I’ve Got a Secret

I take inventories of my head, patrolling it, though I’m no cop. There are ugly notions inside me and “Holy Gilles DeLeuze Batman!” they’re slick, fast as minnows—my scrutinizer can hardly catch them, though sometimes I capture one old, clotted, loathsome, prejudicial idee fixe and raise it to the light.

Recently I watched a vintage TV game show—“I’ve Got a Secret” from 1961. I remembered the damned thing though I was six when the program first aired. I watched it for twenty minutes. It was benign and faintly amusing. A homely “not ready for prime time” contestant appeared and whispered her secret to Garry Moore the emcee while the audience saw it on screen. Panelists then tried to ferret out the secret by asking yes or no questions. Tame enough.

Suddenly I was awash in sadness—clobbered by it. You might think I was victimized by middle class white American nostalgia but that wasn’t it. I wasn’t sorry for lost innocence, either my own or the nation’s. It was my ugliness I saw.

I liked that world of Cleanliness capital “C”—the witty panelists and TV host resembling urbane cocktail guests, not a mean drunk in the lot. I felt my own affection for banality. I couldn’t blink it away. I liked the sanitized, irreproachable steadfastness of TV Land.

It was bad news. The Head Patrol had returned to base with a culprit in tow—my starchy, middle brow affection like a shoplifter arrested British style, his hands cuffed in front since he’s not that dangerous.

How to blink this away? Is it plausible I’ve no nuance or scruple? I genuinely liked the cheap TV studio and the clubby, ambient aura of normalcy, everyone wearing his or her Sunday best. I loved it that the secrets weren’t lurid. Understanding how much I liked “I’ve Got a Secret” was a train wreck for my sense of irony and discernment. It pleased me immensely that the first contestant was the only female “plasterer” in the United States.

When partaking of nostalgia television it’s easy to say “those were the days” without a moue of disgust. Even the most detestable treacle seems innocent—Ozzie and Harriet; Father Knows Best—or the happy vulgarity of a live dancer selling deodorant.

There’s not help for it. I too can be tricked into affection for falsehoods. I’m better off admitting it.

Still I peered behind the curtain of “I’ve Got a Secret” just to see who the panelists actually were. I knew the names of course: Bess Myerson, a former Miss America, Bill Cullen, a perennial game show host for nearly forty years, Henry Morgan, whose real name was Henry Lerner Van Ost Jr., a witty man who was dismayed television would have him, Betsy Palmer, a talented actress whose father was an immigrant chemist from Czechoslovakia named Rudolph Vincent Hrunek—I knew their names but I didn’t know just how much television had disguised their lives. “I should have known,” I thought. And I should have known disability lurked just off stage. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and Brenda Brueggemann once observed: “Disability is everywhere in culture–from Oedipus to the Human Genome Project–once critics know how to look for it.” Turns out “I’ve Got a Secret” had a disability secret.

Bill Cullen was a regular on the show and on many other TV and radio programs but despite his notoriety it seems the general public had no idea that he was a polio survivor. According to Wikipedia he contracted poliomyelitis in 1921 when he was 18 months old. His polio left him with lifelong ambulatory difficulties. Here’s what the Wikipedia entry says:

His physical disabilities were—and largely remain—unknown to the general public, due in large part to directors taking great care to limit the extent that Cullen was shown walking on camera. Each show’s set was designed to accommodate Cullen’s limited range of motion; the podiums, game boards, props, and any physical movements by contestants were arranged so that Cullen could, for the most part, remain stationary. Rather than the grand entrance common for most game show hosts, Cullen began each show either already seated, or hidden on set behind a nearby prop so he would only have to take a minimum number of steps to his podium. Cullen always sat in a chair while hosting, even on shows where the other participants stood. Similar accommodations were made when he appeared as a guest on other game shows.

This is of course F.D.R.’s version of polio, a condition disguised as much as possible in public. Here’s where I had to sit up and take notice. Wikipedia continues:

As a consequence of these arrangements, many of Cullen’s peers were likewise unaware of his disability, which occasionally led to awkward situations. In the August 2010 issue of GQ under the heading “Epic Tales of Embarrassment”, Mel Brooks related the following story to writer Steve Heisler:   

The week of October 17–21 in 1966—that would make me about 40—was a special celebrity week on Eye Guess. Bill Cullen was the host. The game was very similar to Concentration. I was teamed up with Julia Meade. Remember her? Actress, very pretty young lady, blonde… Okay, never mind. I don’t think I won, but I did get the take-home game. Anyway, the show is over, and I start walking toward the podium to say good night to Bill, to thank him for having me on. He starts coming toward me cross-stage, and I don’t know what he’s doing. His feet are flopping. His hands are flying everywhere. He’s doing this kind of wacky walk-of-the-unfortunates that Jerry Lewis used to do. So I figured, what the hell, I’ll join him. I start doing, I dunno, this multiple-sclerosis walk, flapping my arms and doing the Milton Berle cross legs—my own Jerry Lewis impression… And Julia is whispering, “No! He’s crippled, Mel!” I don’t even hear her. Finally we meet in the middle, we hug, and he says to me, “You know, you’re the only comic who’s ever had the nerve to make fun of my crippled walk. Everyone’s so careful, it makes me feel even worse.” And I realize, Oh, my God, this guy is really crippled! It was my worst moment — and if you weren’t me, probably the funniest thing that ever happened.

Funny or not it’s a secret within a secret since taped studio television is a both a managed environment where all human encounters are essentially choreographed, or in Cullen’s case, choreo-erased. Once the disabled are erased within a broadcast environment it’s impossible for Brooks to imagine Bill Cullen’s polio as anything other than shtick. Brooks of course doesn’t get it. It’s not his worst moment. It’s a signature of television. Crippled actors are still today fighting for their places before the cameras.

I’ve got a secret indeed.