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‘This is Your Life’ screens at Billy Wilder Theater on Sunday

Decades before we began to keep up with the Kardashians or wondered about “The Girls Next Door,” there was “This Is Your Life.”

For years, host and creator Ralph Edwards would surprise the famous, infamous and even non- celebrities with a look back at their lives. The show originally aired on the radio from 1948-52 and then moved to NBC TV in 1952 and continued until 1961. A new version appeared briefly in 1972 on the network. Last year, Ralph Edwards Productions -- Edwards died in 2005 -- donated some 400 episodes plus other material to the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

On Sunday, the archive is having a free showing of four memorable episodes featuring comedians Harold Lloyd, Lou Costello, George Burns and Buster Keaton.

“It’s really fascinating to see a lot of these people in kind of unguarded moments,” says TV archivist Dan Einstein, who is hosting the program. “They were surprised because they didn’t have time to prepare.”

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During the 1950s, the show was broadcast live from the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. The show would open with Edwards scurrying down Hollywood Boulevard and surrounding environs with his camera crew to surprise the subject of the week’s episode. Then, during the quick commercial break, Edwards, the subject and the crew would hustle to El Capitan.

“When you watch a lot of these, you really kind of appreciate what Ralph Edwards did,” says Einstein. “They had a script that he followed pretty faithfully. He had to keep the proceedings moving. What really impressed me is that he remembers everybody’s names.”

Some people were tipped off that they were to be feted on the show. “They told actress Frances Farmer because she had had a nervous breakdown,” says Einstein. " Eddie Cantor had a heart condition, so they warned him.”

“Ralph Edwards described the worst moment of the whole series was when newscaster Lowell Thomas was on,” he says. “They surprised him at some dinner and Lowell Thomas turned to Ralph and said something like, ‘This is a sinister conspiracy,’ and glowered through the whole thing.”

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“The truth is after it was all over he wrote Ralph a very flattering note,” adds John Couch, vice president of Ralph Edwards Productions. “They became lifelong friends.”

Edwards, says Couch, was one of the true gents of the entertainment industry and most people were flattered to be honored on the series.

Couch says that although people remember the celebrities who appeared on “This Is Your Life,” the show frequently feted unknown people. On one episode, Edward surprised a woman who had been a slave.

“On the radio show, they actually had a two-parter where there was a soldier from the Confederacy and one from the Union,” says Couch.

“This is Your Life” actually began on Edwards’ popular radio game show “Truth or Consequences.”

After World War II, “someone from Washington in the Joint Chiefs of Staff contacted Ralph and said the guys are coming back home,” says Couch. “Many are wounded and are really depressed. Is there an act you can do on ‘Truth or Consequences’ that would lift their spirits?”

Edwards decided to help out a young paraplegic veteran. “He brought in friends from his childhood and his family,” says Couch.

“The idea was to make him feel that your life continues. At the end he was sent to some sort of training, so he would have a career. The act was a huge hit and immediately it became its own radio show.”

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Couch doesn’t think a celebrity-driven “This Is Your Life” would work now on American TV. “I think everybody is so guarded about their image,” he says.

For information on the screening, go to www.cinema.ucla.edu

susan.king@latimes.com


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