Gene Rayburn

Gene Rayburn, the jocular TV gameshow host best known for winking at double entendres as emcee of the popular “The Match Game,” has died. He was 81.

Rayburn died Nov. 29 of congestive heart failure at his daughter Lynne’s home in Gloucester, Mass. In recent years he lived near his daughter on Massachusetts’ North Shore.

The “Match Game” was the top gameshow during much of the 1970s, featuring Rayburn and his unusual long, thin microphone. Contestants would try to match answers to nonsense questions with a panel of celebrities that included Richard Dawson, Charles Nelson Reilly, Brett Somers and Betty White; the references were often vaguely naughty for daytime TV.

Rayburn was nominated for five Daytime Emmy awards.

Born in Christopher, Ill., Rayburn initially wanted to become an opera singer. He came to New York City in the late 1930s to seek work on the stage but became a disc jockey instead. His popular morning show on WNEW, “Rayburn & Finch” with partner Dee Finch, helped popularize the idea of morning drive time.

Moving into TV, he was the sidekick to Steve Allen on NBC’s “Tonight Show” from 1953-59.

He acted in live dramas on “Kraft Theatre” and “Robert Montgomery Presents” and worked for many years in summer stock theater. He appeared in “Bye Bye Birdie” on Broadway and traveled with the national company of “Come Blow Your Horn.”

But gameshows became his turf, and prior to “Match Game” he also hosted ABC’s “The Name’s the Same” and NBC’s “Make the Connection,” “Dough-Re-Mi” and “Play Your Hunch.”

Rayburn’s run on “Match Game” survived one of television’s most hilarious bloopers. Interviewing a contestant and meaning to compliment her dimples, he looked at her face and said, “you have the most beautiful nipples I have ever seen.”

The show ran for seven years in the 1960s on NBC and was revived for a six-year run on CBS in 1973. It also ran in syndication from 1975 through 1982.

In October, Rayburn was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

He is survived by his daughter. His wife of 56 years, Helen, died in 1996.

Donations in Rayburn’s memory may be sent to the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, 333 Washington St., Boston, MA 02108.

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