Jack Bailey's job was to make women feel comfortable enough to beg.
"You look so cute and shaky," he said to a nervous woman named Dorothy Lacey, there to plead her case to a national television audience. "Don't you worry about a thing."
The woman smiled timidly and clasped her hands in front of her.
"Is that a new dress? It looks wonderful."
Bailey was the host of Queen for a Day, a 1950s television game show featuring disadvantaged female contestants pleading for badly needed items — a wheelchair for a disabled son, carpet in the baby's room, a phone call to her deployed husband. At the end of the show, whichever of the four or five women received the most audience applause was crowned "queen for a day" and showered with gifts.
It was a smash hit.
Critics argued Queen exploited people's hardships for profit, but the show's runaway success singlehandedly gave NBC a foothold in daytime television, and raked in ad dollars. It ran from 1940 to 1964.
During those years, the average income of the American family grew from $2,200 per year to $8,000. Overall poverty declined by over 60%. But as the nation got wealthier, the gap between the middle class and the poor remained the same. And in many ways, Queen made entertainment out of that gap, putting on display the privations of the poor for the enjoyment of the middle class. In fact, in the early years of the show's run, less than half of all American households had a TV, and it certainly wasn't the bottom half. So, only the well-to-do could even watch. Queen was poverty porn, with downtrodden damsels playing the lead role.
Jack Bailey hosted the show for over twenty years. (NBC Universal)
In 1958, Dorothy Lacy was on Queen to ask for materials to build two sets of bunk beds and four mattresses. She and her four children, all girls, lived in a trailer.
"We have two large beds but three of the girls are sleeping in a large bed, and the baby in the folding crib. But the folding crib — ," she faltered and caught her breath, " — keeps falling down at night."
The next woman asked for a gurney so she could wheel her 15-year-old, polio-stricken son outside for fresh air. Another asked for a set of encyclopedias for her children to be able to finish high school. She looked at the ground nearly her entire interview.
In fact, the body language is often hard to watch. Moist foreheads and nervous fidgets were common. Some backed away from the host slowly over the course of the interview. Others crumbled with shame, heaving breaths through their stiff, scratchy jackets. Clearly, they weren't there for fame. They truly needed.
Host Jack Bailey bestows the "queen" of January 2, 1959, Ms. Susie Mae Hill of Los Angeles, with her prize — a five-day trip to Denver. (The Denver Post via Getty Images)
NBC saw the enormous potential of such a show, which combined the drama of soap opera with the stakes of popular game shows. These "misery shows" or "sob shows," as they were called, banked on authentic human experience. The more heartache producers could tease out, the better.
Sometimes the spectacle even turned disparaging. When contestants broke down or turned away, Bailey would scold them, "Now, now. You promised you weren't gonna cry" or "Quit shaking! What's wrong with you?"
During one episode, a woman named Ruth walked on stage wringing a handkerchief around her finger. Her husband was killed in a hunting accident, and she urgently needed a job to support her two children. She wanted to go to beauty school in her hometown.
"Now do you want to take a beautician course out here or back in Toledo?" Bailey inquired.
"Back in Toledo," she said wide-eyed.
"I was in Toledo once. Are you sure you want to go back?" he joked. "I'm just kidding. Toledo is a wonderful town, and if you're elected queen it's none of our business where you go."
When he sent Ruth back to her seat, he shook his head, "Poor little girl."
By 1957, the show was reaching more than 10 million viewers a day, and the ratings finally launched NBC ahead of CBS as the leader of daytime TV. It had cornered a powerful middle-class women's market, which had more money to spend than ever before. Sponsorships poured in. At the beginning of each show, delicate models plugged each advertiser; the show aired taped commercials between segments; and every single prize awarded to the queen of the day was provided by sponsors. At one time, reciting them all at the end of the show took a full 5 minutes and 30 seconds.
Contestants like Dorothy and Ruth made it to the top five after a long vetting process, which Marsha F. Cassidy details in What Women Watched: Daytime Television in the 1950s. Before the show, producers collected hundreds of "wish cards" from the audience and narrowed the pool of hopefuls based on most compelling story and extremity of need. With Bailey's help, the final five contestants were chosen mere minutes before the live broadcast, in order to "raise emotional stakes."
"A candidate had to want something we could plug: a stove, a carpet, a plane trip, an artificial leg, a detective agency, a year's supply of baby food," said longtime producer Howard Blake. "The more gifts we gave the queen, the more money we made."
As Cassidy notes, "Queen for a Day explicitly tied the reconstitution of distressed women to material goods and beauty."
The women in the audience who vied to be on the show — some of whom had spent their savings to get to the taping — went away with nothing. The four runners-up got consolation prizes. For the "queen" — who sat silently, alone, and often in tears on her throne — attendants wheeled in dishwashers, dinette sets, fashionable wardrobes, and other trappings of affluent homemaking.
Then suddenly Bailey was back in the frame, leaning into her bewildered face. "This is Jack Bailey, saying goodbye," he waved at the camera, "saying we wish could make every lady in America queen for every single day!"
Howard Blake later called it the worst program on television.