"Sure, 'Queen' was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste. That was why it was so successful. It was exactly what the general public wanted.... We got what we were after. Five thousand Queens got what they were after. And the TV audience cried their eyes out, morbidly delighted to find there were people worse off than they were, and so they got what they were after."


-Howard Blake, producer of Queen for a Day.


Tremendously popular commercialized exploitation of human suffering in the form of a game show that began as a hit radio program on the Mutual Network (1945 to 1956). The show moved to television in 1956 and continued with unabated popularity into the mid 60s. It was hosted by the simultaneously unctuous and contemptuous Jack Bailey until his death, which also effectively put an end to the first incarnation of the show.

The Premise

Four women in dire need of help in their lives weep their way through their stories of misery, and are rated by an audience-powered Applause-O-Meter. The woman receiving the loudest applause was wrapped in an ermine cape (which she was allowed to wear for one day) and crowned. She received consumer goods, including household appliances, cars, trips, and elegant clothing (such as a full complement of expensive cocktail dresses).

The Master and Mistress of Ceremonies

  • Jack Bailey, whose resume included numerous stints as the voice of Disney's Goofy, was the host. Bailey, originally from Iowa, had acted in stock carnivals and tent shows prior to moving to California to become a radio personality. He began every show by bugling out "Do YOU want to be QUEEN for a DAY?" A TV Guide article of the era called Bailey the "No. 1 mesmerizer of middle-aged females and most relentless dispenser of free washing machines."
  • Jeanne Cagney (sister of James Cagney) was the "fashion commentator", providing a running commentary on how badly dressed the show's desperate contestants were. She gave a mock (and mocking) five minute fashion show at the midpoint of the broadcast.

The Contestants

For the most part, they were poor, uneducated, exhausted, and at the end of their rope. Still photos and documentary footage of contestants show women who are often prematurely aged by grief and adversity, with dark circles under their eyes. They look defeated and miserable - even in winning. It's almost as if they realize that what they thought was a way out has turned out to be another horrible humiliation about which they may have nightmares for the rest of their lives, new Frigidaire or no. The picture that struck me the most was of a "Queen" with a perma-creased face of misery, drooping mouth, and slumped shoulders in her shabby housedress - with an ermine cape and ornate crown perched on her shoulders and head, respectively. She had to be propped up in the "throne" by the model assistants. That or they were holding her in. Because the look in her eyes is one of dawning horror.

The show was broadcast live from the Moulin Rouge, a restaurant-theater Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. All those with tickets were considered for candidacy as a contestant. Prospectives waited in line for a card on which they would write their "wish". They were then interviewed and culled down to 20, and then five.

Every contestant signed a release stipulating that she would collect nothing if her miseries were faked. Finally, if a contestant's wish was not monetary or merchandise-related, she would not be selected. Though one contestant wished for money to get home after the death of her husband, the show also awarded her a bicycle for each of her children, a new refrigerator, new washer and dryer, bedroom set, dishes, couch, and sundry other items donated by sponsors.

Sponsored By

Spiegel launched its new catalog on the show, which was persuaded to give contestants the opportunity to select their own prizes from its pages.

Other sponsors included: Chrysler Imperial, Hartz Mountain Cat Yummies, Ex-Lax, Johnson & Johnson Sta-Puf Laundry Rinse, Bordens' Milk, the Hamilton Beach Food Converter, Adler Sewing Machines, Arrestin Cough Medicine, Revere Cameras and Slide Projectors, the Hoover Floor Polisher, and generic coffee.

The Film

In 1951, a bizarre feature film based on the show was made, starring the cast of the actual show (and a cameo by the young then-unknown Leonard Nimoy. The plot of the film revolved (or devolved) around three stories of suffering - one of which was written by Dorothy Parker. Parker's tale of woe was titled "Horsie", and featured a wet nurse who is teased by a TV producer and his wife because she's ugly.



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