Letter to Polly

(Originally written in early 2003 as an affectionate send-off to delightful panelist Polly Bergen,
just as GSN was preparing to air the last of her shows.)


Dear Polly Bergen,

 

It's been more than 50 years since you left "To Tell The Truth". Call it arrested development, but I'm still trying to get over that loss.

Naturally, it doesn't help the recovery process that the Game Show Network's "Black and White Overnight" will be featuring your last half-dozen episodes this week. Polly, I'll watch faithfully for just one more "I want to change my vote" or "that's who I think it is, too" or - and this is my favorite - "I really think it's number one, but I voted for number two…". The hardest part is bound to be those first few weeks without you, as your co-panelists continue to ask questions in your honor and refer to you while you're away in California. You've taken long vacations before, so you'll be coming back soon enough, right? But soon enough never arrives this time, and before long your name will fade altogether from "To Tell The Truth"'s weekly vernacular. Then we'll quickly be treated to potential replacement after potential replacement, and while they'll all be fine in their own way, another year-and-a-half will pass before anybody settles into the panel with any lasting regularity. Consider it a tribute to your indelible effect, Polly.

Maybe what sets you apart is your charmingly circuitous way of explaining why you voted for your chosen contestant. Or maybe it's your warm and good-natured ribbing with emcee Collyer and the other panelists. Just maybe it's your repeated references to the Bergen clan. What with your daughter and nurse's sage advisements on determining the real one, they certainly earned honorary chairs behind the panelists' desk. All those reasons sound plausible to me. But what I really think is this: you, Polly, are able to ace the tightrope between playing the game to win and having heaps of fun. If anything, you veer toward the fun side of said rope, winning the audience by letting them in on behind-the-scenes tidbits, teasing that rotten and sneaky production staff, but never forgetting that it's the game that counts. Therein lies your foremost contribution: you respect the game, but never take it or yourself too seriously. Watching those kinescopes on TV, I still marvel at your ability to know when to play the game straight and when to milk a funny moment for everything it's worth. Talk about timing.

To be sure, your departure is only the first in a series of changes that 1961 brought to "To Tell The Truth", including a new theme song, a ballot display, and Johnny Carson's season-long status as a regular panelist. But your absence plays out as the most significant change because it's the only detrimental one. I often wonder what the chemistry between you and Garry Moore would have been like if you'd played a part in the next version of the program. Maybe someday GSN will see fit to air your continuing appearances on the Winter-Spring 1954 "I've Got A Secret" programs, providing at least half an answer to that hypothetical.

So golly, Polly. That's it, then. The broadly smiling original panelist has only slightly morphed into a steelier, savvier performer with these final shows. But there are a handful of classic moments on tap this week, including your getting mock-upset at the panel for laughing at you, followed by a marvelous voting moment involving associate producer Willie Stein. And then you're gone, presumably not to return to any "To Tell The Truth" panel until 20 years later. What a long 20 years it will be.

Over the years, Kitty Carlisle-Hart has been cited as the pre-eminent "To Tell The Truth" panelist. Can't argue with that, seeing as how Mrs. Hart ultimately appeared in more shows than any other celebrity, and that her tenure with the show was decades-spanning. But for sheer intelligent and uninhibited fun, well, I want to change my vote. To you, Polly Bergen. That's who I think it is.

Thank you, Polly, for all the laughs. Now you get the last word…as it should be:

"I voted for number one; it really isn't any of them. Number three says he sets pin curls with rollers and I don't understand that. Number two says he lets the hair dry after it's cut before he sets it and you set it and then let it dry. And number one said the new innovation in hair rollers was nylon. I thought it was brushes inside, but he came the closest so I vote for him. But I'm glad I set my own."

Copyright © 2003-16 by Marshall Akers

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