Here’s What Happened to Gene Rayburn Before, During and After Hosting Classic TV Game Show ‘Match Game’
BY ED GROSS
On and off between 1962 and 1982, Gene Rayburn served as the host of various versions of the Classic TV game show Match Game. In between, he got his start in radio, worked with Steve Allen on The Tonight Show, appeared on Broadway, acted in TV dramas and much more. Yet through it all, he credited his success to “personality” above everything else.
“It’s kind of difficult to define a personality,” Gene commented to The Times of San Mateo, California, in 1956. “Part of it certainly is physical — a personality should be pleasing to look at and have a pleasing voice, for example. But there’s something more to it. It’s really an undefinable quality. You can’t acquire it, it’s a congenital endowment. I think it has a lot to do with empathy — a feeling that runs back and forth between the personality and the audience.”
He was born Eugene Peter Jeljenic in Christopher, Illinois, on December 22, 1917, the youngest of two children. Gene lost his father while he was an infant, resulting in the family moving to Chicago where his mother met and married Milan Rubessa. According to Adam Nedeff, game show historian and author of the biography The Matchless Gene Rayburn, it wasn’t a happy childhood for Gene: “He always referred to his mother as Crazy Mary, and his recollection was his stepfather was sort of a path of least resistance kind of guy. He did whatever Gene’s mom told him to do, because that was the easiest way to live. On top of that, Gene’s brother was killed in a traffic accident when Gene was still a child, and his mother actually blamed him for the death, which is something he had to live with.
“Talking to Gene’s daughter,” he continues, “he did therapy during his adult life, but the problem was that Gene was a big admirer of Sigmund Freud and his therapy was inspired by Freud’s methods. Well, Freud’s methods have pretty much been laughed off the face of the Earth by the psychiatric community, so Gene was not getting the level of health care that he should have. The therapist kind of rubber-stamped Gene and said, ‘You’re OK now,’ but his daughter looked at him and said, ‘No, there’s still stuff going on here. Stuff that’s not being dealt with.’ The feeling was that Gene was carrying around this burden mentally and never really got it properly dealt with. His daughter’s theory is that that’s why he was so obsessed with being an actor, because when you’re an actor, you’re playing a character and changing your identity. You’re not you for a few hours every day. She thinks that that’s really what attracted Gene to the idea of acting.”
Interest in Acting
He graduated from Lindblom Technical High School and attended Knox College, where he acted in plays. “Actually,” Gene clarified in 1973, “I went to college for about 20 minutes, and then I ran out of money and went into the cold, cruel world to make some. A part of that cold, cruel world was radio.”
Adam shares that Gene “really wanted to pursue a career in theater and, specifically, he was actually interested in opera, of all things. But he never really got started with a career in opera; he had trouble paying for the lessons. It was the Great Depression and money was just hard to come by.”
Moving to New York
Moving to New York, he spent three years working as a page and a tour guide at NBC Studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. This led to his gaining some announcing work at various radio stations, which played a role in him changing his name to Gene Rayburn. “How I became Gene Rayburn is a little story in itself,” he told the News-Pilot of San Pedro, California in 1973. “Eugene Jeljenic is how I was born in Chicago several years ago. So my father dies and my mother remarried. Rubessa is the name of my stepfather, a great guy. Gene Rubessa became my name and it’s the name I used when I went into radio shortly after it was invented. So now I’m working for this lady at a station in New York. She says to me, ‘Rubessa. That name of yours sounds Eye-talian. Change it!’ I swear, she said it like that. Where do you find names? Well, of course, in the phone book. It has plenty of names. I picked up a phone book and saw a lot of names that I didn’t want and one that I did, that name was, of course, Rayburn and I became Gene Rayburn.”
Climbing the Ladder
Says Adam, “As kind of a side note, he was hired as part of the same group of NBC pages that included Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and Dave Garroway, who would go on to host Today. So the three of them worked together, and Gene ended up climbing the ladder from page to going into radio broadcasting. He started off at radio station WGNY, then he went into the Air Force during World War II and when he returned, WADW radio was a station where his career really started to take off. The analogy that I heard when I interviewed multiple people and when I looked at different research sources, is that he was the Howard Stern of the 1940s. Not necessarily in terms of content, but in terms of popularity. He was a morning disc jockey that owned New York City.”
Gene’s morning drive time radio show initially saw him teamed up with Jack Lescoulie in a series called Anything Goes. Much more successful was his being teamed with Dee Finch on WNEW’s Rayburn & Finch. Both shows are credited with creating the format that many morning drive radio shows would follow in the future. They would also end up hosting an evening edition titled Night Shift with Rayburn and Finch. Noted the Democrat and Chronicle in 1950, “The latest attempt to popularize a network disc jockey show is being made through a zany pair known as Gene Rayburn and Dee Finch. As popular and profitable as the disc jockey business has become, it has never worked for long on a network basis. Big names have tried it and given up. To the country at large, Rayburn and Finch may not be big names, but they certainly are different. The two have been working together for about three years on local station WNEW doing an early morning platter show on which anything goes. Five days a week they start at 6:00 a.m. and finish at 9:30 a.m. and on Saturdays, they start at 7 a.m. and finish at 9:30 a.m.”
Earning a Living
In the piece, Gene quipped, “This is no time of day for a decent citizen to start earning a living, so you can draw your own conclusions. Either we aren’t decent or we aren’t earning a living. Maybe it’s both.” One additional observation the publication made was, “The playing of records on a Rayburn-Finch show is essential just as it is on any disc jockey program, but they are apt to heckle a recording, halt it midway, sing along with it in burlesque fashion or dash an offending disc to the floor.”
Pop Culture Influence
Explains Adam, “One of the things that Gene could kind of brag about was that they did legitimately have influence on popular culture. This is kind of a funny story: they went to their boss demanding a raise and were trying to make the point about how popular their show was. And she said, ‘You don’t deserve a raise; your show isn’t that popular.’ So they set out to deliberately find the worst song they could and it was called ‘Music, Music, Music,’ and they just played this song every day. And, again, it was intentionally a bad song that they’d picked. They played it daily and it became a chart-topping hit. And they did that just to prove the point that their show was popular. They didn’t get the raise, but they made their point anyway.”
Finding the Music
There was also an interesting impact that Gene and Dee had on a former musical performer, as chronicled in the San Francisco Examiner in 1950. It seems that the duo was weeding out old records from the station’s files and preparing to throw them away. But before doing so, they played each of the songs and came upon “Scotch Hot” by British musician Willy Whitlock, a recording he had made 25 years earlier. “The disk jockeys played the record over and over,” said the paper. “It was catchy. It should have some good lyrics. They got busy … It took some expert detecting to find the old man in the lonely boarding house where he lived in a single room. His job at the time was as a night watchman. The ex-entertainer had lost the music for ‘Scotch Hot,’ but he remembered the tune and once again he played for an audience. This time it was an unseen audience and no one dreamed how large it would grow. Gene Rayburn had persuaded lyricist Carl Sigman to write words for the tune, which became the popular ‘Hot Scotch Polka.’ Record sold like hot cakes in this country and, across the Atlantic, Bill Whitlock moved into two large rooms. He didn’t leave his boarding house, though, because his friends all live in the neighborhood. ‘It’s like a dream,’ the old man said, ‘being back in show business again. I want to get a piano and start composing.’” Nice job, Gene and Dee!
Hosting His Show
By 1952, the team of Rayburn and Finch split up when Gene was wooed away by NBC, where he started hosting his own show. “They got caught up in a bidding war,” says Adam, “and NBC wanted to give them a shot at the big time. But what ended up happening was Gene signed his contract on the same day that Dee Finch was supposed to sign, but Finch got cold feet and he stayed where he was instead. So Gene had to go to NBC as a single act. When he was asked about it years later, Gene said, in his own words, ‘I fell on my ass.’ Flying solo in that role just didn’t work. But he had signed a long term contract with NBC and they had to justify the money somehow. So after his radio show failed, they were starting up a new project starring Steve Allen called Tonight, a late night talk and variety show. They went to Gene and basically said, ‘Listen, we need an announcer for the show and we want you to do it.’ Gene basically said yes, because he didn’t have enough elbow room to say no. So Gene was the original Ed McMahon and he was the first voice that the Tonight show’s viewers ever heard: ‘From the crossroads of America in Times Square in New York City, the National Broadcasting Company presents Tonight.’
“When Tonight started,” he continues, “it was one hour and forty-five minutes. It started at 11:15 p.m. and ran until 1:00 a.m. In the early stages, NBC envisioned it as a companion piece to the Today show, which is why they were calling it Tonight. So to give it some kind of link, they had Gene at the stroke of midnight do a five-minute piece about the news, which was just the oddest-sounding thing. What that meant is that every night they would stop the Tonight show cold and Gene would do five minutes of news and weather. But he managed to completely annoy the NBC news brass, because he would end the news with jokes and they felt the news should be serious and low key. In Gene’s words, they felt that the news was sacred and they didn’t like the fact that he made jokes throughout a news story. They had a weather map that was permanently imprinted on a chalkboard and Gene would draw symbols on it. A running gag is that every single night, without fail, no matter what time of year, his forecast would always include snow in the Great Lakes Region. He would say that, grind up his piece of chalk and sprinkle it all over the state. So he just made a total joke out of the nightly news report NBC wanted him to do.”
Taking a Chance
He also made what he felt was a major career mistake when Steve Allen offered to give him an opening to do more of his own material on the show, and at the time Gene actually refused, feeling that Steve was the star of the show, not him. Explains Adam, “So Gene at the time felt that his role was to elevate Steve and take a back seat. Looking back, though, he realized he was being offered a chance for a showcase of his own. Bad career move. But NBC was so happy with the show that they thought it could compete against The Ed Sullivan Show. So they gave Steve a Sunday night show that Gene was the announcer/sidekick on, and he participated in some skits. Eventually, though, they moved the show from New York to California and Gene had an aversion to California, so he stayed in New York. Which, again, kind of worked out for him.
‘Make the Connection’
It was at this time that he began his long association with game show producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman by hosting Make the Connection, Choose Up Sides, Dough Re Mi and a daytime version of Tic Tac Dough. In 1958 Gene pointed out to the New York Daily News, “For the first time in my life, I’ve got normal hours. When I was doing the old Rayburn and Finch program on WNEW, I used to roll out of bed at 4:30 in the morning and drive to work. I’d usually get to the station minutes before the 6:00 a.m. air time, turn on the mikes and go on.”
‘Dough Re Mi’
“Dough Re Mi was a good example of what Gene could do,” suggests Adam. “It was kind of a spin on Name That Tune and it was a dull, dull show and very straight forward. You know, ‘We’re going to play three notes. Can you name a song?’ None of the contestants give an answer. ‘OK, now we’re going to play four notes of the song … Now we’re going to play five notes …,’ and that was the show, with them just slowly building the tune until you’ve heard enough of it to name the song. So one day, Jack Barry who was the game show impresario at NBC at the time before the quiz show scandals, had a conversation with Gene where he said, ‘Boy, we’ve really got a turkey on our hands, don’t we?’ Gene agreed and Jack said, ‘Do what you can with it,’ and at that moment he pretty much gave Gene carte blanche to do what he wanted with the show. First of all, he changes the show so that he does an opening monologue at the beginning of each episode. Second, he makes an interesting stylistic change to the set. He changes it so that instead of having the audience in a theater-type seating that they had at NBC Studios, he set up cabaret tables on the set. So he had the audience sitting at tables all around him during the show and he would kind of weave around them and talk to them during the show and do a little interaction that way.
“The band was originally offstage,” he continues, “and hidden behind a wall. Gene moved the band onto the stage so that he had people to talk to there. So Gene began putting more people on stage for him to work with and he turned it into this fun, free-wheeling comedy game where the game was kind of secondary to his own antics. And he turned that show into a minor success that managed to stay on the air a few years. In 1962 along comes Password, and Goodson and Todman had a business model where as soon as they had a hit show on their hands, they would introduce rip-offs of it, which was kind of a brilliant strategy. The idea was to stay ahead of the competition by ripping off your own stuff.”
‘The Match Game’
What this then led to was the creation of a rip-off of Password, the result something called The Match Game. The premise was that you would have two teams of three people each and a host who would read a question such as, “Name a food that you put butter on,” and everybody would write something down and they’d score points. Reviewed the Democrat and Chronicle of this early version of the show, “In his newest role, Gene Rayburn has relinquished a good deal of the silliness and settled down to the extremely serious business that is an emcee’s function: to make certain the half-hour is light, bright and mentally untaxing. And that about sums up the show.”
In describing the game, Adam says, “If two people on the team write the same answer, you score more points and it goes on from there. Gene gets hired to host that and it works for a few years from, about, 1962 to 1965. But in 1965, the show starts to wane in the ratings and the question-writer for the show has an idea. His name was Dick DeBartolo and Dick’s actual job was that he was a writer for MAD magazine, but he took on the job at Match Game. When he got word that the show might be canceled, he went to Mark Goodson and said, ‘Can I do MAD magazine-style questions?’ And Mark Goodson said, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘Well, instead of something that you put butter on, the question would be, “Mary likes to put butter on John’s … blank.”’
“Fundamentally the same question,” he elaborates, “they’re just finding a funny new way of saying it. Mark Goodson said, ‘You know what? The show’s canceled. Go for it.’ And so DeBartolo starts writing the question for comedy and word of mouth apparently spreads and the ratings began ticking up. And it stays on the air for another four years until 1969 and it becomes something of a comedy game, which is right up Gene’s alley. And they add a feature called ‘Telephone Match,’ where Gene calls a randomly selected viewer on the phone every day to play a game with the players on stage. And that gives Gene a chance to interact with people and it gets a really good reaction. On top of that, Gene begins interacting with the stage hands, he begins bringing announcer Johnny Olson on stage for gags. He begins bringing Dick DeBartolo on stage for gags. So everything was just working whenever Gene changed something into a comedy game.”
Despite the fact that Match Game ended in 1969, Dick DeBartolo was kept on the payroll in the belief that the show would be back, and was assigned to different game shows in the meantime. Sure enough, after the success of The Hollywood Squares, March Game was revived in 1973 in a new format. “Whereas Hollywood Squares had nine celebrities,” Adam details, “they do six celebrities on Match Game and the format is totally changed. It’s not teams anymore. It’s two contestants playing for themselves and trying to match the six celebrities on stage. In the 1970s, Match Game just became a classic example of everything working. And they found the right celebrities right away with Richard Dawson, they booked Jack Klugman for the first week and Jack agreed to do it on the grounds that they would book his wife to be a panelist on a future show. Well, Jack Klugman’s wife was Brett Somers and Brett fit in beautifully on that show. And then Charles Nelson Reilly came along and gave Brett a foil — they played off of each other fantastically. So you had Richard, who the women loved and had just a dynamite sense of humor. Then you had Brett and Charles sitting on the upper tier going back and forth with each other, and you had Gene clowning around and mining whatever he could for humor at any given moment. And it worked fabulously.”
That version of Match Game ran until 1979 on CBS and then enjoyed three more years in first-run syndication. Then it became part of the Match Game-Hollywood Squares hour. “I’ve always called that one the best ideas that ever failed,” laughs Adam. “On paper, that looks like such a great idea, to take these two star-driven games that people loved with two wonderful emcees in the form of Gene and Jon Bauman, who was Bowzer in Sha Na Na, and put them together and they just bumbled it. They would bring out contestants to play Match Game for 20 minutes, and then the winner of that game would play the previous day’s returning champion in 30 minutes of Hollywood Squares, and then the winner of Hollywood Squares would go on to play the Super Match bonus round from Match Game. Gene hosted the Match Game portion and Jon Bauman the Hollywood Squares portion.”
Amazingly, there were plans to bring Match Game back yet again in 1989 with Gene once again hosting, but things took a strange — and sad — turn around that time when Entertainment Tonight, in what used to be nightly sign-offs for the show, announced birthdays and noted that Gene was 69 years old. Hollywood reacted very oddly to this announcement. “Gene’s account,” Adam relates, “was that his phone never rang again after that. Gene always had that youthful vibrancy and that level of energy to him, even though, logically, you knew you had seen this guy on TV for the past 35 years, it was easy to forget that he was old, but he felt that birthday wish ended his career. I will say, kind of playing devil’s advocate, you can see Gene sort of losing a step on the Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour. I was outraged when I first heard the news, but after seeing some of Gene’s later work, I can kind of see where they were coming from. It’s already hard enough to catch lightning in a bottle twice, but by 1989 you have Gene Rayburn who’s turning 72 and you do have to wonder if 72-year-old Gene Rayburn can deliver what 50-year-old Gene Roddenberry delivered. The feeling was that Gene was not going to be able to keep up or deliver what he had delivered before, so the call was made not to hire him for Match Game, which was, frankly, devastating to him.”
On top of all of that, Gene ran into financial difficulties in the 1980s, largely due to poor financial investments. Additionally, he couldn’t get access to his pension fund through AFTRA because the people in charge couldn’t figure out who he was. “They were under the impression,” Adam shares, “that Gene Rayburn was Jean Rayburn; they thought he was a woman. So that, the investments and the fact he hadn’t been working steadily in a while all took a toll.”
Life After ‘Match Game’
Right to the end, Gene, who enjoyed his involvement with various game shows and the success they brought him, also felt frustrated that he was never able to achieve success as an actor. In a 1950s interview with New York’s Daily News he noted, “Two years ago, Robert Montgomery asked me to appear in one of his TV dramas. ‘He’s out of his mind, asking me,’ I thought. I hadn’t done any acting since I left college. I went to rehearsal expecting the worst, but it turned out to be a breeze. Everything I had done was strictly off the top of my head, but for the Montgomery stanza, the script did all my thinking for me. I’ve done some other TV acting since then, and I’ve appeared in summer stock versions of Seven Year Itch, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunger and Love of Four Colonels. I’ve always worked hard. I believe in activity. It leads to more activity, and that’s good.”
In 1961 he had perhaps his greatest opportunity to prove himself as an actor, by hitting the Broadway stage as the replacement for Dick Van Dyke (who was heading to television for his own show) in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. The biggest challenge he faced was the fact that years earlier he’d fractured his left leg in multiple places in a skiing accident, and the show required extensive dance sequences. “Dick is, of course, an excellent dancer,” he said while talking to the Independent Press-Telegram in 1972. “I was not. Furthermore, Dick’s dancing, at least the dancing he did in Bye Bye Birdie, which was choreographed by Gower Champion, is quite stylized. My task in replacing him would require me to greatly improve my dancing and at the same time learn and perfect that Gower Champion choreography — to make my dancing as closely as possible a mirror image of Dick’s. And to top it off, I would have to do this with the handicap of my bum leg. Weathering that dancing project was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was worth it in every way. Particularly because it was the dancing itself — six solid months of it — that finally rehabilitated my left leg. Without it, I still might be a semi-cripple.”
He continued trying to act, having done Robert Montgomery Presents in 1956, Kraft Television Theater in 1957, Here’s Boomer (1980), Aloha Paradise (1981), Fantasy Island (1982), three episodes of Love Boat (1979 to 1982), Riptide (1985), and the soap opera One Life to Live.
Talking to the Press and Sun-Bulletin, Gene reflected, “Being an actor is my only burning ambition. Certainly, I love television and the many opportunities it affords someone like me, but when I get on a stage, I’m in another world. Maybe that sounds funny from someone who has been associated with radio and TV for so long, but I guess the old cliché about the other fellow’s yard, and that grass sure looks greener to me. Maybe I’m wacky wanting to act so much. Most people just want a little fun out of life. But like so many actors, fun and challenge are synonymous.
“Plus, if the bottom drops out of the game show business, I want to be ready for something else,” he mused.
Born to Entertain
Observes Adam, “It’s kind of interesting that there are times he refers to himself as an actor, even as Match Game was at its peak. Oddly enough, though, Match Game was just the thing that worked for him. It was spontaneous, very loose and freewheeling, and all of that catered to Gene’s skillset. So even though Gene was frustrated by the fact that he didn’t get to act very much, the truth is it seemed like Match Game was what he was born to do.”
In his personal life, Gene married Helen Ticknor in 1940 and remained with her until her death in October 1996. They had one child together, a daughter named Lynne. His last TV appearance was in the form of a 1998 interview with Access Hollywood for the 25th anniversary of March Game ’73. Sadly, Gene would suffer from dementia and he would die of congestive heart failure on November 29, 1999, at the age of 81. A month before his passing, he managed to appear in person to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Today, over 20 years after his passing, the memory of Gene Rayburn and his years hosting Match Game live on, helped no doubt by the airing of reruns on the Game Show Network and numerous videos of him at work that are on YouTube. “There’s still a memory out there,” reflects Adam. “I had heard for many years that if there was a reference to you in MAD magazine, that was a good indicator of your relevance in pop culture. In the new millennium, if Family Guy does a non-sequitur reference to you as part of a cutaway gag, you’ve got pop culture relevance. And if that’s the case, then Gene Rayburn and Match Game are still relevant. They’ve got staying power.”