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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
WHAT MAKES THIS GUY SO GREAT?
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.
Gene knew what was funny and loved seizing every humorous
opportunity, like climb over the entire audience to reach camera #5 in the
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
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.