Gene Rayburn

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Gene Rayburn
Gene Rayburn the match game.jpg
Rayburn hosting the Match Game in 1964.
BornEugen Peter Jeljenic
(1917-12-22)December 22, 1917
Christopher, Illinois, U.S.
DiedNovember 29, 1999(1999-11-29) (aged 81)
Gloucester, Massachusetts, U.S.
OccupationGame show host, announcer, actor
Years active1953–1998
Known forMatch Game
Helen Rayburn (née Ticknor)
(m. 1940; her death 1996)
AwardsLifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences

Gene Rayburn (December 22, 1917 – November 29, 1999) was an American radio and television personality. He is best known as the host of various editions of the popular American television game show Match Game for over two decades.

Early life[edit]

Born Eugen Peter Jeljenic[1] in Christopher, Illinois, the younger of two children of Croatian immigrants. Rayburn's father died when he was an infant and his mother moved to Chicago, where she met Milan Rubessa. After she married Rubessa on November 10, 1919, Rayburn took the name Eugene Rubessa /rˈbʃə/.[2] He had an elder brother, Alfred, who was later known as Milan Rubessa Jr. Rayburn graduated from Lindblom Technical High School and attended Knox College. At Lindblom, he was senior class president and acted in the plays Robert of Sicily and Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.[3]

Rayburn enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces and served in World War II. Gene chose the stage name "Rayburn" by randomly sticking his finger in the phone book.[4]


Radio career[edit]

Rayburn and Finch, 1951

Before appearing in television, Rayburn was a very successful actor and radio performer. He had a popular morning drive time radio show in New York City, first with Jack Lescoulie (Anything Goes) and later with Dee Finch (Rayburn & Finch) on WNEW (now WBBR). Radio history pegs Rayburn's pairings with Lescoulie and Finch as helping to popularize the now-familiar morning drive radio format.[4] When Rayburn left WNEW, Dee Finch continued the format with Gene Klavan. Rayburn later landed the lead in the Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie when Dick Van Dyke left the production to star in his eponymous classic sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show. At one point in his stage career, Rayburn's stand-in was future Match Game panelist Charles Nelson Reilly.[citation needed]

Television career[edit]

Breaking into television as the original announcer on Steve Allen's Tonight, Rayburn began a long association with game show producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman in 1953. He first appeared on Robert Q. Lewis's The Name's the Same; Rayburn frequently sat in for regular panelist Carl Reiner, lending a comic touch to the panel. In 1955, he took over as host of the summer replacement game show Make the Connection from original host Jim McKay (and appearing with his WNEW morning show successor Gene Klavan). From there he hosted shows such as Choose Up Sides, Dough Re Mi, and the daytime version of Tic Tac Dough. On radio, Rayburn became one of the many hosts of the NBC program Monitor in 1961 and remained with the show until 1973.[citation needed]

In an uncredited role (he reportedly did not want his name to appear), Rayburn played a TV interviewer in the movie It Happened to Jane (1959) starring Doris Day. Rayburn was also a frequent panelist in the 1960s and 1970s on What's My Line? and To Tell the Truth, where the interviewing skills he had burnished on Monitor made him a popular questioner.[citation needed]

Match Game[edit]

From 1962 to 1969, Rayburn hosted Match Game. In the original version, which aired from New York on NBC, Rayburn read questions to two panels, each consisting of a celebrity and two audience members. The questions in the original game were ordinary, like "Name a kind of muffin," or "John loves his ____________." Rayburn usually played it straight, though he would make jokes as the situation warranted. Because it was a live show, very few episodes were recorded for posterity; only four are known to exist. The show was canceled in 1969 to make room for the topical, short-lived game show Letters to Laugh-In.

Goodson-Todman revived Match Game in 1973 for CBS, this time as a California-based game show. Rayburn returned as host and introduced a new format in which two contestants tried to match the responses of six celebrities. Writer Dick DeBartolo, a veteran of the original show, created funnier and often risqué questions ("After being hit by a steamroller, Norman had to slide his ____________ under the door."). Rayburn reveled in this freewheeling new approach and often indulged in funny voices, banter with the celebrities, and mock arguments with the technical crew. Millions tuned in, and it soon became the highest-rated show on daytime television.[5]

From 1973-77, Match Game was number one among all daytime network game shows—three of those years it was the highest rated of all daytime shows. The daytime revival of Match Game, which featured regular panelists Richard Dawson, Brett Somers, and Charles Nelson Reilly, ran until 1979 on CBS and another three years in first-run syndication. A concurrent nighttime version, Match Game PM, aired from 1975 to 1981. Rayburn was nominated for two Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Host or Hostess in a Game or Audience Participation Show.[citation needed]

During the years when The Match Game was taped in Los Angeles, Rayburn lived in Osterville, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, and would commute to California every two weeks and tape 12 shows over the course of a weekend (five daytime shows and one nighttime show per taping day).[4]

In 1983, a year after the syndicated Match Game disappeared, the show was revived as part of the Match Game–Hollywood Squares Hour, with Rayburn hosting the Match Game segment and sitting on the panel of the Hollywood Squares segment (a unique case of a host directly participating in the gameplay). The show lasted nine months on NBC. Rayburn knitted socks as a publicity stunt during his time on Rayburn and Finch, and later became proficient at needlepoint; he passed the time on long plane rides from New York to Los Angeles with his hobby. In 1974, Goodson made a surprise on-air appearance to congratulate Rayburn on making the show number-one among daytime television programs, and presented him with a bag in which to carry his needlepoint.[citation needed] During his time in the Air Force, Rayburn was trained in meteorology and occasionally demonstrated his knowledge of the weather on Match Game.[citation needed]

Other game shows/television appearances[edit]

During and between his Match Game years, Rayburn served as guest panelist on two other Goodson-Todman shows, What's My Line? and To Tell the Truth. Also during the run of the 1970s Match Game, Gene and wife Helen appeared on the game show Tattletales, hosted by Bert Convy. Three years after the original Match Game was canceled, Rayburn hosted the short-lived Heatter-Quigley Productions show The Amateur's Guide to Love. In 1983 he hosted a pilot for Reg Grundy Productions called Party Line, which later became Bruce Forsyth's Hot Streak.

Rayburn appeared as a contestant during a tournament of game show hosts on the original version of Card Sharks in 1980 and was a celebrity guest on Password Plus several times between 1980 and 1982. He appeared on Fantasy Island as a game show host—he and another host played by Jan Murray were game show rivals who vied to win the woman they both loved by creating the ultimate game show, with life-or-death consequences. He once hosted a local New York City–based show on WNEW-TV (now WNYW), Helluva Town, and between game show stints in 1982–83 he returned to WNEW as host of a weekly local talk/lifestyles show called Saturday Morning Live. He ended his brief tenure to return as co-host of The Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour.[citation needed]

Rayburn's last game show hosting duties were on 1985's Break the Bank (he was replaced by Joe Farago after 13 weeks), and The Movie Masters, an AMC cable game show that ran from 1989-90.[citation needed] Just before production was to begin on a new Rayburn-emceed Match Game revival in 1985, an Entertainment Tonight reporter publicly disclosed that Rayburn was much older than many believed. Rayburn had trouble finding jobs after that, blaming the reporter for revealing his age and subjecting him to age discrimination. Rayburn was a guest star on the 1979–02-24 episode of The Love Boat playing a love interest to Fannie Flagg.[citation needed]

Rayburn portrayed himself on a Saturday Night Live sketch in 1990, which featured Susan Lucci (as her character from All My Children, Erica Kane). He returned as one of Kane's many previous husbands, to stop another marriage (officiated by his old Choose Up Sides co-star Don Pardo) with the host of a game show portrayed by Phil Hartman. He also continued to make appearances on talk shows throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, usually to discuss classic game shows, including appearances on Vicki! and The Maury Povich Show and The Late Show with Ross Shafer. Coincidentally, Shafer would host the 1990 Match Game revival. Around the same time, he also made an appearance on New York shock jock Howard Stern's late-night TV variety show, as one of the stars of his Hollywood Squares parody, Homeless Howiewood Squares, in which homeless people were supposedly the contestants.[citation needed]

Rayburn co-hosted—with his wife and Peter Emmons—the Drum Corps International finals of the DCI Championship for two years, which were telecast nationwide on PBS from Philadelphia's Franklin Field in 1976, and Denver's original Mile High Stadium in 1977.[citation needed]

Personal life and death[edit]

Rayburn was married to Helen Ticknor from 1940 until her death in October 1996. They had one child, a daughter, Lynne. One of his last TV appearances was a 1998 interview with Access Hollywood intended to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Match Game. Portions of the interview have been rebroadcast on Game Show Network, which in 2001 showed portions of another previously unaired interview during the first airing of its Match Game Blankathon.[citation needed]

Though in poor health, Rayburn appeared in person to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. A month later, on November 29, 1999, he died of congestive heart failure at his daughter's home in Gloucester, Massachusetts at age 81.[6] He was cremated and his ashes spread in the garden of his daughter's home.

Rayburn's final TV appearance was an interview for the A&E Biography episode profiling the life of his longtime boss, Mark Goodson; though taped in late 1999, the episode itself did not air until June 4, 2000, several months after Rayburn had passed away.


  1. ^ The Matchless Gene Rayburn, Bear Manor Media, Albany, Georgia © 2015; ISBN 978-1-59-393865-9 by Adam Nedeff
  2. ^ Clothier, Gary Lee (August 11, 2009). "Mr. Know-It-All: '18 Wheels of Justice' series". Daily Breeze.
  3. ^ Lindblom Technical High School, Class yearbook January 1936
  4. ^ a b c Severo, Richard (December 4, 1999). "Gene Rayburn, 81, Longtime TV Host of 'The Match Game'". The New York Times. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  5. ^ Skutch, Ira (January 1, 1990). I Remember Television: A Memoir (1st ed.). Scarecrow Press. p. 224. ISBN 978-0810822719. (Subscription required (help)).
  6. ^ Woo, Elaine (December 3, 1999). "Gene Rayburn; Hosted Television's 'Match Game'". Los Angeles Times.

External links[edit]

Media offices
Preceded by
Match Game host
1962–1969, 1973–1982, 1983–1984
Succeeded by
Ross Shafer
Preceded by
Merv Griffin
Play Your Hunch host
Succeeded by
Robert Q. Lewis
Preceded by
Jack Barry
Tic Tac Dough host
Concurrent with Jay Jackson and Win Elliot
Succeeded by
Bill Wendell
Preceded by
The Tonight Show announcer/sidekick
Succeeded by
Franklin Pangborn