Arlene Francis, Television and Radio Host and Producer
(courtesy of The Paley Center for Media)
In the 1950s, one could scarcely flip the channels on the television set without landing on the image of Arlene Francis. Media scholar Bernard Timberg says she “played a key role in television’s first decades as performer, talk-show host, and guest star, appearing on many shows and proving herself to be one of the medium’s most durable personalities.” At the height of her career in the fifties, Francis could be seen on as many as three programs per week spread over all three networks, which TV Guide lovingly dubbed “the tri-network Arlene Francis cartel.” She began racking up “first woman to” accolades early in her career, including first female game show host (Blind Date) and first “femcee” or “mistress of ceremonies” of Your Show of Shows. She was also the first woman to ring the bell to open trading at the New York Stock Exchange. Her longevity in prime time is largely due to the quarter century between 1950 and 1975 that she spent as a panelist on the highbrow game show What’s My Line?. But it was her newsmagazine talk show Home (1954–57) that secured her place as a television pioneer. She was both host and editor in chief of the innovative and ambitious program of substantive talk that paved the way for such contemporary shows as The View and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Born Arline Francis Kazanjian on October 20, 1907, in Boston, she began reciting poetry for her grandfather, an actor, and quickly developed what she calls “exhibitionist tendencies.” Her strict father, successful Armenian portrait photographer Aram Kazanjian, forbid the young Arlene to pursue a career in the theater. Eventually he went so far as to set her up with her own boutique on Madison Avenue, as she says, “to keep me off the streets until I could find a nice rich feller and get married.” But soon enough she dropped her polysyllabic last name, changed the spelling of her first name, and off she went to make her own way in show business. Francis had a few early breaks doing voice-over work for radio ads, which eventually turned into a job voicing characters on the radio soap opera King Arthur’s Round Table. Her knack for eloquent, natural delivery and easy characterizations landed her roles on serial after serial, many of them running concurrently. For a time she worked closely with Orson Welles as a member of his Mercury Theatre company, performing in plays like Danton’s Death (1938). During World War II, she began hosting the radio game show Blind Date, as television was dawning and radio drama was nearing its end. In an interview with Mike Wallace, Francis spoke of her situation: “I know that when television started I went to my manager and said well I’m finished. There’s no place for me in television, I’m a radio personality.” As it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth. Blind Date made the move to television, taking Francis with it. She became the first woman to ever host a TV game show.
In 1950 Francis joined the new game show What’s My Line?. She served on a panel of four alongside fellow New York intellectuals, including columnist Dorothy Kilgallen and publisher Bennett Cerf. Each Sunday night, the witty foursome would play a version of twenty questions with a mystery guest and try to ascertain the guest’s occupation. In 1953 Francis also began hosting the talent show Talent Patrol (a.k.a. Soldier Parade). She was becoming a respected television personality known for her charm, elegant appearance, and tasteful wit.
In 1954 when Pat Weaver, president of NBC, was ready to develop the third of his intended NBC daily programming trilogy to accompany Today and Tonight, he turned to Francis for her broad appeal to women and her skills as a “femcee.” Home was the first TV newsmagazine of its kind, outfitted with an expensive revolving set and TV’s first use of cameras suspended from the studio ceiling. Weaver said, “Home was a show built for the women who were not watching soaps, game shows, daytime stuff, and we knew already from radio and television research that almost half of the women in the country do not watch or listen to that stuff.” The show’s announcer, Hugh Downs, said of his entire career, “Some of the most exhilarating years on television certainly, maybe the most that I had, were the years with Arlene on Home. Every day was an opening night.” Although the show was cancelled after three and a half years on the air, Timberg considers Home “the first major effort by a national network to capture the daytime audience of women with a woman host and a serious informational format.”
After the cancellation of Home, Francis hosted the TV talk show The Arlene Francis Show, which lasted less than a year. She could be seen frequently substituting for hosts on Today and Tonight throughout the fifties. She was featured on several covers of TV Guide, Look Magazine, and Newsweek, in which she was dubbed “the first lady of television.” Despite her success as a TV personality, she never lost her love for acting. She starred in several films, including One, Two, Three and All My Sons and appeared on Broadway. Francis was always careful to walk softly in her public life as a “career woman” during the more restrictive era of the 1950s, but she quietly made big strides for women in the industry.
Francis would continue on What’s My Line? until it was finally taken off the air in 1975. She continued to host an hour-long daily radio interview show on WOR from 1961 until 1990 where she consistently booked hard-to-get, high-profile guests. Francis passed away May 31, 2001, at the age of 93. She is remembered as a popular and respected television personality who pioneered challenging programming designed for women. Timberg writes that her work must be seen in a historical context: “Her career also illustrates the importance of power and control in the role of a 1950’s talk-show host, and the uphill battle faced by a woman host during this time.” For a charming personality, she was also something of a visionary, speaking with confidence in 1959 on the need for restructuring the way television programming is financed and distributed to the public. Above all, she was a proponent of the industry itself, saying, “The good that television can do and does do is so enormous that I think we have to put up with the rest of it…You know people that are going around knocking it forget that we are really growing…we are still such children still crawling in this industry.”