Told this story years ago in a column, and recently people have asked that I tell it again.
I hesitate because it relies on my memory at a young age, and one gets older, the blanks in those memories get filled in with exaggeration or fantasy.
When I was 10 or 11, the TV show “Candid Camera” was still a fixture (though declining) on network television. Most people remember this terrific show; the producers would put into normal circumstances that would suddenly turn not-so normal. Usually there was a hidden camera, something bizarre would happen, the prank victim would react with shock, and then they would be told,
“Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.”
An example would be actress Fannie Flagg pulling into a service station and telling the attendant that her car wasn’t running correctly, only to have him open the hood to look inside and see the car had no engine. (The station was at the bottom of the hill; the Candid Camera people only needed to get it rolling and Flagg glided it into the gas station.) The gas station attendant’s reaction was a show-maker.
A favorite was a trick played up in Cecil County. “Candid Camera” producers placed a sign and a policeman on a back road leading into Delaware — the sign read “State of Delaware Closed Today.” People would pull up in their cars and ask the officer what was going on. He’d simply explain that the state was closed. The drivers, as obedient as sheep and with few even bothering to argue, would just turn their cars around and head back into Maryland.
Of course, the best, all-time-best, the best-best-best was when “Candid Camera” came to Salisbury. Whether “Candid Camera” actually came to Salisbury or not, I have no definitive proof — only years of anecdotal story repeats. I remember it being talked about on the radio (back when everybody listed to the radio all day) and I remember it being an acknowledged part of local lore. And I remember when seeing the clip, it all sure looked like Salisbury.
The show’s creator, the great Allen Funt, stood in front of what was then the brand new Super Giant grocery store on South Salisbury Boulevard.
Portraying a TV news interviewer, he quizzed shoppers on various issues concerning current events and culture, similar to what Steve Allen used to do on the old, old “Tonight Show” and what Jay Leno and David Letterman have done in more recent years.
The question from the Super Giant that was often featured on the “Best of Candid Camera” anniversary shows and repeat specials was one that still makes me laugh when I say it:
“Excuse me sir, do you know what a bagel is?”
Some background: The Eastern Shore has long been mocked for its cultural, well, let’s call them deficiencies. Sushi wasn’t really available in Salisbury until about 1999. The county had Blue Laws, in which virtually no businesses were open on Sundays, until 1991. You couldn’t sit at a bar in the county until sometime in the 1970s. You couldn’t purchase alcohol at the Civic Center, uh yeah, until this month.
I never had an imported beer or a cappuccino or even a bagel until I arrived at the University of Maryland in College Park. Growing up in the culture of a Worcester County farmer, a bagel was something that Jewish people in New York City ate. I and my Lower Shore brethren lived our lives in a bagel-less world.
So “Excuse me sir, do you know what a bagel is?” was a pretty challenging question when asked near the Super Giant’s entranceway, especially back in 1966 or so.
In my mind, I can still see the man who attempted to answer the bagel question. He wasn’t exactly wearing overalls, but he could have been. He clearly looked like a farmer, but back then most everyone was a farmer. He looked nervous, rather rigid though calm, slightly like a deer in the headlights. He stood and stared at the camera.
The question was repeated. “Excuse me, sir. Do you know what a bagel is?”
“Yes, I know what a bagel is,” he said with pride.
“A bagel is one of them little huntin’ dogs.”
One could imagine TV viewers howling all up and down the East Coast.
Being a kid, it had actually never occurred to me that Snoopy, the beagle from “Peanuts,” was a “huntin’ dog.”
Now, of course, Super Giant is an Acme and I don’t mind the change. Giant, which played such a personal role in all of our lives here, changed forever when the Cohen Family of Washington, D.C., sold the chain to an overseas conglomerate. All the signs still said Giant, and many of the employees helped to make it still feel like Giant, but it had long ago stopped being the Giant we knew and loved.
This is all hypothetical because the show is defunct and TV entertainment has changed, but if “Candid Camera” were to ever return to Salisbury and ask people questions, what do you think the Allen Funt of today should ask?
Email your ideas to email@example.com and I’ll run the best one here in the newspaper.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org