Award winning actress Rosie Perez, the newest addition to the ESPN boxing team, isn’t the first woman to assume the role of a TV boxing analyst. On March 25, 1958, Joyce Brothers provided the commentary for Robinson-Basilio II at Chicago Stadium, a 15-round contest that was nationally televised on CBS.
And therein lies an interesting tale.
Our story begins on June 7, 1955. On that day, CBS rolled out a new program, a quiz show called the $64,000 Question. $64,000 was big money in those days. Adjusted for inflation, a contestant winning that amount took home more than a half-million dollars.
The format was fairly simple. The first question was worth $64. Each succeeding question was worth more. Ten correct answers were required to reach the $64,000 plateau. The questions, which were hitched to a contestant’s chosen area of expertise, became progressively more difficult. At any point a contestant could quit, retiring with his accrued winnings.
If a contestant reached the $4,000 plateau, he would return each week to answer only one question. At this point, he was placed in an isolation booth to lock out all distractions. In the booth, he could hear only the words of the host.
This being television, the producers sought out participants whose area of expertise was incongruent with their persona. Examples included the grunt-and-groan wrestling villain who was an authority on flowers and the grandmother who was a walking baseball encyclopedia.
Joyce Brothers, more formally Dr. Joyce Brothers, auditioned for the show. A 28-year-old psychologist from New York’s borough of Queens, Dr. Brothers was an anomaly, a woman in a field dominated by men and an attractive young woman at that. In the argot of some characters that I have known, Dr. Brothers – referenced in some newspapers as the 101-pound blonde — was a classy dame with curves in all the right places. She became more captivating when she chose boxing as her category.
It would come out that this category was chosen for her. When she auditioned, she had only a cursory knowledge of boxing. Possessed of a photographic memory, she reportedly spent hours hunkered down in Nat Fleischer’s massive library in the office of The Ring magazine at Madison Square Garden.
Her preliminary questions were weighted toward antiquarian boxing. She correctly identified the English bare-knuckle champion who taught boxing to the poet Lord Byron (Gentleman John Jackson) and the essayist who authored a treatise on the Hickman-Neal fight of 1821 (William Hazlitt). She won all the marbles when she correctly answered a multi-pronged question that required her to know the elapsed time of actual fighting in the Dempsey-Firpo fight of 1923.
The $64,000 Question was almost immediately the top-rated show on television. Contestants with multiple appearances were instant celebrities. The show spawned a slew of imitators, including the $64,000 Challenge, another tour-de-force for Dr. Brothers who roped in another $64,000.
She parlayed her fame into talk shows on radio and television and a syndicated newspaper column that ran for 43 years. A writer for the Washington Post dubbed her “the face of American psychology” (the face of American pop psychology would have been a better sobriquet). But for all her achievements, she never fully expunged the cloud over her head.
In 1959, persistent rumors of skullduggery led New York District Attorney Frank S. Hogan into launching an investigation of TV quiz shows. His inquiry bubbled into a full-blown congressional investigation that was a front page news story in all the tabloids.
When the smoke cleared, ten former quiz show contestants, all big winners, pled guilty to perjury. They admitted giving false testimony to a grand jury. They had been fed answers in advance, a circumstance that they initially denied.
Dr. Brothers wasn’t among those called to testify, but she was interviewed by a proxy for the investigative committee. He stopped his line of questioning when she broke out in tears. A producer for the $64,000 Question testified under oath that she was innocent. Yes, she had worked with a drama coach who schooled her in how to deliver her answers to maximize their dramatic effect – all contestants were required to submit to this regimen – but, no, she wasn’t provided with any of the answers in advance.
Was he telling the truth? I have my doubts, but let’s not cast aspersions on the dead. Dr. Joyce Brothers died in 2013 at age eighty-five. And by the way, the actual elapsed time of fighting in the Dempsey-Firpo fight was three minutes and fifty-seven seconds. But, of course, you already knew that.