No One Will Ever MATCH Gene Rayburn

Four decades ago who would have anticipated a Match Game re-run renaissance such as the world has never known in game show annals? We always knew the program was entertaining, probably more entertaining than any other game show (admittedly not a high bar), but the form seemed intrinsically disposable. Who knew Match Game would re-emerge as some sort of historical-cultural document of the age of clashing colors? I speak of course of the second run of Match Game from 1973 through 1982. The original run of 1962 through 1969 went largely unpreserved — only four taped episodes are known to exist. But that’s as may be anyway for the original version was a different sort of show from the one that returned a few years later. In the ’70s, a special effort was made to turn up the heat on the questions on the show so that the answers could be funnier, either more sexually suggestive or bizarre or both. And the classic panel of beloved regulars happened during that second phase, chiefly the likes of Charles Nelson Reilly, Brett Somers (Jack Klugman’s wife), Patti Deutsch, Joyce Bulifant, Richard Dawson, McLean Stevenson, Bill Daily, Marcia Wallace, etc etc. And their shenanigans at times threatened to break the simple “game” down into anarchy, with Rayburn as ringmaster.

Ah, but I promised to tell you who Rayburn was, and so I shall. And what you shall learn is that the reason he was so effortlessly smooth and funny on Match Game was that he had decades of of experience in the art of on-air extemporizing as a broadcast personality prior to that. Born Eugen Peter Jeljenic (the son of Croatian immigrants) in 1917 he participated in school plays in his hometown of Chicago. He moved to New York hoping to break into show business, initially as an opera singer, later as an actor. A day job as an NBC page (just like Kenneth Purcell!) allowed him to attend the network’s announcer school. Following air force service in World War II, he returned to become an announcer at WNEW radio in New York in 1947. With comedy partners Jack Lescoulie and Dee Finch, he was considered one of the pioneers of morning drive time radio.

He broke into television in 1953, hosting a string of now forgotten game shows, and working as the announcer on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show, where he pioneered the second banana duties later undertaken by Ed McMahon and others in the late-night realm in years to come. He was on The Tonight Show until 1959. The fame from the show allowed him to finally do a little acting. He was Dick Van Dyke’s replacement in the original Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie (1960-61). This was where he first met Charles Nelson Reilly, who was his understudy at the time. Then Rayburn traveled with the road company of Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn. He returned to TV for Match Game in 1962.

Towards the end of his Match Game run, Rayburn got to dabble in acting again, appearing in episodes of The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Aloha Paradise (yet another Aaron Spelling show, very similar to the other two but only lasting one season). After Match Game, he hosted the game shows Break the Bank (1985) and The Movie Masters (1989). When Howard Stern had his TV show in 1992, Rayburn appeared in a segment I well remember called “Homeless Howiewood Squares”. Still seeking his next game show to front, Gene Rayburn passed away in 1999.

As to why he preferred those long, thin microphones, I got no idea. According to reader Barbara Bassett he invented it. But WHY???