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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Answering the sixty-four dollar question

By Dick Hirsch

The gurgling noise we’ve been hearing is the sound of money going down the drain and whether you’re heavily invested or not, whether you’re active or passive, with failures, bailouts and frantic market fluctuations, there was cause for grave concern.

Trying to decide on a course of action, I turned my attention to the gurus of cable TV. Those men and women make their living advising the rest of us about investments, suggesting when it is time to buy or sell. As they spoke, great investment houses tottered and retirees wondered about their pensions. Heads nodded all around; some reminded us of their past predictions that the bubble was going to burst.

“Do you think we have seen the worst of this collapse?” asked one expert of the others, after a particularly painful day.

“That” said the host of the program, “is the sixty-four dollar question.” Heads nodded all around. At home I nodded, too, only my head went from side to side, a negative direction, while their heads went up and down, in agreement with the host.

Was the host saying the question---and I suppose the answer---is worth only sixty-four dollars, when hundreds of billions were under discussion? A few days later, as stocks bounded back, I called my perceptive friend in New York, a former broker, retired entrepreneur, and day trader.

“Peter,” I asked, “how long do you think this market recovery is going to last?” Without a moment’s hesitation he responded:

“That’s the sixty-four dollar question.”

I suppose that response is suitable anytime, no matter the situation, but be frank: Isn’t $64 a rather paltry sum when some real big money is under discussion? No, said Peter, it is just a figure of speech.

I knew that as well as he did, but there are many more who have no idea where that phrase comes from. It is the response to queries of every type that have been propounded over the years. Often that is the rejoinder used with unanswerable or rhetorical questions.

When a person wishes to admit he or she has no idea of what the answer may be, it is a safe response: “That’s the sixty-four dollar question.” It’s not just about money. It has become an acceptable cliché retort for any question, for example: “What does she see in him? Would you buy a used car from that man? How did they expect to make the playoffs without decent pitching?” Those are all sixty-four dollar questions.

In my periodic campaign to enhance the understanding of readers, I’ve decided it is about time somebody explained the background of that phrase. It started in the early 1940s on a weekly radio network quiz program called “Take it or Leave It.” Contestants were asked a series of seven questions, each question designed to be more difficult than the previous one. Oh, I should mention there was a studio audience and there were cheers with each correct answer. When a contestant answered the first question, he or she won $1.

Yes, that $1 was worth much more then. But can you imagine millions of listeners sitting at home, staring at the radio, listening? After each correct answer, the contestants had to decide whether to take the money they had already won or go to the next question. The amounts doubled with each step---$2, $4, $8, $16, $32, and ultimately, $64. If the contestant gave a wrong answer, all the previous winnings were forfeited.

Eventually the weekly show switched from CBS to NBC and the name was changed to “The Sixty-four Dollar Question,” a tribute to the program’s singular achievement of creating a new phrase to be added to the vernacular of millions. The program had a 12 year run, ending in 1952.

Three years later the idea had been massaged and reworked for television, with producers and sponsors deciding a quiz show with big money might lead to top ratings. Thus, in 1955, “The $64,000 Question” went on the air at CBS. It was a huge success, leading to the creation of the age of the quiz show. That ended in disgrace four years later with the revelation that some shows had been rigged, with certain contestants being fed the answers in advance.

It was shocking news for the loyal viewers. Were people more naive then, compared to today? That’s the sixty-four dollar question.



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