"Twenty-One" may have had a movie made about it, but in the late 1950s, "The $64,000 Question" was the most popular big money quiz show.
It was based on a radio game show called "Take It or Leave It," in which the value of the questions started at $1 and kept doubling until reaching the $64 question. Like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" almost 45 years later, it premiered during the summer (June 7, 1955) and became an instant hit.
Hal March was the host, with Lynn Dollar as the assistant (her main job was leading the contestants in and out of the isolation booths). Professor Bergen Evans of Northwestern University served as the question authority.
Contestants appeared one at a time. Prior to their appearance, they picked a subject in which they were an expert and answered a series of increasingly complex, multi-part questions about that subject. The grand prize kept doubling with each correct answer up to $64,000. Contestants had the opportunity to quit after each correct answer, since they would be risking all previous winnings on the next question. After the $4,000 level, to heighten the dramatic tension and the ratings, contestants would only answer one question a week and wouldn't inform the host of their decision on whether to continue or not until they reappeared on next week's episode.
At the $8,000 level and above, the contestants were placed in isolation booths; also, at that point, if they missed a question, they were awarded a Cadillac as a consolation prize.
The first $64,000 question asked on the show involved naming five dishes and two wines served at a 1939 banquet held by King George VI. The contestant was correct.
The second $64,000 winner was a young psychologist named Joyce Brothers, who, when the producers turned her down as a contestant with psychology as her expert subject, switched to boxing. By this time, the sponsor, Revlon, was exerting a great deal of influence over the contestant selection and the questions. Head of the company Charles Revson didn't like her, and ordered the producers to make the questions harder in order to get rid of her, but they were unsuccessful; she was even able to answer a question about boxing referees.
Eventually, instead of trying to trip unwanted contestants up with exceptionally difficult questions, the producers began giving the answers in advance to the more desirable contestants.
When this practice, simultaneously carried on by many other shows, finally came to light, "The $64,000 Question" was canceled quickly; it last aired on November 2, 1958.
A new version of the show, now called "The $128,000 Question" and moving faster than the previous one-question-a-week format, aired from 1976 to 1978. Mike Darrow hosted the first season, with Alex Trebek taking over for the second. However, most of the suspense had been eliminated by turning it from a live show in network prime time into a syndicated program, and it didn't help that the producers were no longer able to give contestants the answer ahead of time.