Monday, November 5, 2012

A trivial pursuit that has yet to bear fruit

While watching “Jeopardy!” the other day, I heard Johnny Gilbert announce that one of the contestants was from Greeley, Colo.

I immediately remembered that Ted Mack was from Greeley, Colo.

In case you're too young to remember, Ted Mack (that's him at left) was for many years the host of the “Original Amateur Hour.” The program began on radio, hosted by someone named Major Bowes (Major of exactly what I don't know), and Mack eventually succeeded him. The program was the granddaddy of “American Idol” and similar shows, and some folks who appeared on it later became famous, including Pat Boone, Beverly Sills, Ann-Margret and (as a member of The Hoboken Four), Frank Sinatra.

I remember the program from its twilight years, when CBS showed it on Sundays, usually late in the day. I can’t remember anyone I ever saw on it, though I do remember that it was brought to us by Geritol (a tonic that was ubiquitous in early TV commercials) and another product called Serutan (“Nature Spelled Backwards”).

I can’t say I was a big fan of the show, so you might well wonder why I happened to remember Mr. Mack’s birthplace.

I can explain in two words:

Information Please.

That was the name of an almanac my family had, and the name came from an old radio quiz show. The book included a listing of famous people, their birth dates and birthplaces and (even better) their real names. If it weren’t for the Information Please almanac, I might never have known that Red Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt or that Raymond Burr (born in 1917) was a year younger than Jackie Gleason.

I also learned more about Milton Berle (born Milton Berlinger in 1908) and Wally Cox (born Wallace Maynard Cox), who came into this world in 1924. Not to mention game-show great Bill Cullen (to be precise, William Lawrence Cullen) who made his debut in 1920.

And I still remember that Imogene Coca was born in Philadelphia, Pa. – but apparently would not give her year of birth. It’s a secret she would have found impossible to keep these days, but I’m nothing if not a gentleman, and if you want that piece of personal information, you can look her up yourself.

Then again, when Andy Griffith died earlier this year, I was sure he’d been born in 1928. But the Internet Movie Database says he was born in 1926.

Perhaps my memory failed me.

Or perhaps my memory didn’t fail me, but Information Please got it wrong.

Or maybe Mr. Griffith shaved a couple of years off his age when the almanac folks came a-calling.

But Sheriff Andy wouldn’t lie to us – would you, Ange?

God knows why I immersed myself in this section of the almanac when I probably could have been learning much more useful stuff. But maybe someday it will prove useful, especially if I finally get to hear Johnny Gilbert announce my own name and hometown on “Jeopardy!” And if the categories that day include “Obscure Celebrities Named Ted” and “Famous Former Aarons.”

What are the odds of that happening? If I had to make a wager, I wouldn’t make it a true Daily Double….

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