This Is Your Life, Ralph Edwards

This sight once filled celebrities with terror

Today a salute to broadcast announcer, producer, and host Ralph Edwards (1913-2005).

Edwards grew up in the greater San Francisco area, and started out working at local radio stations as a teenager and through college. Though only 24 and not yet famous, he was cast in a small role as a radio man in the all star film Manhattan Merry-Go-Round in 1937. By the following year, he was in New York, as a regular announcer on CBS. Shows he announced for included Major Bowes Amateur Hour, Town Hall Tonight with Fred Allen, and The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour, among many others. He was the original host of the popular game show Truth or Consequences (1940 through 1957) and its tv version (1950-54).

Fame on these radio shows meant opportunities in film. He was the narrator for Laurel and Hardy movie trailers during their 20th Century Fox period. And he played himself or fictionized versions of himself in the movies Seven Days Leave (1942), with Victor Mature, Lucille Ball, and Harold Peary; Radio Stars on Parade (1945) with Wally Brown, Allan Carney, Frances Langford, Sheldon Leonard, and Don Wilson; and The Bamboo Blonde (1946); and Beat the Band (1947) with Langford.

In 1948 came his greatest claim to fame. He created, produced and hosted This is Your Life, that diabolical, pernicious “reality show” that specialized in embarrassing famous people by snatching them unawares, thrusting them in front of audiences with no warning, and forcing them to listen to their life stories, warts, inaccuracies and all. The radio version ran until 1952; it then switch to TV through 1961, with periodic revivals in decades thereafter. Naturally, I’ve tuned in to many an old episode as I researched performers I was writing about, like Mack Sennett, Laurel and Hardy, Lou Costello, etc. Buster Keaton’s and Lillian Roth’s were both mortifying as the cheerful announcer chose to recount their days of alcohol fueled degradation. The one with Roth was re-created in the movie I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1957) with Susan Hayward. There were other awkward moments on the show as well. Often the stars didn’t recognize the old friends, neighbors, distant relations and so forth who’d been dredged up from their distant pasts to tell tales out of school about them. Just as often, however, the shows could be quite moving. This Is Your Life was parodied by Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows. On the strength of his fame from the program Edwards himself got booked on the variety and talk shows of Bob Hope, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Dinah Shore, Tennessee Ernie, Merv, Mike Douglas, and even Sonny and Cher and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

Ralph Edwards was still working on various TV projects when he died at age 92 of a heart attack.

For more on variety entertainment, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.