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November 05, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Rosenberg, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is the Times television critic.

IT WAS THE best and worst of times, the age of wisdom and folly, the epoch of "The $64,000 Question" and "The $64,000 Challenge." It was the season of "Twenty-One," the spring of "Tic Tac Dough," the winter of "Dotto."

We had excited quizmasters before us, contestants in isolation booths and cash prizes reaching $264,000. We had crookedness before us.

The television quiz scandals of the late 1950s were the most bizarre, disillusioning chapter in the history of broadcasting. These shocking disclosures of deceit became the big, looping signature of an entire decade, exposing the cynicism of television entrepreneurs who were able to control everything except their own fears of losing their audience. Also exposed were the incredible apathy of trusting Americans and the frailties of winning contestants who were fed answers or manipulated so that their fates were predetermined.

Not all contestants were swept up in the hoax, and those who were co-opted were mostly decent citizens. By rationalizing their roles, however, they became partners in this massive fraud.

October and November mark the 30th anniversary of Congressional hearings on the scandals, hearings that capped this tawdry episode of contemporary Americana. One of many winning contestants who testified there--after his earlier attempts to blow the whistle were ignored or ridiculed--was the Rev. C. E. (Stoney) Jackson Jr., now old and penniless in Denver, Colo. "The scandals," Stoney says today, "started me on the road to cynicism."

Stoney Jackson had two ambitions in the fall of 1956. The first was to become a best-selling author. A windy character who read the classics, fancied himself a humorist and philosopher and eagerly shared his folksy erudition with his fellow citizens in Tullahoma, Tenn., Stoney was thinking big at 43, bigger than "Sports Sermon," the column he was writing for the twice-weekly Tullahoma News. Stoney was planning to make his literary mark by writing a novel that would present his humorous views on contemporary America.

Ordained as a minister in the Disciples of Christ Church, Stoney had another dream: to be a Protestant Father Flanagan working with wayward boys, possibly through sports. Sports was a passion with Stoney, who played freshman football in college and acquired his flat nose from 130 bouts as an amateur welterweight.

Following his father into the clergy, Stoney had run through a string of small-town ministerial assignments in the South. After a childless marriage that he jokingly dismissed as "a great recommendation for celibacy," he returned to Tullahoma to live with his parents in the two-bedroom home they had built in 1949. Occasionally, he'd fill in for other pastors in the area and devise ambitious schemes.

One was the staging of Christian Bowls, football games on the order of the Sugar, Orange and Cotton Bowls. Stoney began modestly, with Tennessee high school teams, intending to use the profits to build a Christian boys' home. Instead, he built a $25,000 deficit. Soon he had another plan, however, one he hoped would earn him money to pay his debt. Stoney set his sights on "The $64,000 Question."

It had been more than a year since the "The $64,000 Question" was introduced on CBS in 1955, ushering in America's era of big-money quizzes with a flair that hooked viewers immediately. Contestants competed separately in isolation booths while high-tension music ticked off the seconds as they attempted to answer questions held in a vault and then handed to the emcee by a dark-suited banker. What theater.

Sponsored by Revlon, "The $64,000 Question" was an immediate smash, transfixing a nation enthralled by amassing riches vicariously through television. So mesmerizing was it that much of America came to a halt on Tuesday nights when emcee Hal March appeared on camera to start the show.

CBS capitalized on its own creation by adding "The $64,000 Challenge" less than a year later, pitting the older show's biggest winners against new contestants. Other big-money quiz shows began appearing, too, but most quickly died. Then in the fall of 1956, NBC launched "Twenty-One," which would ultimately approach the success of "The $64,000 Question" and be exposed as a hoax--the biggest hoax of all.

Quiz shows had become a national ritual, with Americans having found a new set of heroes in these golden contestants who seemed to embody the American ethic of achievement through hard work, ingenuity and brain power. The national addiction to "The $64,000 Question" extended to Stoney, who was captivated by the show's gaudy payoffs to colorful personalities. Would he ever be one of them? That's what he wondered after writing to "The $64,000 Question" in New York, advertising his knowledge of boxing and football.

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