HOW A CHILDREN'S CARD GAME AND AN OFFBEAT MESSAGE CONVEYANCE JOINED FORCES TO CREATE A TV GAME SHOW CLASSIC


These rare color photos are from the Summer 1961 Monday evening version of Concentration, which actually was broadcast in Living Color on NBC, some five-and-a-half years before their daytime version also took the color plunge. What does the puzzle say? Gee, I dunno...why not ask your aunt in Charleston, South Carolina?

It could have all started like this: One day in 1958, Jack Barry, Dan Enright, Robert Noah or Buddy Piper (more about those men later) might have noticed their kids playing a simple game of "Concentration" with an ordinary deck of playing cards spread out and laid face-down: turn over two at a time, match a pair of aces, Kings or whatever, and keep them until all pairs are matched, and the one with the most pairs wins. Trying to come up with some new TV game show idea that just might break away from the current pack of big-money hard quizzes that were unavoidably about to face exposure of being rigged and banishment from the network airwaves as a result, the much-needed proverbial lightbulb went off in their heads, and the TV adaptation of Concentration was born.

At a time when The Price Is Right was a half-hour show hosted by Bill Cullen with about eight years left in it, and fourteen years before the Bob Barker version would begin its record-breaking 30+ marathon run on CBS, NBC took full advantage of the opportunity to make this new and ingenious video version of "Concentration" a popular, long-running success from its August 25, 1958 daytime debut on the network, lasting until March 23, 1973. The genius came not just from translating the kiddie card game to a compelling competition for two adults, who competed to match pairs of prizes hidden behind 30 numbered squares making up a large gameboard, but also from the addition of a rebus puzzle (one example appears below), which was slowly exposed with each matching pair uncovered, which a player had to solve in order to win whatever prizes he/she had amassed.


This recreation of a rebus as it actually looked on the board during Concentration's later colorcast days will likely bring back memories for those who used to watch it regularly. Note how, on the second square from the left on the fifth row, one edge of the left die is obscured by the crack between the squares, and how only a tiny portion of the first "A" makes it into the same square.

Rebuses go back a long way through history; Ben Franklin used them in "Poor Richard's Almanac". But this show helped made them popular and, like the rest of the format, immediately set this game apart from the run-of-the-mill Q & A quizzes which were falling from favor in the wake of the scandals. In fact, a four-week prime-time version of Concentration, hosted by Jack Barry, was hastily assembled by NBC in 1958 as a stop-gap replacement for the Barry-hosted quiz Twenty-One when it was exposed as having been rigged and was thus pulled from the schedule (watch the movie "Quiz Show" for the details on how it happened). But the first and best-remembered host of the popular weekday morning edition was future 20/20 anchor Hugh Downs, in the early days also doing double duty for NBC on The Tonight Show With Jack Paar and later, the early-morning Today show.

Back to the game details. [Insert poop about those four guys here when the mood strikes]. In addition to matching pairs of valuable prizes, the board also contained a trio of worthless "joke prizes" following a common theme (in one game I remember from watching it in my much younger days, those "prizes" were a Swarm Of Bees, a Hornet's Nest, and an Incognito Mosquito). Their presence was justified by two pairs of squares elsewhere on the board that read "Forfeit One Gift"; if a player matched the Forfeits and had a gag prize on their side of the prize board behind them (see top photo), he/she could surrender the gag gift to the opponent, thereby sparing the player from having to give up something good, like a TV or washer-dryer combo. There were also two pairs of "Take One Gift" spaces hidden, which allowed a player to take a great prize from the opposition, if possible, and finally a pair of Wild Cards which could match instantly with anything, whether one or both were exposed in a player's turn.

Usually after a match, a player would pass on guessing the puzzle solution until a good deal was showing. During that time, he/she might have a lot of prizes on their side of the board, other times maybe nothing at all. Whichever player correctly guessed what the rebus read won the game. Three games were usually player per show; an undefeated player could stay for as many as 20 games before retiring as a champion.

Because Concentration debuted just prior to the breaking news of the quiz show scandals, Barry-Enright Productions wisely chose to protect the game's integrity by selling its rights to NBC Television in hopes of keeping the game play honest and unrigged. And it was for similar reasons that Norman Blumenthal, the show's producer and creator of every rebus puzzle ever used on the original NBC network version, was soon strongly advised by the head of NBC's Standards And Practices Department to overhaul the security measures intended to keep the puzzles and their solutions from falling into the wrong hands prior to airtime. Mr. Blumenthal initially figured it was enough to have each of the three 30-piece rebuses used per show contained in individual boxes which were locked in a suitcase minus the diagram sheet which showed what the puzzles looked like fully assembled (this was locked away seperately in Norm's attache case). These materials were given to a single staff member who loaded them into the puzzle board which was designated a high-security area off limits to others.

The head of Standards And Practices told Blumenthal that this wasn't acceptable enough at a time when earlier quizzes were accused of feeding answers to contestants ahead of time and other hanky-panky. He insisted that each of the puzzle boxes be completely covered with three-inch-wide masking tape, with sealing wax applied to four different spots per box and stamped with Norm's ring impression. Then, each box was to be put into a heavy kraft envelope which would also be taped and wax-sealed. Next, the three packages were to be wrapped into a single bundle...and taped and wax-sealed yet again! Finally, the finished package would have to be placed in a more secure carrying case than before--one with a key-operated lock accompanied by two combination locks. Norm was understandably stunned by the man's demands, but he fired back at Norm with the ultimately convincing explanation that these elaborate security measures would be impossible for anyone inclined to sneak a peek at the puzzles to try and do so without leaving even one tell-tale bit of tampering. Blumenthal then relented and picked up the tape, wax and case later that day.

Here is a re-creation of the show's original 1958-63 opening title shot. The dark area began as all blank spaces, but after the announcer said "The NBC Television Network presents...", the first and fourth of these mini-trilons revolved to the sound of a celesta to reveal the C's, then the celesta repeated going gradually up the scale with the two O's being exposed, then the two T's, then the three N's, and finally all remaining letters at once, whereupon the announcer finished by saying the show's title, "...Concentration!" The closing theme music was an offbeat organ-and-xylophone piece built around the ancient melodramatic top-hatted, mustachioed "villain cue" from old movie serials, but done here more "positive" sounding; it stayed with the show to the very end of its NBC run, whereupon it sounded decidedly dated.



Original host Hugh Downs on the original set. Already doing double duty on The Tonight Show B.C. (before Carson), he would go on from here to co-anchor The Today Show and PBS's Over Easy
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Behind-the-scenes squabbling aside, Concentration quickly became a huge morning hit for NBC, scoring high enough in the ratings that the afore-mentioned brief prime-time fill-in for the scandal-ridden Twenty-One was commissioned. Watching the daytime show at home at a very young age, I came up with my own incorrect theory regarding the pair of doors on which the contestants' prize boards were mounted, which slid open to reveal the next challenger for a new game, then closed after he/she stepped out, was seated and the game began. I had envisioned a specially-designed-and-located elevator car somewhere at 30 Rock in New York with a sign on it somewhere reading "Concentration contestants ONLY!", which contestants boarded and rode to the floor of NBC's studio where the show was being taped. The new player had to remain inside the car until the doors with the prize boards opened to introduce him/her. Seems I was only half-right: it was a small enclosure, just not an elevator car.

What about the puzzle board; how did it work? It was electromechanical--all thirty numbered spaces made up one-third of a series of trilons, the other two sides of each trilon containing a part of the rebus and a prize (or a Take, Forfeit or Wild Card). Behind the board, a technician or stagehand would activate one of thirty switches to get each piece to rotate. There may have also been a couple of extra "master" switches which caused all or some of the pieces to turn at the same time, to reveal the complete rebus and to have all spaces revert to their numbered sides at the end of a round or game. For its time, it was certainly a technological wonder--but it could also be a real pain to work with. A trilon switch could prove to be tempramental, causing its assigned trilon to stay stationary when it should have rotated. Substitute host Bob Clayton (who would later replace Hugh Downs permanently; more on that later) had the dubious honor of being the victim of the board's most concerning malfunction--an electrical fire! Bob could tell by the wisps of smoke coming out of the cracks between the trilons. And the poor host had no way to get around this unexpected problem...he just had to keep standing there and make one-sided small talk with the studio audience, maybe even those watching at home. But, nonetheless, NBC couldn't deny Concentration's ongoing appeal...which just might have been "helped along" by the mishap; it was still a successful property.

The show's earlier success led to the inevitable creation of a home version, but getting one to market involved a bit of trial-and-error. Parker Brothers had the original license to try and put it in a box*, but they weren't happy with any of their attempts, so Milton Bradley stepped in and tried their luck. The original MB prototype boasted an elaborate gameboard with the rebuses printed on large cards (Where is it today? I'd love to see it), but when the head honcho found it would cost around four dollars retail, unheard-of for a TV home game by 1959 standards, he rejected it and the designer went back to the drawing board, trying to find a way to reduce the amount of plastic and cardboard that went into his first attempt. Salvation arrived in the form of a roll of toilet paper with varying designs printed on it, which the man noticed while visiting a gift shop one day. He was able to locate the printer who made it and was quickly contracted to print paper rolls of rebus puzzles for the first and subsequent editions of the Concentration home game. The final cost to consumers was still a bit more than MB desired, but they bravely put it into production and into stores...whereupon it became their very first game to sell a million copies!


*Parker Brothers did manage to get at least two TV home games to market in 1961: Goodson-Todman's Say When!! and Number Please. The latter game could be aptly-described as "Wheel Of Fortune for dummies", since all players had to do was take turns calling out numbers corresponding to spaces on two boards which were automatically opened to reveal letters, and all they had to do to win prizes was guess the phrase correctly. Actually, Parker's adaptation--using varied cash amounts hidden behind each letter concealer, unlike the show--was a somewhat better game than the TV version.

This rare photo reveals how the puzzle board and surrounding area looked in full color to contestants and audience members...presumably while the show was still being broadcast in black-and-white.

As America entered the 1960s, things continued to look up for all involved with Concentration. In the spring and summer of 1961, NBC--which had just sealed a deal with Walt Disney to bring his weekly show from ABC to the Peacock Network come September where he could finally watch his own productions in full color--along with anyone else financially well off enough to own their own color TV at the time--decided to try a second evening installment of Concentration which also would be colorcast for the first time, on Monday nights for a few months. For this evening version, a second Concentration set was designed and installed in a different location from where the daytime show was shot: New York's Zeigfeld Theatre (see photos at top of this page). NBC also tried to get a different host for this edition: $64,000 Question veteran Hal March. But the sponsor pushed for Hugh Downs, and it was Downs they got. In one of the books he penned, Hugh recalls that the first 1961 nighttime show opened with a line of chorus girls spelling out the show's title, each girl adorned with a letter strategically placed on their costume; also that there was a lot of flashy lighting around the game board, which was evidently scrapped by the second telecast. (Part of the above may not be completely true; I'll have to re-read that part if I ever find another copy of that book).

On to Page Two

The Narz years (coming later)

The Trebek years (coming later)

My Proposal For A Revival


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