This Is Your Life

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This Is Your Life

A human-interest show that presented documentary-style biographies of celebrities through the recollections and testimonials of colleagues, friends, and relatives, This Is Your Life was one of the most popular shows on radio and television during its lengthy run. Although occasionally lesser-known but accomplished guests appeared on the program, the show is best remembered for its surprise tributes to Marilyn Monroe, Jack Benny, Bette Davis, and other Hollywood stars.

Created by perennial host Ralph Edwards for radio in the 1940s, This Is Your Life came to television on October 1, 1952 as a half-hour series lasting for nine seasons on NBC. On both radio and television, the show's format was the same. Edwards would appear to encounter the evening's guest by happenstance in or near the television studio. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Edwards would announce "This is your life!" and the startled guest would be taken to the show's set where his or her life story would unfold before a live studio audience. Reading from the This Is Your Life book, Edwards would recount the celebrity's childhood, school years, and rise to fame with a sentimental flare certain to elicit an emotional outpouring from both guest and audience. Edwards was so effective, in fact, that one show celebrating the life of educator Laurence C. Jones inspired his television audience to send $700,000 in contributions to a Mississippi college. The show's specialty, however, seemed to be orchestrating parades of long-lost teachers and friends whose appearance was sure to trigger tears from the honored guest.

From time to time a planned show would have to be scrapped because the celebrity learned of the project in advance, but for the most part Edwards was remarkably successful in his Candid Camera style ruses, especially since the show was broadcast live until the 1959-1960 season. This Is Your Life did, however, tip off two guests: Lillian Roth, so that producers could obtain permission to discuss her successful struggle with alcoholism, and Eddie Cantor, who producers feared might experience a heart attack at too dramatic a surprise.

The show generated two spin-offs, a British version of This Is Your Life and, in 1953, The Comeback Story, which each week presented the inspiring tale of a faded star who was regaining fame and fortune. It also spun off several incarnations of itself. Edwards revived This Is Your Life in 1971, this time featuring the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, but the syndicated show lasted only one season. It re-emerged for another try in 1983, and over the years several This Is Your Life specials have appeared on NBC, with Ralph Edwards hosting until 1993. Despite its reputation for sentimentality and sensationalism, This Is Your Life has proven to be a resilient formula for the surprise party, whether televised or not. Not only have television producers fit it into every decade's programming, if only for an evening, but the words "This is your life!" have entered the popular imagination as a theme appropriate to almost any kind of party or celebration.

—Michele S. Shauf

Further Reading:

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present. New York, Ballantine Books, 1995.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television. New York, Penguin Books, 1996.