The beauty who became a brain
Until she became a panelist on TV’s Front Page Challenge, Toby Robins hadn’t even noticed that newspapers have front pages. Now, thanks to a System and her little red book, she outwits some of the nation’s top newshounds
The year 1938 recalls financial ruin to some people, the birth of a son to others, the building of a summer cottage to someone else. But to Toby Robins, panelist and self-made contemporary historian on television’s Front Page Challenge, 1938 sharply recalls: Roosevelt and Mackenzie King Open Thousand Islands Bridge; Chamberlain at Munich; Czechoslovakia Partitioned; Max Schmeling Defeated by Joe Louis in One Round, Heavyweight Championship.
Similarly, 1905 stands for Alberta and Saskatchewan entering Confederation and Russian forces in Manchuria surrendering to the Japanese; 1946 means a tornado in Windsor, the Paris Peace Conference, the murder trial in Hamilton of Evelyn Dick and the arrival in Ottawa of a new governor-general, Viscount Alexander. It’s all in Toby’s big red notebook.
Front Page Challenge, on which she displays
her encyclopedic memory of the entries in the red notebook, this spring found itself the top-rated show in Canada, with an estimated audience of almost four million people. This audience, larger than most televised hockey games command, watches a half hour that features three stories from newspaper front pages. Using a parlor guessing game technique, a panel of four must identify the news story within four minutes. The panel questions a guest, often hidden, who has some connection with the event. Guests have included Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Errol Flynn, Clement Attlee and Lady Docker. After the guessing period, viewers see pictures of the event, and the guest is interviewed. The show depends on the knowledge the panelists have of big news stories, past and present. Yet Toby, a twenty-eight-year-old actress variously described in print and in fan letters as “the most beauti-
ful girl on television,” “the most beautiful woman in North America” and "the most beautiful actress in the world,” was. when she discovered two and a half years ago that she would be the only woman on Front Page Challenge, the world's worst newspaper reader.
She had never read an entire newspaper front page in her life and rarely even noted the headlines. Her practice with the daily newspaper was to turn to the drama pages, devour every item about the theatre, scan lightly the women's page and any pictures that intervened, then return to her study of the new script she had to learn. “I didn’t.even read the comics!” she mourns.
Now she reads the front page w'ith the attitude of a high school student wretchedly cramming for a physics test. She prowls desolately through the meaningless jungle of world politics, the strewn bodies of a
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Her success in the Challenge tryout, Toby Robins insists, was “the fluke of the century”
catastrophe, the scandal of a slipperyfingered public servant. She reads it all only when well-rested; if she's tired she can’t remember any of it afterward.
In addition to the fact that learning about major news events is sheer drudgery for her, unrelieved by any interest other than self-preservation. Toby has a deep-seated aversion to unpleasantness. This ranges, in her definition, from loud voices in an argument or a display of malice straight through to an Indian massacre. She avoids any descent from the best of all possible worlds by a method she calls “selective memory"—she simply forgets ugliness. Two and a half yeais ago she had succeeded in blocking out of her memory such disheveled events as war (I, II and Korean), earthquakes, plagues, airplane crashes, ship sinkings and an assortment of floods, collapsed bridges, murders and famines.
No one was more monumentally unprepared to be a panelist on Front Page Challenge than Toby Robins on the Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1957 when she first auditioned for the show. Her family howled with amusement when she announced, that she was going to be tested.
"We picked her name off the list of television union members,” explains John Aylesworth, writer and originator of Front Page Challenge. “We had located plenty of newspapermen without difficulty but good-looking women reporters are so rare we realized we would have to give a few actresses a trial. Toby was one of seven or so who had no connection with newspapers.”
“1 know, it's ridiculous,” Toby confided to her husband, Bill Freedman who with his father owns a chain of movie theatres. “But I have nothing to lose by trying.” Even in the unlikely event she won the audition, Toby reasoned, it was only a summer replacement show and wouldn't conflict with the arrival of her baby, expected in January.
The first audition was so informal it was held at the home of the show’s launching producer, Harvey Hart. The Hart living room was packed with newspapermen, gustily talking shop. A woman reporter was there, explaining at one point that she was due to leave for Moscow soon. Toby fluttered girlishly, with the slight English accent she always adopts when alarmed. Four by four, the candidates formed panels and tried to identify dummy challengers representing real events.
When Toby’s turn came, she guessed two of the three offered her panel, astounding everyone present — but especially Miss Robins. The show's producers regarded her as the find of the season; Toby still insists, with glum honesty. that it was the fluke of the century.
“I knew only one front page story, one!" she wails. “At the time of that Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston we had a house guest whose sister played piano there. We spent the whole day after the fire frantically trying to get through on the telephone to find out if she was all right. 1 was only eight at the time but I II never forget those desperate hours. So when the panel narrowed the questioning down to a disaster, I said 'Cocoanut Grove fire?’ and it was right! They didn't find out it was the only disaster Í knew.”
The other event she guessed correctly
was the opening of the first transcontinental railroad in Canada. "1 just happened to remember about it. I'll never know how,” she muses. "Just luck.”
With one exception, luck ever since has been a minor factor in the remark-
able conversion of Toby Robins the expert ornament into Toby Robins the ornamental expert. Mavor Moore, now theatre critic for the Toronto Telegram, had an important hand in Toby’s early career by casting her in a Shakespearean
play when she was only fifteen. He once said of her that the quality which sets her apart from most other actresses is her willingness to work.
Faced with the challenge of Front Page Challenge — after the pyrotechnics
“Beneath a facade of helpless femininity is a mind like a junior Univac“
of the first audition no other woman was ever considered — Toby displayed the quality iVloore admires. She spent hot summer afternoons in newspaper libraries, looking at front pages of fifty years of back issues and laboriously writing cryptic headlines in a notebook.
“Some things rang a bell, distantly,” she recalls. “Names like Dieppe and Dunkirk, I had a fuzzy recollection of them. But almost everything was brandnew news to me.”
In her notebook, she lists events under the heading of the year in which they occurred, an arrangement which accounts for her anxiety, whenever other panelists have passed up this line of questioning, of establishing the date of the front page incident.
Toby’s most frequent remark on the show is an off-hand, “Well, let’s establish when this event occurred. Did it take place in the last twenty years? Between twenty and forty years ago?” If she can narrow it down to, say, 1915, a series of headlines will roll like jackpot symbols in the slot machine memory she has developed — First Transcontinental Telephone Service; Last Spike in Northern Transcontinental; Lusitania Sunk Off Ireland; Ship Endurance Crushed in Antarctic Ice.
The notebook, a handsome red leather loose-leaf affair about as big as a child’s scribbler, is now complete up to yesterday’s submarine launching but Toby began with a tiny black notebook and only one year of headlines. Just before the first Front Page Challenge show, scheduled for June 24, 1957, Toby visited the library of the Toronto Globe and Mail and found microfilms of back issues for 1936.
After two hours of eyestrain she completed a listing of the main headlines of 1936 in her notebook. There was time for no more.
The first Front Page Challenge opened with a jangle of sirens, bells and steamboat whistles and featured a billboard-size Deadline Board with a razzledazzle arrangement of lights, buzzers and clocks — all of which have been eliminated in the present streamlined version. The moderator was Win Barron, voice of Canadian Paramount News for fifteen years, and the first panel consisted of Gordon Sinclair, Toronto Star columnist, Toby and Alex Barris, Toronto Telegram columnist, who were described as “the regulars,” and a guest, Scott Young, Globe and Mail columnist. On the initial show Toby wore a dark halter-neck dress with a spray of brilliants glued to one bare shoulder and another spray pinned in her hair. She looked very brave, spliced into the group of casual knowing men, and behaved with frivolous animation.
“Did it happen in the years between 1925 or 1950?” was the first question she asked the first challenger. She was beginning broad, as good panelists do, but her only hope was to narrow the time down to 1936. She was to ask this same question, or its partner — “Did it happen between 1900 and 1925?” — on every show all summer long. The challenger answered with a yes, Toby then asked about the number of deaths (Sinclair had established that the event was a disaster) and passed the questioning to the next panelist.
When it was her turn again, she hunched forward with an expectant expression, “Was it by any chance the mine disaster in the Maritimes?”
The moderator looked stern. “Which one?”
Toby grabbed at a name that floated through her recall. “Moose River!”
“Toby,” grinned Barron, “you are right.”
She had guessed the first event on the first show, a memorable achievement. “Not so great,” comments Toby wryly. “Moose River happened in 1936. That was the year I had researched, the only year in my notebook.”
Since Toby’s notebook now contains approximately three hundred items, the odds against her being able to remember have lengthened considerably since the opening show. Beneath her facade of helpless femininity her sense of history continues to operate with the eerie, pushbutton facility of a junior Univac.
On one show last winter, Sinclair's first few questions had established that the event occurred in Buffalo at the turn of the century.
"Would this be the shooting of President McKinley in 1901?” asked Toby sweetly. She was right.
The following week Sinclair started off by discovering that the front page story happened near Windsor in the 1920s.
"The time Man o’ War raced with Sir Barton,” said Toby promptly. The men on the panel swivelled in their chairs and stared, as the show’s present moderator Fred Davis announced, “That’s it!”
“Gordon is so marvellous at narrowing things down that I’m in a good spot, sitting next to him,” explains Toby deprecatingly. “And both those things were in my notebook.”
Toby and Gordon Sinclair, whose personality on television is that of a merry elf, are the only two originals remaining on the show. Half way through the first summer, Alex Barris moved off the panel to alternate with Fred Davis as moderator for a few shows. By autumn, when the CBC had decided the show’s popularity merited extending it into the winter schedule, Davis was moderator and Pierre Berton, now a Toronto Star columnist, was a regular panelist on a three-out-of-every-four-shows basis.
When Toby was advised that the show was going to continue into the winter, she confided that she was expecting her
second baby. “They didn’t seem to mind, and 1 didn’t, so we signed the contracts.”
Toby remained unpregnant-looking for an extraordinary long time but gradually almost everyone connected with the show had heard about it. Just two months before the baby was due, Toby started to wear jubilant maternity clothes, designed mainly by herself. Gordon Sinclair eyed her coldly one evening in the make-up room.
“You like that dress?” he asked, with an expression of distaste.
"Sure,” replied Toby. “What’s the matter with it?”
“Looks like a maternity dress,” Sinclair told her.
Toby chuckled delightedly and still finds it endearingly absurd that the country’s best known television columnist was the last person on the show to find out she was having a baby.
Of the ninety editions of Front Page Challenge, Toby has missed only two shows — and neither of them because of the baby. With the timing of a veteran showman, little Peter Freedman arrived the week FPC was off the network because of a political convention.
The first show Toby missed was because she had a chance to appear in a television play, The Hostage, the same night as FPC. With a scrubbed face and grubby, ill-fitting costume, she played the role of a girl member of a guerrilla band and drew rave reviews. Many people had become so accustomed to Toby as a panelist that they had forgotten she is rated one of the finest actresses in the country.
One internationally respected director, Basil Langton, said of her a few years ago, “she’s star material with a promise of greatness . . . headed for a brilliant theatrical career.” Asked three summers in a row to appear in Stratford’s Shakespearean Festival, she accepted only once but drew commendation from the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson. A reviewer who saw her in The Rose Tatoo in a summer theatre in Niagara Falls wrote “. . . outstanding in every scene she plays.”
Toby would give up an appearance on Front Page Challenge without hesitation
for a part in a play and often mutters that she ought to chuck the show entirely because she holds it responsible for the diminished number of acting jobs she has been offered since becoming a panelist.
“The show is fun. I’m playing a game and getting nicely paid for it,” observes Toby. (Her earnings are estimated at $250 a show). “But 1 trained all my life to be an actress and I’m not going to throw that over for money.”
When she has been without acting offers for any extended period, Toby’s spirits sink into despondency. Since she has the attitude that gloom is bad form, no one but her husband is ever aware of these black trials.
In her earlier appearances on Front Page Challenge, there were times when an occasional display of gloom would have been welcomed by at least some members of the audience. But she was vivacious to an exhausting degree, giddily careening her radiant smile off every challenger. “I had been told to sparkle and supply lightness,” she explains. “I sure did.” Many viewers sent her letters which ranged from tactfully critical to malevolent. Toby gets her Front Page Challenge mail just before the show. Often she went on with epithets like "You’re a silly woman” ringing in her head.
Toby as a blond
She would go to Jim Guthro, former high school English teacher who has been producer of the show for two seasons. “1 hear that 1 giggled too much during last week’s show,” she would comment, with a questioning inflection.
Guthro was gentle. "Well, maybe a bit too much during the questioning of that survivor. You couldn’t know that the event was going to turn out to be a tragedy, of course.” Toby would nod thoughtfully.
“We haven’t had any mail complaining about Toby’s giggling for six, eight months,” Guthro said last May as the show was winding up its season. “She’s worked it out perfectly. Her glamor comes from her gaiety, we wouldn't want her to submerge it all. A serious woman wouldn't be a good panelist on this show."
The mail about Toby now deals almost entirely with her hair. Last October Toby arrived in the make-up room two hours before the show, as usual, and humming under her breath pulled out a stocking and some scissors and snipped off the top of the stocking. While the men panelists watched transfixed, she pulled the stocking top over her jet black hair so that it was flattened to her skull and then adjusted on top of that a fluffy blond wig.
"1 bought it in New York,” she advised the flabbergasted witnesses. “I’ve always wanted to be blond, all my life.”
Her appearance on the show that night startled audiences to such a degree that some are still showing the effects of trauma. The mail was so heavy, and so fiercely against Toby’s blondness, that Gene Rebcook, TV publicity chief for the Young and Rubicam advertising agency which handles the major portion of the show, devised a promotion scheme. He sent out pictures of a blond and brunette Toby to television critics and suggested the pictures be used to determine whether the Canadian public prefers Toby Robins blond or brunette.
In two weeks the agency received three hundred letters — six to one in favor of brunette. An air force officer wrote, “She'd draw glances if she had purple hair”; an Ottawa cartoonist suggested,
“Scrap the project. I think she’d make a smashing redhead.” and a man in Calgary protested “If someone has to wear a blond wig, try it on Gordon Sinclair.”
Toby’s explanation of the wig, apart from the childhood longing to be blond, is a practical one. “Because so little of me shows behind that desk we sit at, I try to do something different each show with my hair. Whenever I watch a panel show, I’m interested in what the women are wearing so 1 figure a lot of women might be interested in some different gimmicks in my hair.”
In selfless pursuit of this cause, Toby has worn everything but a nest of robins in her hair. She has tried artificial flowers (one as big as her face drew a howl of protest from Guthro and was removed before the show), tiaras, feathers, jewelry, crowns, sequins and metallic spray. She adorns the upper, above-the-desk part of her person with rhinestones, chiffon scarves and satin stoles with such legerdemain that she wore one basic black sheath five different times and completely fooled the perceptive Mr. Sinclair, who onge wrote “I have never seen her wear the same dress twice.”
In or out of her wig, she is a ceaseless delight to John Aylesworth who, since he created the show, has a mother’s pangs about its components. “She plays the game seriously, which is essential in a panel show,” he recently commented. “Like Gord and Pierre, she really wants to guess the event and tries her best.”
Goodson and Todman, who have created most of the best - rated panel shows in the United States, once defined a successful panel as one that contained a hero, a villain, a heroine and someone either funny or folksy. Says Aylesworth: “On Front Page Challenge we have Sinclair, who is a combination of hero and folksy, he’s everybody's Uncle Hank. We have a superb villain in Pierre Berton, who all but twists his moustache. And we have our heroine, Toby. It’s perfect."
Producer Jim Guthro adds a final thoughtful observation. “Toby is highly intelligent, but she never puts on that she is. She realizes maybe that it causes a barrier with other women if she seems too bright. When Toby gets an answer right, the public accepts it as a guess. Now that she gets so many right answers, that’s quite an asset.”
Some day though, Toby’s multi-million public is going to have to accept the truth. Under that zany spangled tousled hair, wigged or not, there lurks a brain. Right now it’s clicking, "1927, Charles Lindbergh Flies Non-stop to Paris; Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts ...” ★