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Series / Queen for a Day

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"Would you like to be queen for a day?!"
Jack Bailey's opening catchphrase, possibly uttered whilst under the influence.

Game Show where four (sometimes five) women shared their stories of woe in front of an audience and emcee, such stories ranging from a dearly-departed husband to a son crippled with polio. After all the ladies finished, the audience would applaud for the woman they wanted to see become "Queen for a Day". The winner (determined by the famous Applause Meter) received not only what she had originally asked for, but a slew of other prizes furnished by the show's sponsors. The show was created and executive produced by John Masterson, who would later enjoy greater success as the creator of The People's Court.

Debuting on the radio on April 30, 1945 as Queen for Today on the Mutual Broadcasting System with Ken Murray as host and with John Masterson producing the show through his eponymous production company, John Masterson Productions, the show was originally broadcast from New York. A few months into the run, the show moved to Los Angeles and was given its more familiar title; Murray was replaced by Jack Bailey, and beginning in 1948 the show was simulcast on television in the local Los Angeles market through DuMont affiliate KTSL-TVnote , whose owner, the Don Lee Network, also owned KHJ-AM, Mutual's Los Angeles affiliate.


The show proved to be so popular that it got national television exposure on NBC from January 1956 to September 1960, then over the weekend moved to ABC and continued until October 1964. When the show moved to NBC, The Raymond R. Morgan Company also signed on as a production company and co-produced the first two seasons until 1958, after which John Masterson resumed sole production and formed the dummy company Queen for a Day, Inc. to hold the show's copyright. Two Revival attempts, a 1969-70 syndicated run helmed by Dick Curtis and produced and distributed by Metromedia Producers Corporation, and a 2004 Lifetime one-off hosted by Mo'Nique and produced by The Gurin Company, both ended in failure.

But opinions varied. While some praised Queen for helping the unfortunate and showcasing the generosity of America, both contemporary and modern critics bashed it for being a sickening spectacle for ratings that seemingly only gave anything helpful to the winner — basically a crass, trashy, exploitative Reality Show (long before that term existed) that explicitly played on people's misery.


Modern viewers have also noted that Bailey was often downright patronizing toward the contestants, if not openly insulting — while they talked about a myriad of unfortunate events such as losing their homes or suffering through terrible medical problems, he threw out sarcastic barbs and jokes at their expense. Thus, what was seen as wholesome back then comes off as downright creepy and sleazy in modern times.

Game Show Tropes in use:

  • All or Nothing: Only the lady crowned Queen actually got anything to help her situation. The rest got...well, not much. It was said to be nothing, but was in fact a small Consolation Prize such as a toaster oven or a camera.
    • The reason why "nothing" was used? Because there were a small number of contestants who lied to get onto the show, and were found out after their shows aired. Having rightly felt cheated, production reasoned that by stating that only the winner gets any prizes, the ladies had better not think about anything but playing it completely straight. This actually turned out to be very crucial, as sometime later on, the nation became wrapped up in the frenzy that was the 1950s quiz show scandals, which ravaged among others, fellow NBC game shows Dotto, Tic-Tac-Dough, and, most notoriously, 21.
  • Personnel:
    • The Announcer: Gene Baker on Mutual and NBC, John Harlan on ABC, and Carl King in syndication.
    • Game Show Host: Ken Murray, Jack Bailey, Dick Curtis, and Mo'Nique.
    • Lovely Assistant: Several models handed the Queen her prizes. Among them were Barbara Lyon, Beverly Sassoon, Maxine Reeves, Darlene Stuart, and Dorene Georgeson. In addition, during the televised versions, there was the position of fashion commentator added. During the network runs, it was Jeanne Cagney, while in the syndicated run, it was Nancy Myers.
    • Studio Audience
  • Thing-O-Meter: The winner was determined by an Applause Meter.

This show provides examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: The contestants of ill and disabled children clearly care about them, but are often in such a financially vulnerable position that they see appearing on a sadistic gameshow to be a legitimate solution to their problems.
  • Condescending Compassion: The game show version of this trope.
  • Determined Widow: Once per episode.
  • False Widow: Contestants never talk about running away from abusive husbands to live with their family, or falling pregnant out of wedlock, or getting abandoned by (or abandoning) their husbands because the relationship wasn't emotionally or sexually satisfying. But there are a lot of very brave widows.
  • Healthcare Motivation: Once per episode.
  • Hope Crusher : The basic premise AND a great alternative title for the show.
  • Ill Boy or Girl: At least once per episode. Ill boys seemed to have a very slight advantage over ill girls.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: In most of the circulating episodes, Jack Bailey looks and sounds like a man who had a few shots beforehand. It might also explain his great skill at being a Jerkass. Bailey was actually a member of Alcoholics Anonymous while the show was in production.
  • Lighter and Softer: Could be seen as a lighter and softer version of a reality show. The premise might be pretty unsettling in itself, but the audience (if not the host) seemed to genuinely want to see the contestants happy, and the show is very subtle and indirect when it subjects its participants to public humiliation. Nobody is putting anybody's head in a fishtank full of spiders.
  • Littlest Cancer Patient: Not in a literal sense, of course, but contestants with very sick children in need of financing usually won.
  • Mood Dissonance: After being crowned Queen for a Day, the contestant was expected to sit on a throne and listen to a five minute in-show commercial about all the consumer items that she'd just won, while pretending to be really excited and thankful about the benefits of things like aluminium cookware and dog treats. You'd expect the queen to feel really excited and happy about winning, right? Well, no. Remember that the winners have usually just suffered significant personal tragedies and usually only appear on the show because they are in desperate need of help for their family, and they've just been put through this gruelling and humiliating ordeal on the vague hope they'd get the desired item. A lot of the time, the Queens are fighting off tears while sitting on the throne, and not tears of joy. That is, unless you define "tears of joy" as tears which are 5 percent joy, 40 percent relief at winning and 55 percent generalised sadness.
  • Mood Whiplash: Lots and lots, as you'd expect given that it is continuously juxtaposing tales of personal tragedy with advertisements for holidays and dog food.
  • The Movie: Yes, it had a movie, which was released in 1951 when the TV version was still a local Los Angeles program. The plot was divided in three vignettes, each telling the story of a fictional contestant. Leonard Nimoy made his film debut here in a bit role.
  • Product Placement: the show spent about 15 minutes focusing on the contestants and 25 minutes selling various products.
  • This Is Reality: The contestants tend to be extremely sweet, but are a lot shyer and more awkward than you'd expect them to be, if you grew up associating 50s and 60s housewives with Mad Men-style advertising.
  • Reality Show: Probably the Ur-Example for competitive variants.
  • Sadist Show: Ho. Lee. Shit. Look at the below, and explain to us how the hell this lasted 20 years.
    1. The losers got absolutely nothing as compensation for being on the show, at least from the viewers' standpoint. They actually got a decent consolation gift, but as detailed above this wasn't mentioned on-air to avoid getting liars as candidates.
    2. The audience (and Bailey) would sometimes laugh at some stories, with Bailey throwing out insults and sarcastic remarks. They may have been meant in fun (as it were) back then, perhaps even an attempt by Bailey to soothe the contestants who were (very understandably) not only wracked by their personal problems but nervous due to the natural pressures of a TV show, but they certainly don't seem so innocent these days...
    3. Not even the show's assistants (also female) were safe, as Bailey openly insulted them as well. One existing episode even has him saying "Let's give a big hand to Mary Ann for finally doing something right." No, seriously. Unlike the above two, there's really no excuse for this one.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: If this trope were a game show, this would be it.
  • Sound-to-Screen Adaptation: 1948 for the Los Angeles area, 1956 for the nation.
  • Stepford Smiler and Stepford Suburbia: Played straight in the commercial hosting sections, averted like crazy in the sections with the contestants, to the point that - if it wasn't a gameshow featuring real people - you'd consider it a deconstruction. The women are very polite, sweet and well-groomed 50s surburban housewife-types who spend a lot of time smiling out of politeness. But they are also clearly real human beings with complex inner lives and mixed emotional reactions to being on the show.
  • Stigmatic Pregnancy Euphemism: Very likely, given that there were a surprising number of young widows with a single child on the show.
  • Title Drop: Jack's opening sentence.
  • Trust Me, I'm an X : There was a vet who would regularly appear in order to explain why your pet needs branded pet merchandise.