Wednesday, August 06, 2008
  Charles Van Doren and the Rip in the Fabric of Reality

Charles Van Doren, Jack Barry and Herb Stempel on Twenty-One. Assistants on the show were the identical twins Arlene and Ardell Terry. Page from Humbug by Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman.

Charles Van Doren finally surfaced at last with his side of the quiz show scandals in an engaging essay, “All the Answers” (
The New Yorker, July 28). That long-awaited memoir prompts me to dust off the 23-year-old article you see below.

In 1985 I began writing a letter to Paul Williams'
Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter, but as I typed on the IBM Selectric, the letter expanded and began to seem more like an article. With that in mind, I gave it a title and submitted it as an article. I sent the only copy to Paul, who never published it. However, instead of returning the only copy to me, he sent it to the reader whose comment about the 1968 movie Project X ("sure sounds like Time Out of Joint") had prompted my article (dated May 5, 1985). Years passed, and I thought of it as a lost article. Then miraculously, it appeared on the Internet during the 1990s, and I grabbed it. Here it is (with some alterations)…

Several films have “fake construct” plots similar to Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, and some may have been directly inspired by Dick’s novel.

In William Castle’s Project X (1968) agent Hagen Arnold (Christopher George), in the year 2118, has a message that Sino-Asia will wipe out the West in 14 days, but details of the weaponry are not available when Arnold returns to the USA with his memory erased. A scientific team, under the direction of Dr. Crowther (Henry Jones), in hopes of getting the weapon information, constructs a fake 1960s environment and makes Arnold believe he is living in that period. To keep Arnold in the construct area, he is given the false knowledge that he is a bank robber, hiding out with other gang members at an isolated farmhouse. In reality, the other members of the gang are Crowther and his team.

Karen Summers (Greta Baldwin) unexpectedly turns up in the construct area, creating rips in the fake reality fabric, and another agent, Gregory Gallea (Monte Markham), also returns from Sino-Asia. Crowther turns his attentions to Gallea as a possible solution to the mystery weapon, but Gallea is destroyed by a mass of subconscious "brain energy." Although the Sinoese plan never works, it is revealed that the secret weapon is Hagen Arnold himself. He is a carrier of plague germs.

The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film entry failed to point out that Project X is of interest to animation buffs because the animated Hanna-Barbera sequence was designed by comics illustrator Alex Toth who worked on much of the Hanna-Barbera output between 1964 and 1968 (Johnny Quest, Space Ghost, Herculoids). The screenplay for Project X was by Edmund Morris, who earlier did the screenplay adaptation of Nelson Algren's A Walk On The Wild Side (1962).

Project X was adapted from two novels by British sf/thriller/fantasy/horror writer Leslie P. Davies - Psychogeist (1966) and The Artificial Man (1965), with the latter providing the main Dickian-like plotline of the film, the secret agent in a fake construct environment.

The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972), also with an amnesiac agent, was adapted from Davies' The Alien (1968), and his first novel, The Paper Dolls (1964), became a 1968 made-for-tv movie with the same title. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia notes that The Artificial Man and Davies' Man Out Of Nowhere (aka Who Is Lewis Pinder?) are "both possible delusional-frame tales."

Project X gets favorable coverage in John Stanley's Creature Feature Movie Guide and the British Film Institute's Monthly Film Bulletin, but Robin Cross in The Big Book of B Movies (St. Martin's, 1981) comments that Hagen Arnold's "need to lie low allows Castle the maximum use of the cheapest possible location, although it puts some strain on the creaking plot. The scientist guardians, moving around uneasily in their 1960s clothes, have received only the sketchiest of briefings: the female member has no idea what you do with a potato. Nevertheless, our hero, who just happens to be an expert on the history of the 1960s, remains too befuddled to penetrate the transparent deception." An excellent still from Project X, apparently from the hallucinatory sequence, can be seen in The Big Book Of B Movies.

George Seaton's 36 Hours (1964), in which James Garner comes out of a coma in a fake Allied hospital set up by the Nazis, is based on Roald Dahl's "Beware of the Dog," plus a story by Carl K. Hittleman and Luis H. Vance. Another related story, possibly one PKD could have read, is "4th Degree," illustrated by Jack Kamen and written by Otto Binder for EC's Weird Science-Fantasy (January- February 1955) and obviously influenced heavily by George Orwell: Val Draper, in the repressive world of 2039, finds forbidden "books... among the ruins" and then travels back to 1954 to spread a warning about the dictatorship of the future, holding a press conference in his 1954 hospital room. However, it's a fake; everyone around him is involved in the deception. Draper is convicted of treason and shot.

Based on internal evidence, the fakery on the 1950s rigged television quiz shows was Philip K. Dick’s springboard to plot Time Out of Joint, and references to such are buried throughout the novel. In chapter two, when Vic calls Ragle Gumm "the Charles Van Doren of the newspaper contests," Ragle responds, "I consider that a compliment."

Dick wrote Time Out of Joint in the winter of 1957-58, sent it to Lippincott (April 1958), where it was purchased July 1958 and published in the spring of 1959. Like Ragle, the quiz show contestants who won week after week were celebrities, and the most famous was Van Doren, who appeared on NBC's Twenty-One beginning November 1956, replacing contestant Herb Stempel. The show was promoted that week by NBC with spots asking, "Will Herb Stempel crack the $100,000 mark?" Ragle's contest asked, "Where will the Little Green Man be next?"

Van Doren appeared on the front cover of the February 11, 1957 issue of Time, and he remained on Twenty-One until March. Although the quiz show scandals did not take off until charges by Stempel were published August 28, 1958, there were hints throughout 1957, beginning with a January Variety story about Dale Logue's suit against The Big Surprise and her claim that it was not "a true test of skill."

After Time asked, "Are the quiz shows rigged?" (4/22/57), Look (8/20/57) asked, "Are the TV Quiz Shows Fixed?" and then answered, "It may be more accurate to say that they are controlled or partially controlled." The New York Times (12/57) stated, "Despite diligent research, nobody has yet turned up evidence that the fix is in on any of the big money quizzes."

Then, on 8/16/58 there was the mysterious cancellation of Dotto by CBS, followed by Stempel's 8/28/58 charges (which suddenly brought Van Doren under suspicion), a denial on Twenty-One (9/8/58) by the show's host and co-producer Jack Barry, a grand jury investigation of the quiz shows (beginning 9/17/58), a press conference (9/27/58) by contestant Richard Snodgrass who stated he had been supplied with answers on Twenty-One, a statement (10/10/58) by Van Doren that he "had not been given questions or answers," and the cancellation (10/17/58) of Twenty-One. On 1/20/59 Jack Barry and his co-producer Dan Enright refused to testify before the grand jury. These were the events prior to the publication of Time Out of Joint. There were other behind-the-scenes events, but the sequence above is what surfaced in the media.

Surely PKD must have been fascinated with this manipulated reality. In Reflections In A Bloodshot Eye (1975) Robert Metz quotes an unnamed "quiz-show entrepreneur... who never went into the business of producing big-money shows": "Anybody who knew anything about this business had to understand that you couldn't maintain that kind of hyperbolic drama with real people without fixing the shows... It became unbelievable that a person who had no money at all would risk, say, $8000. To build the suspense, you had to screw around with reality... The money for the producers came from success, the successful attempts to fake reality: building tension artificially, taking advantage of the public's willingness to believe it's all real, suggesting that a penniless old shoemaker would risk all that money."

When Stuart Lowery, in chapter three of Time Out of Joint, arrives at Ragle's house to discuss Ragle's contest entries ("I know it's just an oversight on your part..."). the scene is remarkably similar to the manner in which quiz show contestants were prompted in advance. Some contestants were visited in their homes by producers and asked questions, but they were not always told that these same questions would later be asked when the show went on the air. On other cases, such as Xavier Cugat's appearances as an art expert on The $64,000 Question, questions would be drawn from a background file on the contestant and written to fit what was known about the contestant's scope of knowledge. Other contestants knew they were participating in fraud, and while one or two later revealed they came close to exposing the fraud on the air during live shows, no one ever did.

One contestant, Arthur Cohn who appeared on The $64,000 Challenge (3/23/58), did write a letter exposing the show, mimeographed it and mailed it to 25 of his friends. But most were like Ragle Gumm; "This was the secret compact between himself and the contest people... No one else, to his knowledge, had this privilege. It was for the one simple purpose of keeping him in the contest... it was his secret and the contest people's secret. And neither of them had any motive to air it publicly."

Sponsored by Revlon, The $64,000 Question began 6/8/55. Revlon's sales soared. At the Subcommittee hearings investigating quiz shows, Revlon vice-president of advertising George Abrams gave a sworn statement: "The primary purpose of the meeting was to keep the ratings high, or raise them, and so, consistent with this purpose, a great deal of time was devoted to discussing the destiny of a contestant... " And Ragle, unaware of how he is being manipulated, "had become valuable from the standpoint of publicity. Why the public would want the same person to win over and over again he did not know. Obviously, if he won he won over the other contenders. But that was the manner of the public mind. They recognized his name. As it was explained to him, the theory went that the public liked to see a name they could identify. They resisted change."

Like Van Doren, a photo of Ragle is on the front cover of Time. When Ragle looks for patterns and contradictions (chapter five) in the magazines found in the ruins, he breaks the information into categories: "He had set up 12 categories: politics, economics, movies, art, crime, fashions, science, etc." Contestants on The $64,000 Question chose a category from 12 categories posted on a checkerboard design. Curiously, this was one of the few obvious "reality leaks" on the show revealing something fishy: A viewer, carefully studying the checkerboard weekly during the brief moments it was seen, could soon deduce that the categories were changed depending on the knowledge areas of new contestants; in effect, this made the "choosing" of a category so transparent it became a meaningless act.

In chapter two, when Bill Black and Ragle examine the Gazette with its "line of photos of men and women" who were contest winners, the description matches the visual layouts of quiz show winners seen in 1956-57 magazines and newspapers. Although PKD never mentions the quiz shows in Time Out of Joint, one passage in chapter two almost heads in that direction: "Costs ran higher - he had figured one day - than the famous Old Gold contest of the mid-thirties or the perennial 'I use Oxydol soap because in 25 words or less' contests. But evidently it built circulation, in these times when the average man read comic books and watched..." Watched what? Well, back then, everyone was watching the quiz shows. So, after the ellipsis, PKD veered in another direction: "I'm getting like Bill Black, Ragle thought. Knocking TV. It's a national pastime in itself." He took a detour to avoid getting too close to his springboard source, the television quiz shows.

©2008 Bhob Stewart

For more PKD links, visit Willis Howard's Palm Tree Garden.

The category board of The $64,000 Question can be seen in the album cover for Columbia's $64,000 Jazz LP, but even this is a fake. A close inspection of the record jacket reveals the word "jazz" was not on the category board but was pasted into a blank square by the production artist of the album cover. The album featured Pete Rugolo's "The Shrike." Click heading at top to hear the beginning of this Rugolo track (but it will not start automatically). The tune was composed by José Ferrer who won a Tony for The Shrike on Broadway and then directed and starred in the 1955 film adaptation.

Joy Page and José Ferrer in The Shrike (1955). Joy Page died three months ago on April 18. Her son is the documentary filmmaker Gregory Orr.

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Of course, The Truman Show.

And J.G. Ballard wrote a constructed reality short story that was a turnabout on the generation ship genre, called "Thirteen to Centaurus." It was excellently adaptated for the BBC series Out of the Unknown in 1965. You can catch the whole thing on YouTube at http://tinyurl.com/59dp2g.

Read about it here (http://tinyurl.com/5vlph3) and here (http://tinyurl.com/6c2u8c).

HTML is needed to link to Out of the Unknown.
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