Sunday, November 4, 2012

Charles Nelson Reilly and the Gang Celebrate Launch of Match Game '76

(L to R) Brett Sommers, Gene Rayburn and
Charles Nelson Reilly

I didn’t realize this until after it was completed, but my latest New Year’s CD, Ringin’ In a Brand New Year, features content that spans an entire century. From 1912’s “New Year’s Medley” by The Prince’s Orchestra to the New Year’s Greeting recorded last year by Newt and Callista Gingrich, this mix covers a lot of ground. Like my annual holiday CDs, this collection draws from a variety of musical styles and features a number of non-musical tracks that help capture certain historical and cultural images in sound. One such track is a recording of the New Year’s Eve ritual observed during much of the 1970s on the set of the popular Match Game television show. Launched exactly 50 years ago, The Match Game survived several different incarnations and aired on all three of the major commercial networks at various times. The original program debuted in December 1962 on NBC and aired weekdays from 4:00 to 4:30 pm. This version featured two teams of three, each of which was led by a guest celebrity. Host Gene Rayburn read questions aloud and awarded points based on the number of matching answers on each side. Although the show was a perennial ratings success, it was dropped by the network in September 1969 to make room for a new show called "Letters to Laugh In." Producers Mark Goodson and Bill Toddman revived the program for CBS during the summer of 1973, although the debut of this second incarnation was postponed by several weeks because of the Senate Watergate hearings. Gene Rayburn was once again tapped to host, but little else from the original survived intact. As Rayburn noted, "This is a now version of your old favorite, with more action,. more money and more celebrities." The number of celebrities increased from two to six, with two non-celebrity contestants. Under the new format, Rayburn alternated questions between the two contestants, who competed to earn the most matching responses from the celebrity panel. The new set was designed in garish '70s style with shag carpeting, lots of blinking lights and plenty of orange. Perhaps the biggest change was the nature of the questions themselves, which had become significantly more risqué. This was undoubtedly a key factor in making this second version of the show the most successful of all. The new version of the show was called Match Game ’73, which, of course, required the title to be updated on an annual basis, and each New Year’s Eve, the gang did something special to mark the unveiling of the new name. From all appearances these special arrangements included an open bar, as a number of the celebrities seemed to have difficulty sitting upright let alone matching answers. My latest New Year's CD includes a recording of the festivities that aired on December 31, 1975, featuring the flamboyant and irrepressible Charles Nelson Reilly, who, with Brett Sommers and Richard Dawson, served as a regular guest on the show. Reilly is probably best known for his work on Match Game, but he enjoyed an illustrious stage career and was also a gifted acting teacher and director.  He enjoys the distinction of having appeared with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show more often than any other guest, due in part to the fact that he lived less than two minutes away from the studio and was typically available to fill in for last-minute cancellations. His last major project was a one-man autobiographical show called The Life of Reilly, which won rave reviews both as a live performance and film.  I heartily recommend it. 
Here’s the excerpt that's included on Ringin’ In a Brand New Year, which captures the transition from Match Game '75 to Match Game '76 on December 31, 1975: 

And for those brave souls who want more, here are clips of three additional Match Game year-end celebrations:

For more Match Game trivia and history, check the Game Show Network's Match Game page or Wikipedia.

Tomorrow (or the next day):  Richard Nixon Spreads His Unique Band of New Year's Cheer!

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