THE $64,000 QUESTION : HOW DID THE ‘50s QUIZ-SHOW SCANDAL ENSNARE A TENNESSEE MINISTER?
IT WAS THE best and worst of times, the age of wisdom and folly, the epoch of “The $64,000 Question” and “The $64,000 Challenge.” It was the season of “Twenty-One,” the spring of “Tic Tac Dough,” the winter of “Dotto.”
We had excited quizmasters before us, contestants in isolation booths and cash prizes reaching $264,000. We had crookedness before us.
The television quiz scandals of the late 1950s were the most bizarre, disillusioning chapter in the history of broadcasting. These shocking disclosures of deceit became the big, looping signature of an entire decade, exposing the cynicism of television entrepreneurs who were able to control everything except their own fears of losing their audience. Also exposed were the incredible apathy of trusting Americans and the frailties of winning contestants who were fed answers or manipulated so that their fates were predetermined.
Not all contestants were swept up in the hoax, and those who were co-opted were mostly decent citizens. By rationalizing their roles, however, they became partners in this massive fraud.
October and November mark the 30th anniversary of Congressional hearings on the scandals, hearings that capped this tawdry episode of contemporary Americana. One of many winning contestants who testified there--after his earlier attempts to blow the whistle were ignored or ridiculed--was the Rev. C. E. (Stoney) Jackson Jr., now old and penniless in Denver, Colo. “The scandals,” Stoney says today, “started me on the road to cynicism.”
Stoney Jackson had two ambitions in the fall of 1956. The first was to become a best-selling author. A windy character who read the classics, fancied himself a humorist and philosopher and eagerly shared his folksy erudition with his fellow citizens in Tullahoma, Tenn., Stoney was thinking big at 43, bigger than “Sports Sermon,” the column he was writing for the twice-weekly Tullahoma News. Stoney was planning to make his literary mark by writing a novel that would present his humorous views on contemporary America.
Ordained as a minister in the Disciples of Christ Church, Stoney had another dream: to be a Protestant Father Flanagan working with wayward boys, possibly through sports. Sports was a passion with Stoney, who played freshman football in college and acquired his flat nose from 130 bouts as an amateur welterweight.
Following his father into the clergy, Stoney had run through a string of small-town ministerial assignments in the South. After a childless marriage that he jokingly dismissed as “a great recommendation for celibacy,” he returned to Tullahoma to live with his parents in the two-bedroom home they had built in 1949. Occasionally, he’d fill in for other pastors in the area and devise ambitious schemes.
One was the staging of Christian Bowls, football games on the order of the Sugar, Orange and Cotton Bowls. Stoney began modestly, with Tennessee high school teams, intending to use the profits to build a Christian boys’ home. Instead, he built a $25,000 deficit. Soon he had another plan, however, one he hoped would earn him money to pay his debt. Stoney set his sights on “The $64,000 Question.”
It had been more than a year since the “The $64,000 Question” was introduced on CBS in 1955, ushering in America’s era of big-money quizzes with a flair that hooked viewers immediately. Contestants competed separately in isolation booths while high-tension music ticked off the seconds as they attempted to answer questions held in a vault and then handed to the emcee by a dark-suited banker. What theater.
Sponsored by Revlon, “The $64,000 Question” was an immediate smash, transfixing a nation enthralled by amassing riches vicariously through television. So mesmerizing was it that much of America came to a halt on Tuesday nights when emcee Hal March appeared on camera to start the show.
CBS capitalized on its own creation by adding “The $64,000 Challenge” less than a year later, pitting the older show’s biggest winners against new contestants. Other big-money quiz shows began appearing, too, but most quickly died. Then in the fall of 1956, NBC launched “Twenty-One,” which would ultimately approach the success of “The $64,000 Question” and be exposed as a hoax--the biggest hoax of all.
Quiz shows had become a national ritual, with Americans having found a new set of heroes in these golden contestants who seemed to embody the American ethic of achievement through hard work, ingenuity and brain power. The national addiction to “The $64,000 Question” extended to Stoney, who was captivated by the show’s gaudy payoffs to colorful personalities. Would he ever be one of them? That’s what he wondered after writing to “The $64,000 Question” in New York, advertising his knowledge of boxing and football.
Soon, a woman from the show called. She nixed the sports categories, asking Stoney for an alternative. He suggested movie Westerns. She promised to call back. Several weeks passed, and no call. Stoney fretted. He remembered a magazine article saying the way to get on a quiz show was to pick a “far-out” category. He searched his mind for one. Finally, he had it.
Stoney chuckled as he envisioned his ex-wife’s reaction to watching him on television being addressed as an authority on “great lovers.” He sent a telegram advising “The $64,000 Question” that his wisdom also extended to romance. The call back was swift. He’d made the show, but with one change: His category was “great love stories.”
The Protestant Father Flanagan was on his way.
He spent 10 days researching his category before being summoned to a meeting in New York with producer Mert Koplin, who questioned Stoney about “great love stories.” Stoney did well, but when he faltered, Koplin supplied the answers.
Stoney went on the show that night, surviving the first round. But, somehow, he felt uneasy. Doubts began to form in his mind--vague, unsettling feelings. What bothered Stoney was that his session with Koplin seemed less a meeting than a rehearsal.
Returning to Tullahoma before his second appearance, Stoney publicly disclosed his uneasiness about the show when he preached in church and later when he addressed a merchants’ group. No reaction. Meanwhile, a fellow minister advised him to stop worrying. Tullahoma News editor Morris Simon, Stoney recalls, flatly told him to “shut up and don’t be an idiot!”
Returning to New York, Stoney put his reservations aside. He was simply enjoying himself too much to be concerned any longer: enjoying being housed in a big hotel with a food allowance, enjoying the attention he was getting from the show’s staff, enjoying the laughter that greeted his jokes, enjoying being recognized on the street. How seductive television was.
“I’m in hog heaven,” Stoney said after passing the $8,000 plateau by answering a question on Longfellow’s “Evangeline"--a question Koplin knew he could answer after their first meeting.
Stoney would also win at $16,000--his finale. In the week preceding that show, Stoney got a signal that he should quit. The signal was silence. He had been pampered and humored by the show’s staff. After becoming an $8,000 winner, however, the atmosphere turned to ice. He was ignored.
“It’s the signal that you’re quitting at $16,000,” a young production assistant confided. That was news to Stoney. “I hope you don’t make the mistake another contestant did when he ignored the signal and decided to go on anyway,” the young woman added. “He was given a question they knew he couldn’t handle, and he lost.”
His usefulness ended, Stoney was being ejected like a show with bad ratings. Knowing that winning at $16,000 was essential to qualify for “The $64,000 Challenge,” Stoney heeded the signal, making it known that if he won at $16,000 he would leave. Suddenly, the ice curtain was lifted and everyone was friendly again.
After winning the $16,000 and saying goodby on camera, Stoney returned to Tullahoma to further study his category and bask in his celebrity. Speech requests poured in, and people clung to his every word.
Two months later he was summoned to New York to appear on “The $64,000 Challenge” against 67-year-old Doll Goosetree of Clarksville, Tenn.
The format called for the isolated challenger and champion each week to be asked an identical question, with the game continuing until one of them missed, making the other the winner. But that would be as far as the victor could go. He would take his winnings and exit along with the vanquished.
Week one: Doll and Stoney answered the $2,000 question.
Two days before the second week’s show, however, Stoney was ushered into the office of producer Shirley Bernstein, who began casually discussing “great love stories.” Did Stoney know who wrote a 19th-Century poem similar to “Hero and Leander”?
He didn’t. “It was Thomas Hood,” Bernstein said. Stoney was silent, not knowing what to say.
On the night of Dec. 29, 1957, the dueling Tennesseans were again in their respective isolation booths. Emcee Ralph Story asked Doll the $4,000 question. It was the one about Thomas Hood that Bernstein had asked Stoney.
Doll was a blank.
When Story asked him the question, Stoney almost jumped out of his skin and for an instant considered shouting: “I know the answer, because Shirley Bernstein gave it to me.” But he didn’t. “The answer is Thomas Hood,” Stoney said. He had won $4,000. But his heart sank, for he was off the show.
Stoney was outraged. He learned later from Doll that Bernstein had misleadingly told her to bone up on Shakespeare. In sabotaging Doll, moreover, the show kept Stoney from advancing.
So angry was Stoney that he wrote Time magazine, revealing all. No reply. Next Stoney repeated his story in a letter to The New York Times. Nothing doing. Stoney called the Nashville Tennessean. Not interested. Lastly, he appealed to Tullahoma News publisher Simon. “No one would believe you,” Simon replied.
The man who soon made it possible for Stoney and other estranged contestants to publicize charges of deception was a standby contestant on the CBS daytime show “Dotto,” who produced unrefutable evidence that the current champion won with pre-fed answers.
Reaction was almost immediate. The show was cancelled. Then came newspaper stories detailing former “Twenty-One” champion Herbert Stempel’s charges that he was ordered to lose to the more charismatic Charles Van Doren, a Columbia University professor who went on to become a national icon and regular on NBC’s “Today” program. Although the charges were denied, the dam was bursting. Other quiz show contestants began talking, too. One who was thrilled to unburden himself when a New York Times reporter called, was Stoney Jackson.
Stoney had already applied his winnings to the Christian Bowls debt and to adding a den to the family house. By now, he felt no guilt about “The $64,000 Question,” believing he earned his victory by studying so exhaustively. Still troubled by “The $64,000 Challenge,” however, he had relieved some of his uneasiness by sending Doll a token $400 check--10%, he felt, was adequate--and writing the show, describing his misgivings and vowing to repay the money in installments if necessary. The response was a written rebuke saying: “Your reasons for wanting to return the money are in your head.”
When word of Stoney’s disclosures in the New York Times reached Tullahoma, its citizens drew their own conclusions about his head--and they weren’t flattering. No one berated him for being sucked into a scam offering dirty money--only for blabbing about it. For Tullahoma’s big tattletale, there would be no further hero worship, no more opportunities to speak or be honored at social events. A heavy aura of disgrace clung to Stoney, who somehow felt required to apologize for his truthfulness. “I was ordained a minister, not a saint,” he said. Tullahoma would testify to that.
Meanwhile, the quiz shows were investigated by a New York County Grand Jury, which lacked authority to subpoena out-of-state contestants such as Stoney. But a final appearance did await him--in front of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, which opened its hearings on the quiz shows Oct. 6, 1959.
Stoney followed Van Doren, who stunned the packed chamber by reversing his previous denials and confessing to having won $129,000 fraudulently. Then he left as he arrived, cocooned by an entourage whose presence signified his importance.
When the hearings reconvened after lunch, Van Doren had been succeeded by an entourage of one--Stoney.
Stoney silently noted the irony: Here he was wearing his old television costume, a pin-striped suit, for another appearance that, unknown to the public, was as scripted as the quiz shows being vilified. A member of the subcommittee’s staff had earlier met with Stoney in Nashville, reviewing in detail exactly the areas to be covered in his testimony. In a curious way, the fix was in again, and all that was missing from the hearings was an isolation booth.
Stoney spent his two hours repeating what he told the New York Times. “Most of us at best have a good bit of larceny in us, if we admit it,” Stoney said, “because this is an age where a lot of respect is directed toward a man with money, and a good deal of looking askance at the man who doesn’t have it, regardless of what his character may be.”
By the time the hearings ended, top executives from CBS, NBC and Revlon had taken turns denying complicity in the riggings. Their naivete was hard to accept; yet the loftier the witnesses, the less combative and skeptical the subcommittee became.
The hearings did lead to legislation banning dishonest quiz shows. In 1960, a producer and 18 contestants, including Van Doren, were indicted for second-degree perjury for lying to that New York grand jury but received suspended sentences after pleading guilty.
In Tullahoma, meanwhile, Stoney Jackson contemplated his future. A year earlier he had set down his lighthearted musings on “great love stories” in a slender volume that he paid to have published. Still under unfinished business was that other book on his agenda, the one about America. He already had a title. He would call it “The Age of Hucksters and Suckers.”
“NEVER WROTE it,” says Stoney, now two months shy of his 76th birthday and still clear-minded about the scandals. “They produced a moral lassitude in America, and I think we are still feeling the results of the betrayal,” he says. “There is an increasingly cynical attitude in this country.”
And in this household.
Life for Stoney Jackson--minister, writer, wit, sportsman-- has come to this: a lonely, bitter existence with his beloved dogs, Pirate and Little Girl, in a squalid, roach-invested mobile home tucked into a run-down trailer court behind a muffler shop. This is a $160-a-month slum. The filth and dilapidation seem irreversible.
Stoney’s monthly income totals a paltry $462 from Social Security and a church pension. Medicare helps with health expenses. A semi-invalid who hobbles on crutches, he is seated at a table piled high with newspapers, leaving just enough space for an old Royal typewriter. Surveying his circumstances and plunge from brief fame to indigent anonymity, Stoney groans wearily: “I look back, I look at myself, I look at the dogs, I look at this place, and I say, ‘This couldn’t have happened.”’
But it did.
After a while, most Tullahomans forgave Stoney, and life was good again. Indulging his love of athletics, he founded the the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the Churchmen’s Hall of Fame.
Preaching and newspapering remained in his blood, too, evidenced by his sermons in area churches and the column he continued writing for the Tullahoma News. In 1965, he began commuting 50 miles to Alabama for a job as editor of the Huntsville News.
Stoney’s plate was full. He and his retired parents had money in the bank, and the family house was paid for.
Then everything soured. The health of Stoney’s parents began failing and bills from their long hospital stays and home nursing care began piling up--enormous bills that soared far beyond the family’s insurance coverage and financial resources. Stoney’s mother died in 1968, and by the time his 93-year-old father died four years later, Stoney was submerged in debt.
In 1978, Stoney lost his job when he was forced to retire from his job as editor of the Grundy County Herald in Tracy City, Tenn., at age 65. A year later, he lost the house to creditors. He--and his six dogs--were homeless.
He was unwilling to abandon his dogs to live in government-subsidized housing. “I’m supposed to be one of God’s higher creatures,” he says, “and they are supposed to be his lower creatures. If I can’t maintain the same loyalty to them that they do to me, then how much higher does that make me?” So Stoney took his only option: “For 879 consecutive days and nights, I lived in my 1971 two-door Maverick with those dogs,” he says. At first he traveled, then for seven months parked the Maverick on his family’s burial plot in a Tullahoma cemetery. Later he moved to a house at the Pet Rest Memorial Garden in nearby Gallatin, where he gave eulogies for pets.
Finally, he landed in Denver, after a woman who had heard of his plight offered him a newspaper job there. It never materialized. “And I’ve been stuck here ever since,” says Stoney. He flashes a toothless grin. “I have more promises than a vestal virgin, less time than a parking meter and less results than a sterile sire.”
Amid the rubble of his life, he still has goals. “I can still write,” he says, proving it with his column in a neighborhood weekly and his latest project, a canine advice column under Pirate’s byline.
“We’ve gotta get outa this place,” Stoney says. But no escape route appears, as it seemed to many years ago when he sought relief from his problems on a quiz show. That’s a chapter of his life that he will never forget. For Stoney, the scandals were a lesson in human frailty, and he and his fellow quiz-show participants were an early, dramatic demonstration of television’s awesome power to influence and seduce us. “I was suspicious from the beginning,” Stoney says today. “But being an old Southern gentlemen and a nut for good treatment, I did nothing.”
He remains a minister, but his faith has been shaken many times. “There are days when I don’t have anything and all I want to do is live one second longer than my dogs,” Stoney says. “But then I sit down and think that God must have had some continuing purpose for me.” He pauses. “Else why have I survived?”