This Is Your Life, which was broadcast from 1952 to 1961, is one of the best remembered television series from the 1950s. The format of This is Your Life was based on the rather simple principle--guests were surprised with a presentation of their past life in the form of a narrative read by host Ralph Edwards and reminisces by relatives and friends. But the format was also quite shrewd in its exploitation of television's capacity for forging intimacy with viewers through live transmission and on-air displays of sentimentality.
This is Your Life was the creation of host Ralph Edwards, who was also the host of radio's popular Truth or Consequences. In a 1946 radio broadcast of the latter program Edwards presented a capsule narrative of the past life of a disabled World War II veteran who was having difficulties adjusting to post-war life. Edwards received such positive feedback from this show that he developed the formula for a separate radio program called This is Your Life. It began airing on radio in 1948, and became a live television program in 1952, running on the NBC network until 1961, and reappearing in syndicated versions briefly in the early 1970s and 1980s (during this last period, it was hosted by actor Joseph Campanella).
In its network television years, This is Your Life alternated in presenting the life stories of entertainment personalities and "ordinary" people who had contributed in some way to their communities. Edwards always insisted that the theme of "Love thy neighbor" was clear no matter who was the subject of a particular program. The host was often quoted as saying that the lives under examination must represent something "constructive," must have been "given a lift 'above and beyond the call of duty' and...in turn, he or she has passed on the help to another." For that reason, the emotion expressed by the guest, who having first been surprised by Edwards with the on-air announcement "this is your life!" and then with the appearance of people from his or her past, was justified as a source for audience inspiration rather than voyeurism.
Entertainment personalities who were subjects of the program ranged from broadcast journalist Lowell Thomas (who displayed obvious anger and embarrassment over the "surprise") to singer Nat "King" Cole, from the famous silent film star Gloria Swanson, to contemporary movie favorite Debbie Reynolds. While Edwards claimed that there were few "leaks" to the subjects about the show (if there were leaks, that subject was immediately dropped), there were several notable occasions when guests were informed in advance of their tributes--for example, Eddie Cantor was told because his heart trouble worried producers regarding the show's "surprise factor," and singer-actress Lillian Roth and actress Frances Farmer were told because their well-known troubled pasts were considered subjects too delicate (and perhaps unpredictable) for the program's usual spectacle of surprise.
When This is Your Life reviewed the lives of "ordinary people," Edwards and the show staff relied on help from the individual's community. In some ways the program's coverage of individuals who achieved despite handicaps was ahead of its time when indicating how the subject had surmounted societal bigotry. Not surprisingly, the show shared with its times a Cold War fervor towards conformity and patriotism. For example, in a 1958 program featuring a Japanese-American druggist who had been sent to an internment camp during World War II, the life narrative recounts his struggle to establish a pharmacy practice in a bigoted community. But Edwards praises the subject's behavior in the internment camp when he squelched a camp uprising protesting forced labor. At the end of the show, members from his most recent community embrace him and Edwards announces that Richard Nixon has donated an American flag and Ivory soap has donated money for a flag pole for the town which has overcome racial prejudice.
In the late 1980s, Edwards and his production company made many of the episodes featuring Hollywood celebrities available for re-broadcasting. American Movie Classics cable network channel aired these for several years to accompany screenings of movies from studio-era Hollywood.
Axel Greenberg, Al Pascholl, Richard Gottlieb, Bill Carruthers, Jim Washburn
October 1952-June 1953 Wednesday 10:00-10:30
June 1953-August 1953 Tuesday 9:30-10:00
July 1953-June 1958 Wednesday 9:30-10:00
September 1958-September 1960 Wednesday 10:00-10:30
September 1960-September 1961 Sunday 10:30-11:00
Balling, Fredda. "The World is His Neighbor." TV-Radio Mirror (New York), June 1959.
Hall, Gladys. "Four Magic Words." TV-Radio Mirror (New York), 1954.