Eugene Peter Jeljenic or Gene Rayburn (December 22, 1917 – November 29, 1999) was an American radio and television personality best known for hosting Match Game. Born Eugene Rubessa (pronounced /ruːˈbeɪʃə/) in Christopher, Illinois, he was an only child of Croatian immigrants and graduated from Knox College.
He chose his stage name by randomly pointing at a page in the telephone book, after being told Rubessa sounded "too Italian".
Born Eugene Peter Jeljenic 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. He had an elder brother, Alfred, who was killed when Rayburn was a child, and a younger half-brother, Milan Rubessa Jr. Rayburn graduated from Lindblom Technical High School and attended Knox College. At Lindblom, he was a senior class president and acted in the plays Robert of Sicily and Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.
After three years as a page and tour guide at NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, Rayburn began announcing at various radio stations, eventually landing back in New York at WNEW. He 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.
Before appearing on television, Rayburn was an actor and radio performer. He had a morning radio show in New York City, first with Jack Lescouile (Anything Goes) and later with Dee Finch (Rayburn & Finch) on WNEW (now WBBR). Rayburn's pairing with Lescouile and Finch helped to popularize the now-familiar morning drive radio format. When Rayburn left WNEW, Dee Finch continued the format with Gene Klavan. Rayburn later took the lead role in the Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie when Dick Van Dyke left the production to star in The Dick Van Dyke Show. At one point in his stage career, Rayburn's stand-in was future Match Game panelist Charles Nelson Reilly.
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. 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 he show until 1973.
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 frequently panelist in the 1960s and 1970s on What's My Line? and To Tell the Truth.
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 plays it straight, though he would make jokes as the situation warranted. Because it was a live show, very few episodes were recorded; only four are known to exist. The show was canceled in 1969 to make room for the tropical , 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 risque 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. It soon became the highest-rated show on daytime television.
From 1973-77, Match Game was number one among all daytime network game shows---three of those years was the highest rated of all daytime shows. The daytime revival of Match Game which featured 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 P.M. 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.
During the years when The Match Game was taped in Los Angeles, Rayburn lived in Osterville, Massachusetts on Cape Cod and would commute 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 The Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour with Rayburn hosting the Natch Game segment and sitting on the panel of the Hollywood Squares segment. The how lasted nine months on NBC. Rayburn knitted socks as a publicity stunt during his time on Rayburn & 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 present him with a bag in which to carry his needlepoint. During his time in the Air Force, Rayburn was trained in meteorology and occasionally demonstrated his knowledge of the weather on Match Game.
Other Game Show and Television Appearances
During and between his Match Game years, Rayburn served as guest panelists on two other Goodson-Todman shows, What's My Line? and To Tell the Truth. Also during the run of the 1970s Match Game, Rayburn and his 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 Production show The Amateur's Guide to Love. In 1983 he hosted a pilot for a Reg Grundy Production 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 me 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 show on WNEW-TV (now WNYW) Helluva Town and between game shows stints in 1982-83 he returned to WNEW as host of weekly local talk and lifestyles show called Saturday Morning Live. He ended his brief tenure to return as co-host of The Mach Game-Hollywood Squares Hour.
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. Just before production was to begin on a new Rayburn-emceed Match Game revival in 1985 an Entertainment Tonight reported publicly disclosed that Rayburn was 68. Much older than many believed. Rayburn had trouble finding jobs after that, blaming the reporters for revealing his age and subjecting him to age discrimination.
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 school 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 (Shafer hosted the 1990 Match Game revival). Around the same time, Rayburn 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.
Rayburn co-hosted---with his wife and Peter Emmons---the Drum Corps International finals of 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.
Personal Life and Death
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 '73. Portions of the interview have been broadcasted on Game Show Network which in 2001 showed portions of another previously unaired interview during the first airing of its Match Game Blank-a-thon.
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 on congestive heart failure at his daughter's home in Gloucester, Massachusetts at age 81. 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; tough taped in late 1999, the episode itself did not air until June 4, 2000 several months after Rayburn died.
Buzzr Brackets (2016)
In 2016, Rayburn became the winner of the "Buzzr Brackets" tournament on Buzzr (see "promotional stunts" for details)
Goodson-Todman Shows Hosted
Make the Connection (1955)
Choose Up Sides (1956)
The Match Game (1962-1969)
Play Your Hunch (1962)
It's Predictable (Pilot, 1970)
Match Game (1973-1982)
The Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour (Match Game Half only, 1983-1984)