The Three Robert Leightons
Behind the scenes at To Tell the Truth, the last of the great New York game shows.
I had long ago misplaced the cue cards, but when I visited Robert at his apartment, I brought over one memento of that day I had found in the basement: an orange slab of cardboard, marked “2” in magic marker. Kitty Carlisle gave it to me at the conclusion of the show after voting for me. He lit up seeing this and some materials the show had sent me as we remembered a day that changed our lives—and that also marked the end of the New York game show era.
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Later that afternoon, after the last of the five tapings, the cast and crew secretly marked the show’s demise. To Tell the Truth had run every season since 1969 in syndication, but by 1978—1,715 syndicated episodes later—audience tastes were changing.
New York City was washed up as the game show mecca. Eventually all the major remaining game shows ended or moved out West, lured by the celebrities and modern—and cheaper—facilities in dedicated television studios far from the crowded streets of New York. Many of the West Coast productions—take for example The Gong Show—had a very different Californian vibe. Even New York City game show veterans such as Bill Cullen eventually accepted the inevitable and packed up and headed west. Since To Tell the Truth’s last run in New York, the Los Angeles area has dominated the few enduring big game shows, with Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune filmed on the West Coast. Who Wants To Be a Millionaire is a lonely New York holdout.
As producers sold different seasons of To Tell the Truth to regional markets to air on different days, they did not announce its end. On the very last show, Garagiola cryptically signed off with what he called a different kind of goodbye “known only to us.”
Even decades later, Garagiola waxes nostalgic. “The honesty and integrity of that show is what made it click,” he said. “There was no ‘reality,’ no staging, no this, no that, it was just straight fun.”
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Watching our episode at his Upper East Side apartment, Robert Leighton noted Peter’s ease at deflecting the panel’s questions with humor. “He’s just audacious in the way he’s answering the questions, he’s so glib,” Robert said. When we spoke by phone, Peter admitted some additional preparation that facilitated his easy style: "I think I got high between the rehearsal and the show.”
After we stumped the panel, Peter announced his real identity on air: “My name is Peter Lehrman, and I really would like to write comedy.” Peter, in the end, became an IT talent recruiter. I became a journalist for Reuters, posted all over Europe and Russia.
Robert had once hoped to make ventriloquism an important part of his career. After we stumped the panel, he returned alone with his puppet Woody to tell corny jokes. When the old recording got to this part of the show, Robert cringed: “This I have a hard time watching.”
Garagiola gave him the thumbs up: “He’s really a clever young man.” Peter, his fellow contestant, was less charitable. “May you live to be as old as your material,” Robert recalled Peter writing him in a letter after the show. “But he was right. I was taking things from the back of joke books.” All these years later, Robert recalled Peter’s disdain. "Peter was completely unimpressed with me," he said. "He couldn't believe that I was on the show."
Robert walked me over to his apartment office where cabinets hold rows of his inked, single-frame cartoon drawings. A decade ago Robert sold a cartoon to The New Yorker for the first time. Every week since, he has submitted 10 cartoons, by fax or by hand, to cartoon editor Robert Mankoff in The New Yorker offices every Tuesday. The magazine has published about 80 of his cartoons in the past decade.
“It wasn't obvious to us three kids at the time, but we were witnessing the end of an era,” he said, reflecting on our experience. “I mean, Kitty Carlisle walks out wearing an evening gown. For a game show. How long could they keep that up?”
Adam Tanner has been a journalist with Reuters News Agency since 1995. He is now on leave serving as a fellow at Harvard University's Department of Government and writing a book on the business of personal data.