in , ,

Contestants Whose Lives Were RUINED by the 1950s Quiz Show Scandals

Have you ever watched a modern-day game show and wondered if any or all of it was rigged? While some of the drama and comedy might be dialed up for the ratings, the substance of most, if not all, contemporary game shows is pretty legit. Sure, there may be the off-occasion when it’s discovered that a contestant somehow managed to figure out a way to cheat, but that’s a lot different than an entire show being fixed.

Flashback to the 1950s, however, and things were much different than they are today. Corporate sponsorships were putting a lot of pressure on game show producers of the day to put out captivating and entertaining episodes that would keep viewers glued to their television sets. In an ill-advised effort to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of sponsors to keep their shows performing well in the ratings, many game show producers decided to take some “creative liberties” to ensure that their programming was as riveting as possible.

It eventually came to light through the shocking revelations of former contestants that several popular quiz shows of the day were secretly fixed by the producers with the outcomes of each show being predetermined from the get-go. Participants were being spoon-fed the answers to questions and competitions were nothing close to being fair. A lack of regulations prohibiting such conspiracies and rampant greed ended up creating one of the biggest television scandals of the 20th century. The masses lost a ton of confidence in the quiz show format as the details of the scandal became matters of public knowledge.

While many of the contestants that got caught up in the 1950s quiz show scandal were willing and complicit parties in the deception, some of them were not. Both guilty and innocent, several contestants that had their names associated with the controversy ended up having their lives ruined. Some, however, managed to eventually recover and make a life for themselves in other meaningful ways. Keep watching to learn more about a few of these contestants whose lives were turned upside down after finding themselves involved in one of the worst trust-breaking television controversies of the mid-1900s.

Charles Van Doren

This college professor, who was born in 1926, was first introduced as a contestant on the quiz show Twenty-One on November 28, 1956. He was to face off against the returning champion Herbert Stempel who had become somewhat unpopular with the viewing audience and sponsors despite having dominated his opponents for quite some time.

Van Doron and Stempel duked it out for a total of four games. Each week, the anticipation steadily built as the show’s viewers eagerly anticipated finding out who would ultimately come out on top. In the end, Van Doren prevailed.

There was actually even a film made about this infamous dual. In 1994s Quiz Show, we see the tipping point of the competition when Stempel is asked to name the movie that won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. Stempel had known the correct answer was the film Marty, seeing as how it was one of his favorites. The show’s producers, however insisted that he intentionally incorrectly answer with On The Waterfront.

Stempel would later reveal that he had a moment in the hot seat when he was struck with a crisis of conscience and almost chose to thwart the producer’s plans by delivering the right answer. In the end, Stempel provided the wrong answer that he was ordered to give. He was then defeated in the following game.

After his defeat, Van Doren embarked on one of the longest and most impressive win streaks in television game show history. In the process, his popularity skyrocketed. He even found himself on the cover of Time Magazine. Not only that, but Twenty-One’s ratings also went through the roof – even surpassing the viewership of I Love Lucy at one point. Van Doren was finally defeated by Vivienne Wax Nearing on March 11, 1957, after netting $129,000 in winnings.

Upset by his defeat, Stempel attempted to become a whistleblower by having a federal investigator look into how the show had been fixed. At first, not much came of this. After the game show, Dotto was abruptly canceled after a former contestant revealed that a notebook he found backstage contained the answers to every question that had been given to the show’s current champion, Marie Winn, Stempel’s allegations began to be taken seriously.

A grand jury was then convened to investigate the topic of game show fixing. Long story short, the cat was out of the bag. Contestants and crew members of various shows, including Twenty-One, testified that they had been involved in rigging these programs. On October 17, 1958, without any prior warning, Twenty-One was canceled.

Van Doren ended up getting dropped by NBC after the scandal came to light even though he had been instrumental in delivering damning and remarkably candid testimony to the congressional committee that had investigated the rigging of Twenty-One and other similar shows.

He also ended up resigning from his post as an English professor at Columbia University. He then joined Encyclopedia Britannica incorporated. In 1959, he became the companies vice-president and wrote and edited several books before finally retiring in 1982. He passed away on April 9, 2019, at the age of 93.

Elfrida Von Nardroff

Born on July 3, 1925, Elfrida was a game show contestant who won a grand total of $220,500 on Twenty-One in 1958. That was the biggest payout that any contestant would ever win on the program. During the Grand Jury proceedings that investigated the alleged fixing of the show, it was revealed that Elfrida had cheated and when it came time for her to testify, she committed perjury.

She had told the grand Jury on November 12, 1958, that she hadn’t received any unfair assistance. When she was questioned about the numerous phone calls she had made with the show’s producer Albert Freedman, she claimed that she was only telling him about location.

In 1962, Von Nardroff pled guilty to 2nd-degree perjury. She was handed a suspended sentence, but she would never again enjoy a prominent position in the spotlight. For the remainder of her life, she would live in the shadows of what she had unethically been involved with in the late 1950s. She passed away at the age of 96 on November 11, 2021, after suffering a stroke in a hospice in New York.

Leonard Ross

This school teacher, lawyer and government official rose to fame for being a child prodigy and record-breaking game show contestant. He was born in July of 1945 but sadly died before turning 40.

In 1956, he won $100,000 on the TV quiz show The Big Surprise when he was just ten years old. A year later, he became the biggest money winner in quiz show history after he won The $64,000 Challenge. Not surprisingly his success had turned him into a celebrity of sorts. Soon enough he was being invited on to a number of different TV shows for interviews.

Ross’s home life was very structured. He spent virtually all of his free time with his studies and didn’t have any friends. At 18, Ross enrolled at Yale. After just one month, Ross had already read up on every topic for his first term and routinely helped out his fellow classmates even though he was four years younger than most of them were.

After graduating, he taught at Harvard and Columbia before working for California Governor Edmund Brown Jr.’s administration. Then, the very thing that made him so very special started turning on him. Ross’s mental state began to deteriorate abruptly. He experienced increasing depression, racing thoughts, and a shortening attention span.

After a brief stint working for the Carter administration, Ross became disillusioned by the fact that he couldn’t enact the kinds of real changes in the world that he had hoped for. He became increasingly depressed and had periods of intense mania.

Ross continued to work as a lawyer and had his name attached to several published books. His mental health, which was in a state of a downward spiral, impeded his ability to keep up with his duties. Many of the books that bear his name required the assistance of ghostwriters since he had the inability to stay focused long enough to complete them on his own.

In his desperation to find relief from his troubles, Ross sought out all sorts of unconventional remedies in an attempt to fix his mental woes. He even treated himself like a human guinea pig, subjecting himself to all sorts of untested and unproven medical procedures and chemical regiments, hoping that he would discover the magical cure for all that plagued him. Unfortunately, nothing that he tried seemed to work.

After having an unsuccessful cingulotomy, a psychosurgerical procedure that snipped a part of his brain stem, hoping that that procedure would cure his ails, Ross commuted suicide at the age of 39 in 1985.

While Ross was never directly implicated in being a willing participant in the quiz show fraud of the late 50s, The $64,000 Challenge and it’s predecessor, The $64,000 Question, were widely known to be rigged. But while some of his quiz-show peers lives were ruined by their involvement in these scandals, it seems that Ross’ life was destroyed by his debilitating mental illness.

It’s truly sad to learn about all of the pain and suffering that Ross went through after his glory days on network television at such a young age. The other contestants that we discussed, however are pretty hard to feel sorry for considering their involvement in the highly controversial quiz show scandal.

Polls from that era indicate that up to 95% of the public knew about the game fixing that was going on back then, but many people have simply forgotten about those events since then.

Were you surprised to learn about all of the ins and outs of the quiz show scandal of the late 1950s? And do you think that the former contestants that were complicit in the deception deserved the fallout that they experienced after the quiz show scandal was revealed to the public? Let us know in the comments down below.

And before you move on to watching another one of our facts-packed videos, be sure to take a moment to show us a little support by giving this video a like and by subscribing to the FactsVerse channel if you haven’t already. While you’re at it, tap the bell to turn on notifications. That way, you can keep up to date with all of our latest and upcoming content.

As always, thanks for watching. We’ll see you soon with more videos covering some of your favorite Hollywood stars, films, and television shows.

Actors Who Got Fired from Their Roles (and Who Replaced Them)

New Details Reveal What David Letterman Is Actually Like Off-Air