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This Was Their Lives

February 09, 1992|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Big-Name Celebrity! This Is Your Life."

From 1952 until 1961, host Ralph Edwards surprised and paid tribute to some of Hollywood's most famous names on the popular NBC series "This Is Your Life."

Cable's American Movie Classics airs select episodes from "This Is Your Life" interspersed among vintage movies from Hollywood's heyday. On any given week, AMC shows Edwards surprising such celebs as Robert Stack, Maureen O'Hara, Laurel and Hardy, Boris Karloff, Frances Farmer, Lou Costello, Ida Lupino, Frank Capra, Ann Blyth, Joel McCrea and Jackie Coogan.

Edwards, a former radio announcer who also developed the long-running game show "Truth or Consequences," created "This Is Your Life" as a radio show in the late '40s. After airing for one season apiece on CBS and NBC Radio, "This Is Your Life" premiered Oct. 1, 1952, as a live weekly series on NBC.

The series, which cracked the Top 20 in its second and third seasons, remained on the air for nine years, returning briefly as a syndicated show in 1971-72. AMC also airs episodes from the later series.

Every installment of "This Is Your Life" began the same. Edwards would surprise some unsuspecting celebrity, who just happened to be not too far from the "This Is Your Life" studio in Hollywood, and he would proudly announce "This Is Your Life."

In the case of Maureen O'Hara, she was arriving at the Pantages Theatre for the Oscars when Edwards caught her. Robert Stack was at the gate of Paramount Pictures when Edwards stepped out of the guard booth to surprise him. Cameras were hidden in the kitchen of a suite at the Hollywood Roosevelt where Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were having a meeting with a producer.

During the commercial break, the honored guest would be transported to the theater where Edwards would read from the star's "This Is Your Life" book, chronologically covering the high and low points in the person's life.

Periodically, voices from the person's past and present would be heard and then the mystery person would come out and tell an anecdote about the guest. Tears would flow.

At the conclusion of each show, Edwards would present the honored guest with a charm bracelet depicting various events in the person's life, as well as a camera and projector to watch the show over and over again. In the case of troubled actress Frances Farmer, who was launching what was to be an unsuccessful comeback after drinking problems and mental illness, the show presented her with an Edsel so she could travel to her Hollywood auditions.

Secrecy was of the utmost importance. But there were some exceptions: Eddie Cantor was informed of his appearance because he had a heart condition and Edwards feared he would have a heart attack. Torch singer Lillian Roth was also informed beforehand because her story--her long battle with alcoholism--was too personal to spring on her. Roth's installment was so popular that it was the only episode to be aired three times. The "This Is Your Life" incident was re-created in the 1955 movie version of Roth's life, "I'll Cry Tomorrow," with Susan Hayward playing Roth.

The one person who was strictly taboo as a subject was Edwards himself. Supposedly, he had told his staff he would fire every one of them if they decided to pull a switch and surprise him.

This week on "This Is Your Life" on AMC: Gale Storm , Sunday at 6:30 a.m. and Thursday at 1:30 p.m. ; Roy Rogers , Sunday at 5:30 and 11:30 p.m. , and Bette Davis , Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

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