Gene Rayburn was born Eugene Rubessa in Christopher, Il. on December 22, 1917. His father was a Croatian immigrant who instilled in his son both a sense of pride in his heritage (During his emceeing career, Gene would occasionally say a few words in the native language when a contestant mentioned Croatian heritage) and a sense of American patriotism. (Gene once recalled that the happiest day of his father’s life was when he got his U.S. citizenship because it gave him the right to vote; when Gene met a contestant who recently became a citizen or turned 18, he would remind them to vote.)

 

Early in life, his family relocated to Chicago, and Gene spent his formative years attending Lindbloom High School. At age 18, Gene dropped out of Knox College after one year and moved to New York in pursuit of his childhood dream, hoping for a chance to take voice lessons and become an opera singer. Lack of money made him look for something else, and he eventually got a job as one of the first NBC pages. (He was in the same page-training class as future "Today Show" host Dave Garroway.) As an NBC page, his duties included serving as a tour guide for visiting radio fans and escorting Madame Touscanini backstage to see her husband during intermission and after the show. A chance to attend announcing classes offered by the network led him down a new path; he forgot opera altogether and pursued a career as an announcer.


He started at WGNY in Newburgh, NY, working as an announcer for $25 a week. After only a short time plying his newfound trade, World War II came along, and Gene became understandably sidetracked. He spent three years in the Air Force but never saw action because he was so skillful that it was determined that he’d be more useful if he stayed behind to train other recruits. He actually would be called to duty, but the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima just days before he was scheduled to leave.


In 1946, Gene picked up where he left off, arriving at WNEW in New York. The station teamed Gene up with Jack Lescoulie, and later Dee Finch, on what is widely considered to have been the first "morning-drive" radio show. Rayburn & Lescoulie, then Rayburn & Finch, conducted interviews, performed comedy pieces, looked at the news, and, of course, played music. Today, millions of radio listeners in their cars between 6-10 am have no idea how much Gene Rayburn had to do with their choice of entertainment.


 

In the 1950s, Gene began tackling the new medium of television, and his big break in that medium would be on the edge of the spotlight instead of the middle. In 1953, he was hired in an announcer-sidekick capacity on Steve Allen's local variety show . One year later, the show went national on NBC, titled "Tonight! Starring Steve Allen". The show aired live for 105 minutes five nights a week, during which Gene participated in skits, interviews, and even doing a news report every night at 12:30 a.m. (He raised the ire of the NBC News department by frequently ending his reports with a joke mocking the stories he had just reported; the news department felt that he should have treated the news with more reverence.)

 

During this time, Gene gradually found his way into the game show business. His popularity on New York radio led Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions to bring him on board as a panelist for “The Name’s the Same,” and they would later promote him to host on two short-lived series, “Make the Connection” and “Choose Up Sides.” In the New York area, Gene joined forces with another producer, Bob Stewart, who tapped him to host a local stunt show called “The Sky’s the Limit.” The title certainly seemed to fit at this point in Gene’s career.

 

After Steve Allen left “Tonight!” in 1956 to tackle prime-time television, NBC kept Gene close and found other game show gigs to keep him busy, including "Tic-Tac-Dough", "Dough-Re-Mi", and a month as interim host of “Play Your Hunch.” In 1961 he began a four year run as host of the Miss Universe Pageant.

 

Gene also branched out into a field that few broadcasters dare to try, acting. He had a small batch of television acting credits, including "Kraft Theatre" and "Robert Montgomery Presents." You may have also caught him in a brief cameo as a reporter in the Doris Day-Ernie Kovacs film It Happened to Jane.

His greatest success in acting, however, came in live theater. Although his legacy today is ultimately as a television emcee, Gene had a formidable list of summer stock and Broadway credits, including "Bye-Bye Birdie," "The Seven Year Itch," and "Come Blow Your Horn." Gene even managed to turn his acting career into a family affair, co-starring with wife Helen and daughter Lynn in the play "The Impossible Years."

 

December 31, 1962 would mark the beginning of Gene's greatest success. "The Match Game" made its debut on NBC, and aired at each weekday for the next 6 years and 9 months. Although it started as a fairly quiet show, Gene's contributions helped turn it into a show packed with spontaneous humor, especially when the show added "Telephone Match" in 1967, requiring Gene to call & chat with a home viewer on each show. His sense of humor helped make the show an enduring hit, and Gene was frequently on call to fill in for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” during his years in New York.

 

In 1969 the show was cancelled and Gene wouldn't host another game for three years. National television was a dying business in New York. He managed to stay busy however, by keeping ties with the areas that brought him to stardom. He tuck with radio as one of the countless communicators for NBC Radio’s weekend series “Monitor.”

 

The few game shows remaining in New York still called Gene in to serve as panelist. During the next several years, you could frequently spot him playing “What’s My Line?,” “To Tell the Truth,” “He Said, She Said,” and “Beat the Clock.”

In 1972, Gene began facing the harsh reality that continuing a show business career would mean heading to the opposite coast. He firmly remained a resident of New York, but he began making the long commute to Los Angeles to serve as panelist for a new version of “I’ve Got a Secret,” as well as finally stepping back behind the emcee’s podium with "The Amateur's Guide to Love" for CBS. Both shows disappeared quickly, but CBS would unveil a brand new lineup that fall that would lead to a new chance.

 

CBS hadn't forgotten the success of "The Match Game" on NBC during the 1960s and with their daytime line-up absolutely flourishing due to the success of four new games (“The New Price is Right,” “Gambit,” “The Joker’s Wild,” and “The $10,000 Pyramid”) CBS and Goodson-Todman decided the time was right re-launch the old favorite. Just as they had done with “Price,” Goodson-Todman totally overhauled the series, leaving behind only a few scarce remnants of the original series but otherwise launching an altogether-new series under an old title.

Gene was asked to host the new version, which would oddly follow the same pattern as the old version. It started off dull with serious questions, then the switch was made to risqué fill-in-the-blanks by professional comedy writers, and the show took off. It took only a few weeks for the new version, "Match Game '73", to become the number-one show on daytime television, a distinction it held for four seasons.

The series was so strong that in 1975, it expanded to include a sixth episode aired each week in prime-time under the title "Match Game PM", which enjoyed a six-year run. It became one of very few game shows to inspire a spin-off, as the Audience Match portion of the game became “Family Feud” in 1976. (And “Match Game” was so popular that when “Family Feud” asked one of its survey groups to “Name a famous Gene,” the number-one answer was “Rayburn.”)

 

Gene even took advantage of the series’ success to get back into the acting game, appearing as a guest-star on multiple occasions on “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.”

The show’s future appeared to have a limitless future until a boneheaded move on CBS’s part, switching the series’ timeslot twice in a period of seven weeks. Ratings plummeted, some viewers thought the show had been cancelled, and others simply found another show to watch or something else to do. “Match Game” disappeared from CBS in 1979.


Audience demand, however, prompted a new daily version to air in syndication for another three years. But an old saying says that all good things must come to an end, and sadly, "Match Game" would not be an exception. The series disappeared for good in 1982.

Gene again looked for ways to stay busy, and again turned to his old stomping grounds as an actor (his acting credits in the ‘80s included the TV series “Riptide”) and as a television host. On WNEW in New York, he could be seen as the host of "Saturday Morning Live!," a weekly talk/variety show.

 

In 1983, he looked to be re-entering the game show business, shooting a pilot for international producer Reg Grundy titled “Party Line.” Ultimately, the series he ended up co-hosting would be the first hybrid game show in television, "The Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour." The show flopped, lasting only 39 weeks, as the combination of two favorite comedy game shows of the previous decade looked better on paper than in execution.

 

1985 brought another disaster for Gene: "Break the Bank", from which Gene was fired after 13 weeks when the producers believed Gene was at fault for the show's poor ratings (the opinion of virtually everyone who saw it, however, was that it was simply a weak game). That year, Gene would also be exposed to the humiliating concept of ageism. Mark Goodson attempted to relaunch “Match Game” for first-run syndication, but interest in the show dried up when a reporter divulged that Gene was actually older than many people thought.

Gene's final game was cable network AMC's "The Movie Masters" which aired for five months in late 1989-early 1990. Plans were made for a new version of "Match Game" on ABC, but Gene was rejected for the host role because of the network executive belief that anyone over the age of 70 was a liability. Gene was virtually retired, whether he wanted to be or not.



Whatever career Gene claimed to have in the 1990s consisted largely of being a guest star. He made a surprise appearance during a skit on “Saturday Night Live” in 1990, and during the remainder of the decade, he could be seen reminiscing about “Match Game” as a guest on numerous daytime talk shows. When Game Show Network (now GSN) launched in 1994, he appeared in promos for the new network.


Gene's wife of 56 years, Helen, died in October 1996, and Gene never recovered from the loss. He was left to deal with the grief of losing his wife, the frustration of having retired well before he wanted to, and the bitterness of being forgotten by show business. On October 26, 1999, Gene found that he hadn't been totally forgotten, as he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences during a ceremony in Manhattan. Gene could only stand at the podium and shed a few tears, overwhelmed with gratitude as he finally received the recognition he was due.

One month later, only a few days after giving three final interviews for People Magazine, A&E and Game Show Network, he died of heart failure on November 29, 1999.


A man who was concerned that he would be forgotten, as depicted in a "History of Television" jigsaw puzzle and a Las Vegas slot machine. 

WHAT MAKES THIS GUY SO GREAT?

Gene knew what was funny and loved seizing every humorous opportunity, like climb over the entire audience to reach camera #5 in the studio; joking around with stagehands like Earl (the guy who operated the Super Match board) and Roger (the cue-card guy); arguments with the show's judge, Ira; his plugs for the obligatory home game ("It'll come to you in a month in a plain brown wrapper with no return address"); and his announcement of the losing contestant's lovely parting gifts ("We're sorry you didn't win any money but you will be receiving a broken clavicle and a jar of olives courtesy of Match Game.")

He saw himself as the host of the world's best party, and he wanted everyone to have a good time. He also had the winning trait of complete lack of ego. His show was number one, but he obviously didn't care.

 

Most importantly, he was just plain good at what he was doing.

 

MEMORIES OF GENE



I first watched "Match Game" at the end of 1998 when I got GSN. I had heard of the show referred to as "classic" before, but had never seen it. Little did I know what I was in for. It was a circus cleverly disguised as a game show, with Gene as the goofy, sometimes hyperactive ringmaster. He was what I wanted to be. He wasn’t hogging the spotlight by any means, but he was definitely doing what he could to make the show better. He made the audience laugh. He made the contestants laugh. He made the panelists laugh. He made me laugh.
 
       

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