I was 10 years old when my father won the jackpot. He was my hero. It was in the spring of 1955, and the money he won (almost a thousand dollars!) saved our family once more from the wolf pacing hungrily at our door.
You Bet Your Life—the quiz show vehicle for film star comic Groucho Marx—was one of the most popular programs on television, although we children (my younger brother, younger sister and I) had never seen it. There was no TV set in our house. Our parents had banned the “idiot box” that would keep us from developing any creativity of our own. We were allowed, though, to lie on the floor in front of our giant old radio to listen, entranced, to Sgt. Preston of the Yukon or The Green Hornet. To my parents, those broadcasts encouraged imagination.
Then one day my mother came across an advertisement in the local Canoga Park newspaper announcing “open auditions” for the Groucho show. My father jumped at the opportunity. Roger Alexander Hamilton was, above all, a very confident fellow.
Early on the morning of audition day my mother saw him off with a kiss on the lips as we three kids stood around and watched. Pa climbed into the turquoise blue wreck of a Ford station wagon (the one that would lose its hood on the Hollywood Freeway a few years later) and pulled out of the driveway. He’d left very early (a wise precaution, given his propensity for getting lost even in our little town). My brother, sister and I ran off to play, fairly oblivious to the import of the event. My mother must have been a bundle of nerves, fretting and worrying about our dire financial state.
When Father returned late that afternoon, we all crowded around, asking a jillion questions. At heart a showman, he played the scene for all it was worth, hanging his head dejectedly and sadly shaking it back and forth…until he suddenly looked up with a broad grin and announced, “I’M IN!!”
My mother spent our last hundred dollars to buy him a new suit for the occasion.
Why did the producers select him? My guesses: his showbiz personality; his screwball job description (inventor of and professional pitchman for a toy called ‘the Zoomerang’); and his looks, which fell somewhere between Ronald Reagan and JFK.
Some weeks later, the whole family got to go to the filming of the show—but we weren’t allowed to sit out in the audience. We had to stand backstage and wait. My brother Rollin and I were good. At that age he took his cues from me, and I’d had enough experience in front of TV and movie cameras to know how to behave. Janet, on the other hand, was only three or four, and whined and clutched at my mother’s skirt while Ma waited stoically for the outcome. We couldn’t hear much, just an occasional burst of laughter, until the final moment when we heard our father’s voice shout out “MONA LISA!” before the “thinking-the-answer-over” music could even begin — and then whole crowd as it broke into shouts and applause.
There is some irony to end the tale. By the time the program aired, we had already gone through Pa’s winnings. A week or two later, the orders for Zoomerangs started to pour into our mailbox. Hundreds of them, from all over the country. The local postmistress finally called and said we had to come and make a pick-up. My mother filled two laundry baskets and brought them home. But since we had no inventory, nor enough capital to buy the raw materials to make more, the biggest boom in the history of the Zoomerang industry went unfulfilled. What we did have, however, was my father’s moment of triumph to remember forever…
And now this: recently, one of Hit Woman’s younger readers wrote to tell me that he had spent a great deal of time on the web Googling names, events and facts that were unfamiliar to him. This is what he ran across: a YouTube video of the entire episode, which is here. My father’s segment begins at 9:10 — but be sure to watch the last few minutes of the program for the jackpot finale!
A full history of Zoomerangs in Chapter 4 of Hit WomanShare this: