Queen for a Day

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Queen for a Day

Queen for a Day, a popular afternoon network television program from 1955 to 1964, originated on radio in 1945. Running five days a week, this program featured five women chosen from a studio audience who competed by presenting their hard-luck stories so as to persuade the audience that each was in the most dire straits. The audience selected the "queen" for each day by applause that was recorded on an applausemeter. The winner was adorned with a sable-collared velvet robe, given a scepter, and crowned by the host, Jack Bailey, who loudly proclaimed "I now pronounce you Queen for a Day!" The queen was then showered with an array of prizes such as appliances, furs, and jewelry—all donated by the show's sponsors in exchange for commercial consideration.

With its obvious Cinderella fantasy, this show added a royal twist to the rags-to-riches myth linked to the American Dream. The show's producers encouraged this comparison by using an opening format in which Bailey pointed at the camera and yelled: "Would youlike to be queen for a day?," to which the audience would respond with a resounding "Yes!"

First broadcast on NBC Radio in 1945, with Dud Williamson as the original host, the program moved to NBC Television in 1955. In 1960 it moved to ABC Television where it remained until its demise in 1964. Expanded from 30 to 45 minutes during its peak years of 1955-56, the show reached a daily audience of about 13 million and commanded advertising rates of $4,000 per commercial minute. Its longevity of almost 20 years attests to the show's popularity with the mass audiences of both radio and television. Since Queen for a Day was a live show, only a few kinescope recordings remain as historical records of the program.

Queen for a Day was frequently described by critics as a vulgar exploitation of the helpless female contestants' miserable conditions sandwiched in between commercial advertising. They pointed out that the show excluded unattractive or inarticulate women, or contestants who needed more assistance than brand-name merchandise could provide, such as legal or medical counseling. The program was also criticized for rewarding the losers with minor consolation prizes such as hosiery or toasters (also brand-name, of course). "Sure, Queen was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste," former producer Howard Blake wrote in 1966, as quoted in the New York Times Encyclopedia of Television. "That was why it was so successful. It was exactly what the general public wanted."

In answering the critics who pointed to the women as victims of a sleazy entertainment production, Blake's retort cynically reflects on the American consumerism of the 1950s, as quoted in The Ultimate Television Book:

Everybody was on the make—we on the show, NBC and later ABC, the sponsors and the suppliers of gifts. And how about all the down-on-their-luck women who we used to further our money-grubbing ends? Weren't they all on the make? Weren't they all after something for anything? Weren't they willing to wash their dirty linen on coast-to-coast TV for a chance at big money, for a chance to ride in our chauffeured Cadillac for the free tour of Disneyland and the Hollywood nightclubs? What about one of the most common wishes they turned in? 'I'd like to pay back my mother for all the wonderful things she's done for me.' The women who made that wish didn't want to pay back their mothers at all. They wanted us to.

—Mary Lou Nemanic

Further Reading:

Brown, Les. The New York Times Encyclopedia of Television. New York, Times Books, 1978.

DeLong, Thomas A. Quiz Craze: America's Infatuation with Game Shows. New York, Praeger, 1991.

Fabe, Maxene. TV Game Shows. Garden City, New York, Dolphin Books, 1979.

Fireman, Judy, editor. TV Book: The Ultimate Television Book. New York, Workman Publishing Company, 1977.