Gene Rayburn 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. Born Eugene Jelyevich in Christopher, Illinois, he was the only child of Croatian immigrants. Rayburn's father died when was he was an infant and his mother moved to Chicago, where she met Milan Rubessa. After she married Rubessa, Rayburn took the name Eugene Rubessa /ruːˈbeɪʃə/. Rayburn graduated from Lindblom Technical High School and later from Knox College. While a student at Lindblom, he was senior class president and acted in the plays Robert of Sicily, and Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. Rayburn was married to Helen Ticknor from 1940 until her death in October 1996. They had one child, a daughter, Lynn. After Lynn's birth, Rayburn enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force and served in World War II. When selecting the name Rayburn, Gene chose it by randomly sticking a finger in the phone book.
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 one of the first two-man teams in morning radio. 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. Breaking into television as the original announcer on Steve Allen's Tonight, Gene 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. 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. In an uncredited role (he reportedly did not want his name to appear), Rayburn played a TV interviewer in the 1959 movie, It Happened to Jane starring Doris Day. Rayburn was also a frequent panelist in the 1960's and 1970's on What's My Line? and To Tell the Truth, where the interviewing skills he had burnished on Monitor made him a popular questioner.
From 1962 to 1969 Rayburn hosted The 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 cancelled in 1969 to make room for the topical, short-lived game show Letters to Laugh-In. Goodson-Todman revived The Match Game in 1973 for CBS, this time as a California-based game show. Gene 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 in daytime television history. From 1973 to 1977, The Match Game was #1 among all daytime network game shows — three of those years it was the highest rated of all daytime shows.
The daytime revival of The 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 night-time version, Match Game PM, aired from 1975 to 1980. Rayburn was nominated for two Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Host or Hostess in a Game or Audience Participation Show. 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). In 1983, a year after the syndicated Match Game disappeared, the show was revived as part of theMatch 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 used 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 #1 among daytime television programs, and presented him with a needlepoint bag. During his time in the Air Force, Rayburn was trained in meteorology and occasionally demonstrated his knowledge of the weather on Match Game. Rayburn was also a dedicated tennis enthusiast, and often made subtle references to the sport on the show.
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 1970sMatch Game, Gene and wife Helen appeared on the game show Tattletales, hosted by Bert Convy. Three years after the original Match Game was cancelled, 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.