Remembering the Original “Divorce Court”

One of the most popular forms of reality television continues to be the “judge shows,” those afternoon court programs that feature ordinary people having their petty disputes settled by the likes of Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown and Judge Mathis. Although “The People’s Court” with Judge Joseph Wapner was the first reality court show that did not use actors when it debuted in 1981, many baby boomers might remember that the forerunner to all of these shows was the longtime syndicated favorite, “Divorce Court,” which began in 1957.

“Divorce Court” was an early example of a program that blurred the line between fiction and reality. “Divorce Court” was a 30 minute show that took place entirely within what looked like a real courtroom. Each week, viewers were presented with two litigants involved in a divorce proceeding, the plaintiff, the person initiating the divorce, and the defendant, the individual who was either seeking a reconciliation, or merely contesting the grounds. From 1957 to 1969, all of the “Divorce Court” cases were decided by the first great TV Judge, the Honorable Voltaire Perkins. Although viewers were advised that what was seen on “Divorce Court” were reenactments of actual divorce cases presented by actors, the presence of Judge Perkins made the show very believable, to the point where I’ll bet a large segment of the audience thought everything was real (probably the same people who send hate mail to soap opera villains).

Although most of the “Divorce Court” dramatizations revolved around typical marital problems, such as infidelity, desertion, mental cruelty and physical abuse, the program often contained twists, turns and surprise revelations, usually uncovered by the crack questioning of one of the attorneys. A few of stories have stood the test of time, at least in my memory. There was the case of the woman who sought a divorce from her second husband due to his apparent cheating. The man contested the allegations, despite a mountain of evidence, which included lipstick on the collar, love notes found in pants pockets and unexplained phone calls received late at night. Fortunately, the husband’s stepdaughter cracked on the witness stand, confessing to planting the evidence, hoping a divorce would spark reconciliation between her mother and real father. Another situation involved the poor man whose wife could not let go of the memory of her deceased first husband. Spouse number two’s divorce was granted when the woman insisted that her beloved number one would soon come back from the grave. Then there was the lady who complained that her mate was secretly a Nazi, which became apparent to everyone in the courtroom when the gentleman broke into a Hitler-like tirade. No matter the nature of the case, two things could always be counted on to happen every week. First, Judge Perkins’s rulings would always be fair, and second, sometime during the show, the proceedings would be interrupted by some secretary barging into the courtroom, needing the Judge’s signature, so that the program could segue to a commercial.

What gave “Divorce Court” an air of authenticity was that many of the performers were from the legal profession, including the show’s attorneys, a group comprised of eight lawyers who handled all of the program’s cases for a $250 per episode fee. Unlike a pure television drama, “Divorce Court” was primarily improvised, with each day’s attorneys given a booklet providing whatever facts producers needed to be brought out during that day’s session. The most unique aspect of the show was that Judge Perkins’s rulings were made on the spot, and not decided in advance. Perkins himself, while not a real judge, was a practicing attorney with a law degree from USC, as well as an actor. The fact that Voltaire Perkins was not really a judge was a shock to me, although I should have figured it out when he started showing up in films like “Frankenstein’s Daughter” and “Blood of Dracula.” Perkins left “Divorce Court” in 1969, and passed away in 1977 at the age of 83.

“Divorce Court” is presently still on the air, although the show has undergone some changes. Instead of using actors, the current version of the program relies on real couples who have recently filed for divorce. Lynn Toler, a former judge in Cleveland Heights, Ohio occupies the bench on the modern day “Divorce Court,” a position she has held since 2006. Although Toler’s credentials may dwarf those her 1957 to 1969 counterpart, I still prefer Voltaire Perkins over Toler, as well as any of the other TV judges. Back when I still believed Perkins to be a real judge, I always kept my fingers crossed whenever a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court would occur…I still think they could have used him.