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Originally heard on the radio in 1945, Break The Bank was one of American television’s first popular quiz shows, making its TV debut in 1949.
The show constantly switched from station to station, beginning life at ABC. By the time the show left the air in 1957, it had appeared on all three major networks, NBC, CBS and ABC.
The radio and early TV versions of Break The Bank were hosted by veteran radio announcer/quizmaster Bert Parks (pictured below right).
Bill Cullen took over the hosting job in 1953. Bud Collyer also hosted a daytime version of the show in 1953.
Contestants were drawn from the studio audience and were asked a series of difficult questions after they had chosen a particular category.
They won increasingly larger sums of money for each question they answered correctly and eventually were asked the question that could “break the bank” – which was the cumulative amount of money left over when previous contestants had failed to answer the tough last question.
The “Bank” could be worth as much as $10,000 – an enormous amount of money in the early 1950s.
In order to sustain viewers’ interest in the show, Break The Bank later featured a “Wish Bowl Couple”: These were contestants who were selected after having a postcard they sent in picked out of a fishbowl. The selected viewers then received an all-expenses-paid trip to New York to compete on the show.
In 1956 – again, to keep their viewers watching – the show was renamed Break The $250,000 Bank and offered an even larger prize. Recognised experts were invited to be contestants on the show and answer questions to try and win the huge jackpot. None of the experts ever managed to win the big prize.
In 1976, NBC tried to revive the series with Tom Kennedy as its host, but it was not successful. A syndicated version of Break The Bank, hosted by Jack Barry, also surfaced in 1976, and then again in 1985 with Gene Rayburn as quizmaster.
None of the later version enjoyed the success or longevity of the original series.