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Getting It Wrong: Going North

Getting It Wrong: Going North

In 1946, Bert Holland answered wrong in the game show, Truth or Consequence. His penalty: a trip to Yellowknife
By Randy Freeman
Jun 28
From the June 2013 Issue


When Ralph Edwards asked, "What are night rates used for?" poor old Ben Holland should have suspected this was a trick question. Instead, he blurted out the first answer that came to mind. "Nitrates are used as fertilizer, Ralph," he said. ''Wrong answer – night rates are used in telegrams in place of clay rates because they're cheaper!" Edwards bellowed. "You now have to pay the consequence, Bert!" The studio audience watching the exchange roared with laughter and gleeful anticipation, as did the radio listeners at home. Each Saturday evening’s live broadcast of NBC Radio's Truth or Consequence followed the same pattern. Edwards, the host, would invite a member of the Los Angeles audience to "come on down" and answer a skill-testing, often trick question. If the contestant got the answer right he or she won a prize; if not, the player had to "pay the consequence."

Just like the popular parlour game on which this radio program was based, the consequence was usually an embarrassing stunt or onerous task. In the radio version, while the loser performed the stunt for the live audience, the details of his or her actions were described in detail to the radio audience. At some point in the shenanigans, Edwards would ask his trademark question: "Aren't we devils?" A precursor to today's TV reality shows, Truth or Consequence was considered uproariously funny in the 1940s. The show was a weekend favourite of radio listeners for years, becoming the top-ranked audience participation show because of its unpredictable and outlandish stunts. And the butt of the broadcast on Saturday May 4, 1946 was poor Bert Holland, the man who didn't know the difference between "night rates" and "nitrates." Would he be forced to dress in baby clothes? Would he have to wash an elephant? 0r would he simply embarrass himself by having to eat Jell-O with his hands tied behind his back? No, his consequence was much worse than that. Holland had to go north to that mysterious little frontier town with the funny name: Yellowknife. Most people couldn't even find it on a map.

More than 60 years after the show debuted, the name Truth and Consequence itself exists on the map, thanks to one of its own challenges. On a broadcast in 1950, host Ralph Edwards said: "I wish that some town in the United States liked and respected our show so much that it would like to change its name to Truth or Consequence.” It didn't take long for the Hot Springs, New Mexico Chamber of Commerce to figure this was a great idea. Not only would this sleepy little town on the map halfway between Albuquerque, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas get lots of free publicity but also people would finally be able to distinguish it from the towns of Hot Springs in Arkansas, California, Montana, North Carolina, or the more than 100 other places in the United States that go by that descriptive name. The community voted four-to-one in favour of the name change and soon became Truth or Consequence, New Mexico. The town still holds a yearly Ralph Edwards Fiesta and, until 1999, the star attraction at this celebration was a parade featuring the former radio show host himself. The consequence for this resort town has been nothing but positive.

But was Bert Holland as lucky when he paid his consequence of a visit to Yellowknife? Back in 1946, spectacular gold discoveries in the Yellowknife area meant that a lot of people had heard of the place, even if they were hard pressed to actually pinpoint it on a map. The little mining town was just somewhere up there in that vast Canadian wilderness, lost amongst the polar bears and igloos. But people knew that Yellowknife was synonymous with gold and Holland's marching orders were to find that gold and bring it on down to sunny southern California. If he returned to Los Angeles with a sample of Yellowknife gold, he would win $1 ,000 – a tidy sum in the 1940s. It was believed this shouldn't be too difficult a task; gold was said to be everywhere and it should be easy enough to pick up a chunk. But the producers of Truth or Consequence had done their research. They knew that, contrary to this popular opinion, Yellowknife's streets were not paved with gold, at least not with gold that can be easily seen with the naked eye. In the Precambrian shield country of the frontier town, the gold was most often just specks in quartzite veins. To find some, Holland would need the keen eyes and bush skills of a genuine Northern prospector. The show arranged for Holland's flight and accommodations in Yellowknife and hired local prospector Mike Mitto to take the American visitor out to the Salmita Claims near Courageous Lake to help him find that gold. Although the Salmita area wasn't a gold mine at that time, it was a popular place to stake claims. A mine would be constructed five years later, but wouldn 't produce any gold until 1983. Nonetheless, Holland was on his way to find gold. And you can't send a Californian north without proper clothing. The producers found for him the perfect outfit: a massive fur coat worn by comedian Andy Devine (Roy Rogers' western films, Jack Benny show regular) in one of his Arctic skits.

Holland's arrival in Yellowknife on May 6, two days after the show aired, was a well-publicized event. Many residents came out to meet his airplane and it wasn't just to show this southerner some real Northern hospitality. They wanted to get a look at that Andy Devine costume, too. Holland quickly discovered that it was an unseasonably warm early May in the Northwest Territories. Igloos and polar bears were nowhere to be seen – it only took a short while for Bert to figure out that he would have to go much farther north to find those. And the fur coat was far too warm, so he quickly shed it. Like visiting royalty, Holland was the centre of attention in town that week. He had a busy schedule of meet-and-greets and special suppers held in his honour. He even found time to go into the bush with Mitto and find that gold. Mitto was one of the first prospectors to stake claims around Matthews Lake, just south of Courageous Lake where he took Holland. Mitto proved himself to be a skilled gold seeker and bushman, making him the perfect guide for Holland.

Also in Holland's honour, history was made in Yellowknife on May 11, 1946. The producers of Truth or Consequence asked for a live radio feed from the North so that their contestant could describe to the millions of fans of the program just what it was like to be way up there. Live feed from the North had never been done before, but the Royal Corp of Signals figured out a way. From their transmitter building at the Ptarmigan Mine, Holland's words of praise for the North were soon being transmitted to Los Angeles and from there, across the continent and around the world on NBC. The following Saturday, the game-show participant was back in Los Angeles. He once again appeared before the Truth or Consequence audience. This time, he brought with him a chunk of quartzite containing specks of genuine Northern gold to prove to Ralph Edwards that he'd paid his consequence. Having had a great adventure. Holland was awarded $1,000. He never again had any difficulty pointing out Yellowknife on a map.