The Italian Almanac

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Mike Bongiorno

Mike is Dead

Italian `quiz king` Mike Bongiorno died of a heart attack in Monte Carlo. Bongiorno, 85, introduced the quiz show to Italy on public broadcaster RAI in the 1950s and was later a stalwart on media mogul Silvio Berlusconi`s private Mediaset network, continuing to start all his shows his trademark greeting `Allegria!` (Cheers!). Italian Premier Berlusconi was among the first to pay tribute to the New York-born Buongiorno, calling him ``a friend and a great protagonist of Italian TV history``. Bongiorno had recently been preparing a much-trumpeted quiz show for Sky Italia after Berlusconi`s Mediaset network failed to renew his contract.

The entertainer is perhaps best-known for RAI`s 1955-1959 Lascia o Raddoppia, the Italian version of The $64,000 Question, which became one of the most popular Italian shows ever. But he set a record with Rischiatutto from 1970-`74, a version of Jeopardy!, attracting a never-equalled 20-30 million viewers every Thursday night. Starting in 1963, Buongiorno hosted 11 editions of the Sanremo song festival. He moved to the fledgling Berlusconi network in 1980 and is credited with a key role in its success with a string of shows culminating in La Ruota della Fortuna (Wheel of Fortune) from 1989 to 2003.

Bongiorno was born in New York on May 26, 1924 but soon returned to his mother`s native Turin and was used during the Second World War as a courier between the Allies and the Resistance. Captured and set to be shot, he was spared when the Gestapo found his US papers but sent to concentration camps including Matthausen. He returned to New York to work briefly on an Italo-American radio show before arriving in Italy in 1953 to propose US-style entertainment to RAI.

His impact on Italian popular culture was explored by semiotician and philosopher Umberto Eco, author of worldwide bestseller the Name of the Rose, in a famous 1963 essay called The Phenomonology of Mike Bongiorno. Bongiorno himself received an honorary degree from a Milan university in 2007. Bongiorno had been in virtual retirement after his Mediaset contract lapsed, apart from popular mobile phone ads with showman Fiorello, half his age.