Break the Bank

From Academic Kids

Break the Bank is a title that has been used for three entirely separate American game shows throughout television history.

The first (and arguably best-known) of these series was a long-running quiz show which aired variously on ABC, CBS and NBC from 1949 through 1957. It began on radio, and generally had Bert Parks as a host. Bud Collyer co-hosted from 1948 through 1953.

The show was always one of the highest-paying quiz shows. The ultimate goal was $250,000, although no one ever won that amount during the run of the show. Even in the early days, though, contestants routinely won $10,000, a large amount during that period. Contestants were drawn from the studio audience. The contestant chose a category of questions to be asked, and received more money for each question answered correctly.

At one time, singer/actress Ethel Waters appeared on the show, and won $10,000 to pay her back taxes.


The Break the Bank title was revived in 1976 as part of a celebrity-driven game show that, aside from the name, had virtually no connection to the previous series. This Break the Bank debuted on ABC April 12, 1976 with Tom Kennedy as host, running until July 23 of that year. The show then jumped to syndication on September 18, and ran until September 11, 1977. Jack Barry, co-producer of this show with partner Dan Enright, hosted the syndicated series. It was the first game show produced by the new Barry & Enright Productions.

On this Break the Bank, nine celebrity panelists sat on the edges of a 4x5 trilon gameboard, so that each space on the board connected to two different celebrities. Two contestants, playing in turn, called out numbered gameboard spaces, which were then turned around to reveal either money (increments of $100, $200, or $300), a money bag, a wild card, or an empty space. After the reveal, the two celebrities "attached" to that space were posed a question by the host. Both gave different responses, one of which was correct and the other a bluff. The contestant's job was to pick the celebrity that gave the correct answer. Doing so earned the contents of the box and the right to pick again; if not, the space was covered back up and control passed to the opponent.

The object of the game was for the player to uncover and earn three like dollar amounts, or to "break the bank" by earning three money bag symbols. The bank started at $5,000 and increased by $500 for each game until won. Blank spaces automatically ended a player's turn, while wild cards could be used as a match for any dollar amount on the board.

A bonus round was added for the syndicated series. Here, the winner chose celebrities, each of whom concealed a different dollar amount. One of them, however, was holding a "BUST" card. If the player could accumulate $2,000 or more before finding the bust card, he/she won a bonus prize package.

Interestingly, ABC did not cancel Break the Bank due to low ratings; indeed, evidence shows the series was just starting to catch on when the plug was somewhat abruptly pulled on it, a victim of ABC's ever-exanding soap opera block.


Break the Bank was revived in name once again in 1985, and once again the new show was completely unconnected to the ones that came before. It debuted September 16 in syndication with Gene Rayburn as host, but by December he had been replaced with Joe Farago. This version was the first game show produced by former Barry & Enright producer Richard S. Kline and his new company, Kline and Friends.

Originally, two married couples competed for "seconds" which would be used in the bonus round. Questions were asked, the answers to which were one-word clues to a master puzzle. Each correct answer was worth seconds as follows: five seconds for the first, ten for the second, twenty for the third, forty for the fourth, eighty for the fifth, and one hundred for the sixth. The couple with the most seconds after two puzzles won the game.

The winning couple then used those seconds to participate in various knowledge-based stunts in the endgame's "Prize Vault." Each completed stunt earned a bonus prize, as well as a choice of up to five "Bank Cards" for each stunt. This process continued until all the seconds were used up. The couple then fed each of the Bank Cards they'd earned into an electronic reader to see if it contained the numerical code that would "break the bank," an accruing jackpot of cash and prizes that started at $20,000 and increased every day until won. Each day a couple returned to the Prize Vault, the number of possible Bank Cards was reduced.

Not long after Farago took over as host, the format was adjusted somewhat. In the revised version, correct answers were worth money instead of seconds, and the game was played as a best-of-three-puzzles match. The winners kept the money won, earned one Bank Card to start with, and played a bonus puzzle to earn up to ten more. All forty Bank Cards were displayed on a stand in the Prize Vault, and could now each be worth a different prize or cash amount if they didn't break the bank. One card in the mix said "BANKRUPT," and if picked cost the couple all the money and/or prizes they'd built up to that point.

The old Family Network (now ABC Family) aired reruns of the Joe Farago episodes in 1987. Due to legal issues surrounding Gene Rayburn's dismissal from Break the Bank, his episodes have never and probably will never be rerun.


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