Does anyone remember this Milton Bradley monstrosity from 1965? How much did this one game fuck up an entire generation? As much as I used to pound on my sister’s bedroom door begging to be allowed entry into her inner sanctum, even I had enough dignity to recoil in horror as Sue and her girlfriends made their way around the Mystery Date gameboard trying to earn the chance to open the plastic door to find their mystery date. Take a look at the original commercial. The theme song is burned into my memory with the same weight as the Beatles songs I was just becoming aware of that year:
In retrospect, I think my parents catered way too much to my dysfunctional need to be included in my older sister’s activities. Unlike me, she was allowed a lock on her door, I’m sure mostly to keep me out. And the more she locked me out, the more I wanted in. But my parents often forced her to let me in instead of just telling me to suck it up and go find my own damn friends.
The above photo was taken at one of my sister’s birthday parties in the 1960s, most likely the one were she received her copy of Mystery Date. It was held at Mr. Adams, a restaurant across the street from Bisset’s, the department store my father ran on the corner of Broadway and Wilson in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. This area would soon go to hell in a handbasket, with both Bisset’s (built in 1902) and Mr. Adams torn down and replaced by seedy strip malls. It’s only now, more than 40 years later, when gentrification is beginning to transform the neighborhood back into the glittering quarter it once was, home of magnificent movie palaces such as the Uptown and Riviera, and other landmarks that were part of the rich fabric of Chicago history such as the Aragon Ballroom, the Edgewater Beach Hotel, the Green Mill Lounge, the Kinetic Playground, and Rainbo Ice Skating Arena (where my parents’ marriage careened to a hideous end…but that’s another story).
I remember this party. Check out the matching hats my sister and her friends are wearing in contrast to my pirate get-up. There’s Wendy Belcove on the right, who lived in a house we thought was a mansion because it had a staircase in the back just for servants. Wendy later surprised everyone by becoming a bodybuilder. Behind her is Beth Kronenberg. Beth moved away in the early 1970s and spent years in the Israeli Army. I remember getting my own presents at this party, I assume by request, as if I couldn’t bear the thought of being in the background on my sister’s special day. Yikes, what a brat I must have been. They should have just tossed some crayons at me and locked me in a back room. Look how I’m situated squarely in the center of the photograph. Don’t you just want to punch me in the face? I do.
I started thinking about my tendency to force myself into my sister’s nascent social life yesterday when a friend mentioned the old board game Mystery Date. I remember after having gained access to my sister's lair against her will, she would whip out Mystery Date knowing that I would never deign to join in. But I'd watch them go at it. The object of the game was to have young girls (ages 6 to 14!) move around the board assembling outfits from color-coded cards they collected. At various points in the game they would spin the door handle and open the big plastic door.
There were four possible dates: the formal dance date, the bowling date, the beach date, and the skiing date. If the outfit they put together from the cards did not match their mystery date’s ensemble, the girl would close the door and keep playing. But there was a wild card. Added to the four dates was the badly dressed beatnik-looking “dud” who was to be avoided at all costs. But here’s what the geniuses at Milton Bradley didn’t consider. My sister, her girlfriends, and every girl I ever knew who played this horrible game vastly preferred the so-called dud to the squares they were supposed to desire. You only had to look at my sister’s stream of rock club boyfriends that would follow to see how true this was (no offense, Jeff!). It doesn’t take a PhD to figure out why these pre-pubescent girls were more interested in the forbidden fruit than the guys their parents wanted them to date.
One of my sister’s actual mystery dates, her old boyfriend John Smith, was part of a legendary Chicago band called the New Duncan Imperials. NDI is still going strong, twenty years after hitting the scene with their mix of faux cornpone and hayseed. During the 90s they were a fixture at my sister’s rock club, the Lounge Ax, and in 1999 they recorded this rockin’ homage to Milton Bradley’s effed-up Mystery Date (that’s John Goodtime Smith on the drums):
A 1970 update of the game was even worse, if that’s possible, sneaking in just before the women’s movement really gained steam. Sensing their mistake with their original “Dud” hottie, this game’s undesirable was a nerd holding a stack of books, sending the message to girls everywhere that smart boys who like school are to be avoided while rich, entitled, arrogant hunks who would just as soon date-rape you as listen to your opinion on world politics are the ones they should be prostrating themselves over. Oy. The final revision of the game came out in 2005 and incorporated the characters from Disney’s “High School Musical” franchise. Now there was no dud at all—instead players ran the risk of getting sent to detention instead of out on a hot date with Troy, Ryan, Zeke, or Chad. The savvy Milton Bradley creators probably realized that even 40 years later girls would still be more interested in a disheveled dud than wholesome Zac Efron.
How about this take on the 1965 original—an all-male version? Wonder why it didn’t catch on?