Gene Rayburn Biography

Gene Rayburn was the consummate game show host. He got his start in television on the original Tonight Show and was a Broadway actor. However, his greatest fame came as the host of Match Game the number one game show of the 1970s.

Born Eugene Rubessa in 1917 in the small town of Christopher, Illinois, Gene Rayburn dreamed of becoming, of all things, an opera singer. He moved to New York, became a page for NBC, and eventually served time in the Air Force during World War II.

After the war, Rayburn found work in radio as a part of a comedy team on a New York station. Eventually, he became the announcer for a new program called The Tonight Show, which was hosted at the time by Steve Allen. Rayburn participated in comedy sketches and gave news reports, all the while honing his comedic craft. In 1957, both of them left the Tonight Show to focus on a prime time show which Allen had developed.

Rayburn's experiences led to Broadway, where he took part in the musical "Bye Bye Birdie". It was here that he would meet Charles Nelson Reilly, an actor that was an understudy of Dick Van Dyke. Reilly and Rayburn became friends and forged a partnership of sorts that would last for years to come.

Rayburn first hosted a game show in the early 1950s, but his real breakthroughs came in the late 1950s, when he was tapped to host "Tic Tac Dough" for a short stint. His successs led to a three year period as the host of "Dough Re Mi." In 1962, for the first time, he was picked to host a new show called "The Match Game." It ran on television until 1969 and was a great hit with daytime TV viewers. Many credit Rayburn's lively banter with his contestants, as well as his humor, as a big part of the show's success.

The popularity of "Match Game" in the 1960s was surpassed by its popularity in the 1970s. Beginning in 1973, CBS had Rayburn host the show and provided him with a lively assortment of panelist celebrities, including Brett Somers, Richard Dawson, Charles Nelson Reilly, Fannie Flagg, and countless others.

Pitting two contestants against each other, the show challenged them to provide answers to somewhat risque and always humorous questions. Once they provided an answer, the celebrities would then see if their previously written answers matched that of the contestant. Charles Nelson Reilly said that being on Match Game was not a job, "but a social engagement." Indeed, Rayburn often roamed the stage with his trademark microphone, tossing in humorous quips and making crazy observations throughout the show.

The goofy humor and laughs generated by the show made Rayburn and his cohorts household names. The show was eventually cancelled by CBS.

Rayburn hosted other game shows for short stints, including a show called "The Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour" with Jon Bauman. He was even suggested as the host for a revival of "Match Game" in 1990. Sadly, network executives felt he was too old, and they sought a younger host. The show was a flop.

Rayburn was married to his wife Helen for 56 years. He passed away in November of 1999, at the age of 81, from congestive heart failure.

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