Robert Earle, TV ‘College Bowl’ Moderator, Is Dead at 93


Robert Earle, who tested the wits of hundreds of students and countless television viewers as moderator of the long-running quiz show “The General Electric College Bowl,” died on Wednesday in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 93.

His family said the cause was cancer.

Mr. Earle was moderator of the show from 1962 until it went off the air in 1970. A version of the program had begun on radio in 1953 under the title “College Quiz Bowl,” and in 1959 it moved to television with Allen Ludden as host.

On the show, teams of four students from two universities would compete to answer quiz questions, with scholarship money at stake. The show, which started on CBS, then moved to NBC, was broadcast live on Sundays from New York.

How Mr. Earle, an unknown, came to succeed Mr. Ludden was, as TV Guide put it in a 1964 article, “a classic example of how a young man can succeed in business by really trying.”

Mr. Earle was working in community relations at General Electric’s Advanced Electronics Center in Ithaca when he read in the paper that Mr. Ludden was leaving to concentrate on the game show “Password.” He first checked with his boss at G.E. to make sure it was permissible for him to apply to be moderator of a show that the company sponsored. It was.

Then Mr. Earle, who had had more than a decade of experience on local radio and television, called the show’s producer, John Cleary, who was skeptical.

“I knew that Bob had a lot of radio experience,” Mr. Cleary told TV Guide, “but I was afraid he had not done enough TV. And I thought, too, that he was probably just some eager-beaver salesman — you know the type — who puts a lamp shade on his head and becomes the life of the party.”

He suggested that Mr. Earle send in a demo tape.

Through an arduous do-it-yourself process, by TV Guide’s account, Mr. Earle set up a tape recorder next to his TV and recorded an episode of the show with Mr. Ludden. Then, borrowing the local broadcast facilities where he had once worked, he filmed himself reading Mr. Ludden’s lines and cobbled together a version of the episode with himself as host.

He got the job.

“He was up against some real pros in the business,” Mr. Cleary said, adding, “I thought he was head and shoulders above them all. He displayed a wonderful voice quality and rapport with the college kids.”

Robert Earle was born on Jan. 5, 1926, in Baldwin, N.Y., on Long Island. His father, Arthur, was in the linoleum business, and his mother, Olga (Thorzen) Earle, was a homemaker. Robert entered the Navy while still a teenager and served as a radioman during World War II.

After the war he enrolled at Utica College in upstate New York and began a broadcasting career at WIBX radio in Utica. After graduating with an English degree in 1951 he worked as general manager of WLFH radio in nearby Little Falls, N.Y., before becoming a newscaster at WKTV in Utica. Another young broadcaster there was Dick Clark, who would become a household name as host of the television perennial “American Bandstand.”

Mr. Earle served as chairman of the department of radio and television at Ithaca College before joining G.E. in 1959. Then came his “College Bowl” breakthrough.

The entire time he moderated the show, Mr. Earle continued to live upstate, in Ithaca, making the long commute to New York City.

After the show went off the air, he did voice-over work for commercials and became vice president of marketing at Tompkins County Trust Company in Ithaca.

He is survived by his wife of more than 70 years, Marion (Hanna) Earle; a daughter, Mary Maley; three sons, Thomas, Mark and Robert Brian; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

One of Mr. Earle’s memorable “College Bowl” broadcasts was in 1966, a time when Northeast colleges, and men, dominated intellectual life. Four young men from Princeton — still all male at the time — were the defending champs. The challengers were four women from tiny Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., one of whom, Karen Gearreald, was that school’s first blind student.

The Princeton team built an early lead, but the Agnes Scott women won on the final question:

“For 20 points, what were Balmung and Durendal?”

Ms. Gearreald answered correctly, “Swords.”

“Certainly one of the most exciting contests we’ve ever had here,” Mr. Earle said at the show’s end. Slate, writing about the epic battle more than a half-century later, called it “the greatest upset in quiz show history.”

In 2007 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interviewed Mr. Earle for an article on the apparent phenomenon that questions on TV quiz shows were getting easier. Mr. Earle allowed as how that might not be a bad thing, giving viewers a chance to participate vicariously by beating the contestants to the answer.

In contrast, he said, on his show “players had to answer questions in a swift exchange with the moderator, leaving many home viewers way behind and feeling a little dumber.″

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