This Is Your Life

Ralph Edwards by Nathan Smith

this is your life

This Is Your Life is an American television documentary series broadcast on NBC, originally hosted by its producer, Ralph Edwards from 1952 to 1961. In the show, the host surprises a guest, and proceeds to take them through their life in front of an audience including friends and family. The format originated as a radio show on NBC Radio airing from 1948 to 1952.

The idea for ‘This Is Your Life’ arose while Edwards was working on ‘Truth or Consequences.’ He had been asked by the U.S. Army to ‘do something’ for paraplegic soldiers at a California Army rehabilitation hospital. Edwards chose a ‘particularly despondent young soldier and hit on the idea of presenting his life on the air, in order to integrate the wreckage of the present with his happier past and the promise of a hopeful future.’

Edwards received such positive public feedback from the ‘capsule narrative’ of the soldier he gave on ‘Truth or Consequences’ that he developed ‘This Is Your Life’ as new radio show. In the show, Edwards would surprise each guest by narrating a biography of the subject. The show alternated in presenting the life stories of entertainment personalities and ‘ordinary’ people who had contributed in some way to their communities. The host, consulting his ‘red book,’ would narrate while presenting the subject with family members, friends, and others who had had an impact on his or her life.

By the 1950s, the show was aired live before a theater audience. The guests were surprised by Ralph Edwards and confronted by the microphone and cameras. They made their way to the studio during the first commercial break. Most of the honorees quickly got over their initial shock and enjoyed meeting bygone friends again. Movie producer Mack Sennett’s response was typical: he hated being caught off-guard, but as the tribute progressed he relaxed, and by the end of the show he was quite pleased with the experience.

Advance planning for the broadcast meant that some would know in advance about the surprise. Carl Reiner later admitted that he knew beforehand about his appearance. In some cases the episode was not a surprise: Eddie Cantor had a heart condition, so the show’s producers made sure that he wasn’t surprised.

Some celebrities were unpleasantly surprised. Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy was angered by being ‘tricked’ into what would be the team’s only American television appearance. Laurel later said, ‘[Oliver Hardy] and I were always planning to do something on TV. But we never dreamed that we would make our television debut on an unrehearsed network program…I was damned if I was going to put on a free show for them.’

One of the show’s subjects was Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. During the episode Edwards introduced Tanimoto to Robert A. Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Hanna Bloch Kohner, a Holocaust survivor, was a subject in 1953.

Also in 1953, Lillian Roth, a ‘topflight torch singer of the Prohibition era’ was the subject of the show, ‘cheerfully admitt[ing] that she had been a hopeless drunk for 16 years before being rescued by Alcoholics Anonymous.’ Edwards described Roth’s condition as ‘impending blindness, an inflamed sinus and a form of alcoholic insanity’ and brought on a psychiatrist who had treated her, a brother-in-law ‘who had paid her bills’ and several ‘glamorous foul-weather friends’ such as Lita Grey Chaplin and Ruby Keeler.

One celebrity that was definitely off-limits was Edwards himself, who supposedly threatened to fire every member of his staff if they ever tried to turn the tables on him and publicly present Edwards’ own life.

By October 1960, Time magazine was calling ‘This Is Your Life,’ ‘the most sickeningly sentimental show on the air’; it cited a May 1960 episode on ‘Queens housewife and mother’ Elizabeth Hahn as evidence that the show had ‘run through every faded actress still able to cry on cue’ and had instead ‘turned to ordinary people as subjects for its weekly, treacly ‘true-to-life’ biographies.’

The episode on Hahn was also cited as an example of the limited research that the show was doing on its guests. The show had presented Hahn as ‘”devoted to her husband and so dedicated to her children that she had worked as a chambermaid, waitress and cook to further their education and keep them off the streets,’ ignoring details such as that Hahn, on the advice of her rabbi, had brought her daughter into a magistrate’s court as a delinquent, and that before the episode was broadcast, Hahn’s husband had sued Hahn for divorce.

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