Television critics were outraged by the exploitation of human misery; one called the show ”a horrible example of what hits the antennas when the breadwinners are away.” But audiences – 10 million a day, five afternoons a week – loved it, and so did advertisers. ”Queen for a Day,” broadcast first on the radio in 1947 and then televised until 1964, was one of the first shows to prove what now is obvious: Other people’s troubles make great television.
The four (later five) contestants for queen were chosen from a studio audience of about 800, many of whom had lined up for two hours outside the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Hollywood, where the show was taped. Everyone was given a ”wish card” to fill out, and these were initially culled to 21. After quick interviews with Jack Bailey, the show’s emcee, and Ray Morgan, the producer, the finalists were chosen.
In the early years of the show, the women’s wishes were often whimsical or flippant; there was a spirit of fun to them. They wanted to meet Errol Flynn, direct traffic on 42nd Street in New York, sleep on the top of the Empire State Building or ride a camel down Fifth Avenue. One woman asked for, and won, a date with a different military officer every hour of the following day (and eventually married one of them).
But gradually, hard-luck stories began winning out over the light-hearted. Contestants started wishing for things like dentures, hearing aids and prosthetic limbs, special bikes for their terminally ill children, or a car so they could visit their disabled husband in the veterans’ hospital. Instead of a professional panel, the queen was chosen by an ”applause meter” of audience response, so the trick was to tug as many heartstrings as possible without breaking down and blubbering, which Mr. Bailey strongly discouraged.
The show became a competition of who had it worst. A woman who wanted a special bed for her brother, who had been shot five times in the back, beat out a woman whose 5-year-old son had a brain tumor and wanted educational toys and a collie for him.
One woman wanted a vacation because her two disabled children had died, then her father and mother died, and a month later her husband. And she didn’t even win. She was defeated by a woman who wanted a wheelchair for her son, who had cerebral palsy.
In 1953, Maxine Thompson asked only for 10 pairs of denim trousers for her 10 sons, who ranged in age from 15 months to 15 years. In addition to the pants, she won a three-week trip to Europe, where she was scheduled to attend coronation festivities for Queen Elizabeth.
A wire-service critic, William Ewald, called the show an ”essay in flummery and flapdoodle” and complained about the woman who said her crippled husband was unemployed, her baby’s lungs had been scarred by pneumonia, ”and, rather anticlimactically I thought, she added that she and her husband both had astigmatism.”
There were only a few rules about who could or couldn’t be a contestant for queen. ”No blind people and no crutches,” Mr. Bailey said in a newspaper interview. ”If you allow them on, you might just as well throw out the other contestants. They would always win. So in fairness, we don’t pick them.”
Mr. Bailey also discarded such ”dumb” wishes as ”world peace” and ”a cure for cancer.” The wish had to be for something that could be bought. When one woman asked for her daughter to be brought to the U.S. from Russia, a producer backstage was heard by a reporter saying, ”Only the money. We don’t want to get involved with the visa.”
No attempts were made to check the contestants’ stories, even if they won the crown. The producers assumed liars would be busted by their neighbors. A woman once complained that her children couldn’t go to school because they didn’t have clothes or shoes. Within minutes, the network’s switchboard was taking calls from acquaintances of the woman who claimed that the women’s children were dressed just fine.
The winners were crowned with a tiara, wrapped in a red velvet robe and showered with merchandise, mostly appliances, furniture, clothes and the occasional vacation. The next day, they were squired around Hollywood in a chauffeur-driven, gold Chrysler Imperial.
The losers also received a few gifts. A runner-up in a 1964 show, who had asked for airline tickets to send two of her asthmatic children home to Wisconsin from California, received instead an electric hair dryer, electric toothbrushes for the family, a carpet-shampooing set, a set of plastic pantryware and a ham.
In a 1956 interview, Mr. Bailey said that only once had the show failed to grant a winner’s wish. ”And that can’t really be called our fault,” he said. ”The queen had asked that her mother be brought here from the Arctic Circle. So we hired a bush pilot to fly thousands of miles over the frozen wastelands and make the last leg of the journey by dog sled. When he finally reached the Eskimo woman’s tiny shelter, he pushed aside the bearskins hanging over the door and explained his mission. The little old lady refused to leave.”