By Adam Nedeff, researcher for the National Archives of Game Show History
Game shows are not just television programs. They are brands unto themselves, and some of them are represented by graphic icons—the blobby red Whammys of Press Your Luck; the merry joker of The Joker’s Wild; the distinctive dollar sign in The Price Is Right’s logo. These elements are calling cards for classic game shows. The best ones stand on their own as representatives of their show.
One of these classic icons was “the Truth Teller” associated with To Tell the Truth for more than 50 years.
The design was a very basic cartoon character with an incomplete, disconnected body, oddly proportioned, with one arm curving upward, raising his right hand, visually pledging to tell the truth. In the coming years, it would become so associated with To Tell the Truth that as the show’s look was revised and updated over the decades, the new set designs revolved around this icon; usually three of him looming behind the three contestants facing the questions from the panel.
Georg Elliot Olden (1920-1975) designed the Truth Teller. The grandson of a slave, Olden grew up in Alabama, took up cartooning in high school, and then dropped out of college to design graphics for the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor to the CIA) during World War II. When the war ended in 1945, Olden’s supervisor at the OSS personally recommended him for a new job at CBS: the head art director for CBS’s new television division. At the time, Olden was 24 years old.
Over the next 15 years, Olden made charts, graphs, and maps for newscasts. Even in television’s infancy, Olden infused a simple newscast with effective and imaginative artwork. A statement from the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Commission’, pledging to inspect and govern weapon development around the world, was accompanied by Olden’s three-framed animation of the U.N. logo peering through a telescope to focus attention on specific countries. He used a balopticon—a scrolling comic strip of sorts—to illustrate an argument between retailers, farmers, manufacturers, and congressmen about who deserved the blame for the rising price of goods. Sports scores were accompanied by images of smiling or frowning fans in the stands, depending on how the home teams performed. Olden also designed logos for some CBS shows, and stage settings as well.
One of Olden’s most distinctive contributions was “promo cards” or “title cards.” In an era where television advertising was much more simplistic, CBS would frequently promote shows by displaying a graphic on the screen for a few seconds with an off-screen announcer’s voice-over providing the time that viewers could watch the program.
Olden’s personal style made these graphics stand out as effective advertisements. The sitcom Private Secretary was advertised with the title and time slot typewritten across the screen, riddled with typos that had all been covered with X’s. The darkly humorous Alfred Hitchcock Presents was promoted with Olden’s drawing of Hitchcock’s body riddled with bullets. For the network’s coverage of The Kentucky Derby, Olden arranged the letters in “The Kentucky Derby” into the shape of a horse’s body, with the CBS eye peering from the “THE”-shaped head.
Olden won a special award for the animated promo card he created for I’ve Got a Secret. Running only about five seconds, the promo showed a basic cartoon face with a zipper forming across the mouth as the title of the show was spoken. Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions grew so fond of Olden’s work, they hired him to update the look and logo for I’ve Got a Secret after he’d left CBS.
Olden’s work was not limited to television. When he appeared as a contestant on a 1963 episode of I’ve Got a Secret (of course, his secret was that he had designed the show’s logo), host Garry Moore told the audience about Olden’s latest project — a U.S. postage stamp celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Olden was the first Black American to design a U.S. stamp.
It was not Olden’s only appearance as a contestant. He was also an imposter on To Tell the Truth. After the game, he revealed his true identity and (again) host Garry Moore told the panel and the audience that Olden had designed the show’s Truth Teller.