William Lawrence Francis Cullen was born in Pittsburgh, PA, on February 18, 1920. At the age of 18 months, he contracted polio. He survived, although he was left with a limp for the rest of his life.
Despite the effects of his early illness, Bill was determined to lead an active life and took lessons in auto racing, aviation and boxing. He also spent a number of years attempting various forms of rehabilitation and exercise regimens to reduce the effects of childhood polio, but gave up after doctors determined his leg muscles were too damaged. Bill would always have interests in sports during life, but as he approached adulthood he expressed interest in pursuing a career in professional midget auto-racing. At his parents' insistence, he instead attended Pittsburgh University and took pre-med courses until dropping out when money became an issue for his family.
Helping ease his family's troubles, Bill became a mechanic & tow-truck driver in his father's garage. To keep impatient customers relaxed while changing their oil and tuning their engines, Bill would often entertain them with his impressions of the popular radio personalities of the day. One day, as fate would have it, a customer happened to be an executive at a local Pittsburgh station and gave Bill an unpaid position as the late-night disc jockey, and, eventually, a paid announcer, making $25 a week. At the same time, World War II was marching on and Bill attempted to enlist. His limp caused the army to reject him, but despite his disability, he found an opportunity to serve his country. Thanks to his childhood interest in aviation, he found a spot in the Civilian Air Corps, where he served as a teacher in the pilot-training division of the Air Force. As Bill became more experienced and talented in radio, he decided to move on from the small station that had given him his big break. He headed for larger Pittsburgh station KDKA where he hosted a variety show.
Hoping to hit the big time, Bill moved to New York City in 1944 where CBS hired him as an announcer and occasionally a writer for Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, and Arthur Godfrey. While writing for the comedy series "Easy Aces," he met another comedy writer named Bill Todman, who would ultimately play a large role in setting Bill's career path a few years later. During this time Bill was also commuting to Meadowbrook, New Jersey to work as the stage announcer for Tommy Dorsey's orchestra during their frequent concerts in that area. Among his duties was introducing the singer performing with Dorsey's orchestra, a young man named Frank Sinatra.
Two years later, Bill took the job that set the path for the majority of his career as substitute emcee on the popular radio game shows "Winner Take All" and "Pot O' Gold" in 1947. The regular host of "Winner Take All," Walter O'Keefe would depart from the show permanently that year, and "Winner Take All" became Bill's first full-time emcee gig. He would continue finding a home on radio through his emcee gigs up to the dawn of the television era, thanks to programs such as "Hit the Jackpot," "Catch Me if You Can," and "Stop the Music."
When television took off as America's preferred medium for entertainment, Bill was right there on the ground floor, hosting TV games almost from the beginning, including "Meet Your Match" and "Act It Out." Even his first radio game, "Winner Take All" followed him to television for a brief run. He was also in demand as a panelist, playing games such as "The Name's the Same," "Who's There?" and "Where Was I?" In the summer of 1952, he began a fifteen-year run as a regular panelist on "I've Got a Secret."
Being recognized as one of the best in his field, as well as one of the youngest at the time, put Bill in tremendous demand on both the east and west coasts during the 1950s. Newspaper articles from 1954 noted that his schedule that year involved: hosting "Stop the Music" for CBS radio on Tuesday night and hosting "Walk a Mile" for NBC radio on Wednesday night, then going over to CBS-TV the same evening to sit on the panel for "I've Got a Secret." The following morning each week, Bill would fly to California to host "Place the Face" on Thursday night, then fly back to New York on Friday morning to prepare for his Saturday NBC radio series, "Road Show," one of the first radio shows designed with the idea that people would listen to it while driving. At some point in the week he also recorded radio broadcasts with Arlene Francis and a syndicated series, "Professor Yes 'N No," for television.
Why maintain that kind of schedule? Bill explained in an interview, "Two reasons, money and exposure. [Also,] it's no strain...shows of the type I do don't require a lot of rehearsal and preparation." It wasn't entirely easy maintaining an active broadcasting life. One reporter noted that because of various expenses like an agent, P.R. representative, secretary, wardrobe, and gifts for staff members on his various shows, Bill spent around 94% of his income, and at this point in his career, he admitted that his life savings consisted of a few rolls of quarters in a briefcase.
As Bill's professional life was starting to hit its stride, a major development was taking place in his personal life. Recovering from the failure of two previous and very brief marriages, Bill met & fell in love with Ann Macomber, a model and actress living is Los Angeles, where he had been commuting to host "Place the Face." (Bill & Ann were introduced to each other by Ann's brother-in-law, Jack Narz, who was Bill's announcer on "Place the Face.") Ann moved to New York to be closer to her new love, and Bill found that where love was concerned, the third time was the charm. Bill and Ann were married on Christmas Eve, 1955; The marriage would last the rest of Bill's life.
Bill's career would peak during the latter part of the 1950s, as some of his most well-known work in broadcasting took place during this era. He hosted "The Bill Cullen Show" (a.k.a. "Pulse") on WRCA radio's morning drive slot six days a week beginning in 1956, where he revealed some new talents. While the audience had grown accustomed to hearing Bill make witty off-the-cuff remarks as an emcee, he got to shine in sketches & comedy pieces, such as one morning when he announced recent plans to physically move Manhattan Island to the Carribeans, and brought on a group of "experts" to discuss the matter throughout the broadcast.
That same year he began a nine-year run as host of the daytime game show "The Price is Right," which spawned a primetime version that Bill would also host, and he continued sitting on the panel for "I've Got a Secret" each week. All told, he was on the air 25 1/2 hours a week, at such diverse times of day in an era of live programming that he had to sleep in shifts. He once quipped, "I'm the only person I know who gets out of bed twelve times a week instead of seven."
Bill also found the time to release a record album, entitled "Bill Cullen's Minstrel Spectacular", a history of the American minstrel show, featuring various performances held together by his narration. He also made an unlikely cameo, as himself, in the Doris Day-Ernie Kovacs film "It Happened to Jane." In addition to all that, Bill was in demand as a spokesperson. He was by far the most-watched game show emcee on television at this point, and businesses taking note of his popularity recruited him to appear in additional advertising outside of his regular television appearances.
Bill also spent the decade looking for ways to expand his horizons beyond show business. and again his interest in aviation served him well. According to an article in TV Illustrated Magazine, he briefly owned an airline but sold it off. He continued to rent airplanes and fly solo as a hobby; by the mid-1950s he had accumulated 4,300 solo hours in the air. During this time he also began writing free-verse poetry (he wrote about 50 pages' worth according to one article, but to date none of it has been published). According to a few photos in the webmaster's collection, Bill apparently took up the guitar as a hobby.
In the 1960s, Bill's schedule included hosting six episodes of "The Price Is Right" a week and continuing his weekly "I've Got A Secret" panel appearances. Bill also seized the opportunity to expand his broadcasting resumè beyond game shows. He did occasional play-by-play work for football and hockey broadcasts with Jim Simpson. He guest-hosted "The Tonight Show" while Johnny Carson took a vacation during his first year on that show. Bill took his turn at behind-the-camera work as executive producer of "The Price is Right" when Bob Stewart departed from Goodson-Todman Productions. He also was scheduled to take the reins as host of "Candid Camera" at one point until a sponsor conflict ended those plans.
Through all his attempts to expand to other facets of entertaining, Bill always made it clear that there was one interest that he never wanted to pursue--acting. "The only time I ever tried acting was in high school and I was a flop," he explained in a 1963 interview. "Once I get out of character, become unnatural, I'm dead." Bill also expressed a distaste for performers who want to get out of the business that made them famous to try something else, gratefully noting, "I make [a] tremendous living and the business has been good to me." Besides, emcee and radio work required little preparation compared to acting. As Bill tersely put it, "I'm lazy."
In 1965, after 9 years, "The Price is Right" was cancelled, leading to a new stage for Bill's life and career. Bill had achieved his greatest fame from the show and now had to accept the fact that, unless something truly remarkable came along, he would never achieve the same level of fame again. Bill would hardly struggle, though.
"The Price is Right"'s long-time producer, Bob Stewart, formed his own production company, and promptly hired Bill to host his company's first show, "Eye Guess", which would be a hit on NBC for almost four years. Bill would also continue his radio work with segments such as "Emphasis: Time Off" and "Ideas for Better Living," the latter of which he co-hosted with his "I've Got a Secret" panel mate, Betsy Palmer. He was also one of countless communicators on NBC Radio's perennial "Monitor" program, alternating airshifts with Gene Rayburn, Murray the K, Don Imus, and many others every weekend.
When "Eye Guess" concluded its run in September 1969, Bill experienced the closest thing to a "lull" that he would ever have in his career. He wouldn't host another game show for a year and a half, but became a regular panelist on two different games, "To Tell the Truth" and "You're Putting Me On"; this as he continued his radio work on the New York City airwaves. Some lull.
Despite the game show industry's gradual migration to Hollywood, Bill stayed put through most of the 1970s and became a broadcasting mainstay in New York City. He emceed games like "Three on a Match" and "The $25,000 Pyramid" out of the Big Apple. He even managed to weather the first generational change in television. As new emcees such as Jim McKrell and Geoff Edwards, who had grown up with television, began finding their place in the game show trade, Bill remained in demand, still viewed as the top of the heap. He hosted "Winning Streak," "Blankety Blanks," "Pass the Buck," and a new version of "I've Got a Secret" while sitting in as host or panelist for a number of pilots during the decade.
By 1978, Bill finally gave into the changes that television was making and moved to Los Angeles, where he would host "The Love Experts" for Bob Stewart Productions. The following year, he achieves a milestone that has ended many television careers--he turned 60. Despite network executives' hesitance towards performers in their 60s, Bill managed to find plenty of work, largely due to the fact that he was still recognized by executives who considered him to be the best at what he did. A TV Guide article published in 1984 detailed that his means of finding work at this point amounted to a network being unhappy with the hip, young, new emcee they'd see in a pilot and asking if Bill was available. During the eighties, Bill could be seen on "Chain Reaction", "Blockbusters", "Child's Play", and "Hot Potato".
After his final game, "The Joker's Wild", left the air in the 1986,Bill retired from televison, making his final appearance for the medium on "The $25,000 Pyramid" in June, 1987. During this week of shows, host Dick Clark saluted his colleague by reading a complete list of Bill's shows and asking in mock-exasperation, "Can't you ever hang on to a job?!"
Bill finished out his career by returning to his old stomping grounds, radio. He never had a regular gig in the business after moving to the west coast, but became associated with David J. Clark Productions, a distributor of syndicated segments. For them, Bill narrated a five-part series called "Goose Who's Coming to Dinner?" in 1982. Once his television days ended, he became the spokesman for the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness in a series of public service announcements. He hosted two syndicated radio segments, "The Parent's Notebook" sponsored by Johnson & Johnson where Bill dispensed sometimes-obvious advice seemingly geared toward parents raising their first child, and "Fuji Facts," a sponsor-centric series of photography tips for beginners.
Sadly, a lifetime smoking habit began to rear its ugly head, as it often does. In 1990 Bill was diagnosed with lung cancer, and on July 7, he passed on. He left behind his wife, Ann, hours of video and audio detailing a well-spent life and career, countless fans, and peers who could offer only kind words about the man they considered the dean of his profession.
Others on Bill:
SO WHAT'S SO GREAT ABOUT THIS GUY?
Bill was a walking textbook about broadcasting,knowing exactly when to be funny and when to be serious, knowing what to say,how to say it,and when to say. He gave 100% every time, no matter how he felt or what mood he was in. He refused to keep the focus on himself.
He was also remarkably humble. Fellow emcees referred to him frequently as a great host. Bob Eubanks once called Bill "my hero" to his face. But despite the adoration and accolades, Bill remained completely shy toward such compliments,often brushing them off with a smile and a thank-you, and then changing the subject.
He behaved the way a person in the public eye should behave: never acting above anybody, grateful for his fame,humble about his success, and keeping every ounce of ego in check, never just assuming he deserved his recognition. Accounts from fans who met him suggest that the transition from TV to real life was seamless, another definite plus. Bill was a real person, and chose to act as such on television.
MEMORIES OF BILL
My first memories of Bill are from when USA showed "Hot Potato" reruns and I was five years old (what five-year-old wouldn't take a shine to a big smoking logo?) I remember liking Bill right away, mainly because he seemed so much like my older relatives I only saw at family reunions. That was his charm: He was a regular guy. Even at such a young age I could appreciate Bill's sense of humor, like this quip: "Everyone listen because this question will pertain to everyone, including me, because I have to read it...You know this question does apply. Of the many varieties of nuts..."
When I finally saw Game Show Network for the first time in the late 1990s, sure enough, there was Bill, just as I remembered him: A witty guy with a flip attitude towards almost everything, who seemed like he was there just so he could be around people. Funny and professional, he could teach you everything he needed to know about his line of work. Thank you for joining us Bill.
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