.
 
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 http://www.bearmanormedia.com/.

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Copyright © 2003 by Martin Grams, Jr.  All rights reserved.  Printed in the United States Of America.  No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.