Ralph Edwards
Class of 1930

©2005 Published on November 17, 2005

Ralph Edwards

Ralph Edwards, TV Pioneer, Dies at 92

Ralph Edwards Ralph Edwards, the broadcast pioneer who was the creator and M.C. of two of the most popular shows in entertainment history, "Truth or Consequences" and "This Is Your Life," died yesterday at his home in West Hollywood, Calif. He was 92.

His death was announced by his publicity agent, Justin Seremet, The Associated Press reported.

"This Is Your Life," which began as a radio show in the late 1940's, was originally seen on television from 1952 to 1961, and was reprised for years after that in syndication. It became something of an American institution. Not only did viewers avidly watch it every week, but they also imitated it: for generations variations of "This Is Your Life" have been part of many family reunions and anniversary celebrations. ABC is planning a prime-time revival next year, featuring Regis Philbin.

Every installment of "This Is Your Life" followed a tried-and-true formula. Mr. Edwards would approach an unwitting subject who happened to be near the show's Hollywood studio and exclaim, "Tonight, 'This Is Your Life!' "

The show laid bare the lives of unwitting ordinary people as well as celebrities, but it is the celebrities who are remembered. Maureen O'Hara was arriving at a theater for the Academy Awards ceremony when she was surprised. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were in a hotel meeting with a producer when they were startled by hidden cameras.

During a commercial break, the guest would be taken to the studio, where Mr. Edwards would be waiting with a "This Is Your Life" scrapbook. He would read from it as the guest's life unfolded. Sometimes a mystery voice would describe an event or anecdote from the person's past and then that voice would materialize in the form of a lost friend, teacher, relative, Army buddy or old sweetheart. He or she would embrace the guest and tears would flow.

Secrecy, surprise and sentiment were at the core of each show, but some exceptions were made. Eddie Cantor, for instance, was told of his appearance in advance because he had a serious heart ailment.

In the 1950's "This Is Your Life" won two Emmys and "Truth or Consequences" won one, but not every one admired the shows. Jack Gould, a critic for The New York Times, wrote several columns denouncing "This Is Your Life," saying in one of them that Mr. Edwards "is just waiting for his guests to break into tears." Some guests agreed.

When Mr. Edwards surprised the celebrated broadcast journalist Lowell Thomas in 1959, a dismayed Mr. Thomas said on the air that he saw it as a "sinister plot" to pry into his past. Mr. Edwards later recalled: "The show went down hill from there. As I took him up toward the stage, I said to him, 'You're going to enjoy this.' He said, 'I doubt it very much.' And he didn't."

Ralph Edwards "This Is Your Life" began as a spinoff of Mr. Edwards's show "Truth or Consequences," which made its debut on radio in 1940 and continued on to television until 1958 as one of America's most popular audience-participation shows. Contestants were asked absurd questions supplied by the studio audience. If they answered correctly, which few did, they received $15 in war bond stamps. Players who gave wrong answers, or who failed to respond before Beulah the Buzzer sounded, had to pay the consequences by performing goofy stunts in public.

They had to do such things as bark, crawl on their bellies, push a walnut with the nose, bathe an elephant, get into a doghouse and, in one instance, sell an icebox to an Eskimo.

The show tried to supply the warm feeling that Americans were seeking during the dark days of World War II. Mr. Edwards once suggested that radio listeners send a penny to a Staten Island woman whose son was in the Marines and who wanted to save some money for his homecoming. In the first week after his appeal, the mother received 300,157 pennies.

Mr. Edwards received the Eisenhower Medal for his efforts in selling a half-billion-dollars worth of war bonds. He was also credited with helping to start the Jimmy Fund, named after a pseudonymous young cancer patient for whom the charity was created in 1948.

Ralph Livingstone Edwards was born June 13, 1913, in Merino, Colo., to a farm family of modest means. The family moved to Oakland, Calif., when he was 13; three years later Mr. Edwards wrote a skit that attracted the attention of the manager of radio station KROW. The teenager was hired to write scripts after school at $1 a script.

Mr. Edwards majored in English at the University of California, Berkeley, with thoughts of becoming an English teacher, but he continued to be drawn to broadcasting. After graduation he worked as an actor, writer, announcer and producer for two San Francisco stations.

He came to New York in 1936 and freelanced as an announcer for CBS and NBC. By 1939 he was announcing 45 shows a week. His was the voice heard on "The Fred Allen Show," "Lucky Strike Hit Parade," " Major Bowes's Amateur Hour" and "Life Can Be Beautiful."

Ralph Edwards After he sold the idea for "Truth or Consequences" to NBC in 1940 and masterminded its huge success, he did no more staff announcing. In 1941 he did a trial performance of "Truth or Consequences" for the fledgling NBC Television. It began when few people had television sets, but grew to be so popular that in 1950 Hot Springs, N.M., changed its name to Truth or Consequences after Mr. Edwards invited small towns around the country to consider such a name change to mark the show's 10th anniversary.

Mr. Edwards was regarded as one of the most successful creators of radio and television shows and he remained active until late in his life. Among his other well-known shows, some developed with his longtime producing partner, Stu Billett, were "Name That Tune" and "The People's Court."

Mr. Edwards was married to the former Barbara Jean Sheldon, who died in 1993. He is survived by a son, two daughters, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

In all the years he was the producer and host of "This Is Your Life," Mr. Edwards's employees never prepared a surprise show about their boss. "They know they'd better not," Mr. Edwards said. "It would mean instant dismissal for everyone."