Monday, March 05, 2007

My friend and fellow-blogger Karl at Adventures in Gastronomy dropped a little phrase on his blog today to the effect that he knew one person who had ever appeared on a TV game show. I smiled and posted a not so cryptic comment to the effect that he'd had a couple of lunches and some dinners in the company of other bloggers with another one. Sly fox that Karl is, he figured it out, and immediately emailed back wanting the details. So, here's what I replied:

I was but a child--probably no more than seven--when my parents got tickets to "Beat the Clock" in New York City. In the audience we filled out the standard profile questionnaire about being willing to appear on the show--two couples and one family generally appeared on each one.

The show was set up with one verbal and two physical stunts that you had to
complete successfully to get prizes. The family that was supposed to have gone on had a son about my age who had shown up wearing full cub scout drag complete with merit badges, so of course they picked them because he was the All-American Boy (the little bitch!). We were to be the stand-by family.

Lo and behold, when the kid saw what others had to do on live television under the bright lights, he froze--and I mean shaking in his mother's arms. We were rushed on in place of them (we were later told there was pandemonium in our apartment building when we appeared on screen--there just weren't that many television channels
back then).

We sailed through all three stunts and won a flash camera, my first bicycle and a large Sylvania TV with "halo light", a frame of florescent light around the screen that was supposed to counteract the damage watching TV was thought by every mother in America to do to people's eyes. It turned out to be a major annoyance, but it gave us a TV screen bigger than anyone else in our building had at the time.

As we walked off the set the cub scout was crying and his parents looked daggers at us, but it was too late. We had been on television! So we returned home as heroes.

Game shows on early TV were very different from today, mainly because TV was live. There was no videotape, and no retakes; if there were accidents or disasters (and there were lots of those during the commercials when things went wrong or the advertiser's product failed to operate as promised) you saw them in real time and the poor actor or "TV Personality" who was on camera at the time had to do his or her best to cover for the problems.

Here's an edited excerpt of what Wikipedia has to say about "Beat the Clock" and its place in the history of TV game shows:

"Beat the Clock" was a Goodson-Todman Productions game show which originally ran on CBS from 1950 to 1958 and ABC from 1958 to 1961, with later revivals. The show was hosted by Bud Collyer, assisted by the model Roxanne [seen here on an August 13, 1955 TV Guide cover], and was one of the first, and primary forerunners of future stunt shows such as the modern Fear Factor and Dog Eat Dog.

Host Bud Collyer, one of the first stars of TV game shows, was the main speaking personality on the show. Trademarks of his performance on "Beat the Clock" included his cheery attitude and his personable rapport with contestants and their children. As opposed to being an impartial observer, he was often supportive of the contestants in assisting and egging them on; though he was always the first to enjoy a bit of harmless embarrassment on their parts.

Contestants were chosen from the studio audience and were usually married couples. Bud would ask them general questions usually including where they were from and how long they'd been married. Sometimes the couple would bring their children with them; Collyer would usually take some time out to talk to the children and ask questions like what they wanted to be when they grew up. The husbands on the show usually wore a business suit. Collyer would often ask the husband to take off his coat for stunts to make it less cumbersome (there were a few hooks on the contestants' podium for this purpose, or Collyer would just hold the coat himself). Occasionally, if there was going to be a messy stunt, the husband would come out dressed in a plastic jumpsuit to keep his own clothes clean [my father did such a stunt in which he had to hold a very small Christmas tree in front of his face while my mother, given a highly pressurized canister of whipped cream, had to shoot the ornaments out of it from a distance of ten feet].

Main game
One couple competed against the clock to win a prize in stunts that could require one or both members of the couple. The first stunt was the called the "$100 clock,". The time limit was always a multiple of 5 seconds, usually at least 30 seconds. If the couple beat the $100 clock, they moved on to the "$200 clock" and the same rules applied. If they failed to beat either clock, they received a consolation prize.

Jackpot clock
If the couple beat the $200 clock, the wife would play the "jackpot clock" in which the words of a famous saying or quote were scrambled on a magnetic board; the phrase had to be unscrambled in 20 seconds or less [my mother aced this one in about nine seconds]. The jackpot clock and the bonus stunt (see below) would provide the templates for the traditional quiz-show bonus round, which would become a TV staple, starting with the Lightning Round for the Goodson-Todman word game Password, in 1961.

Bonus stunt
Some time during every episode (between normal stunts), a bell would sound. The couple playing at the time would attempt the bonus stunt for the bonus prize that started at $100 in cash. If the stunt was not beaten, it would be attempted the next week with $100 added to the prize. When it was beaten, it was retired from the show and a new bonus stunt began the next week at $100 [ask not for whom the bonus bell tolled that night; it tolled not fo us.]

The Stunts
The stunts performed on the show were mostly created by staff stunt writers Frank Wayne and Bob Howard, but in the early days of the show, playwright Neil Simon [!] was also a stunt writer. Stunts were usually aimed towards fun with difficulty being secondary, and would usually be constructed out of common household props such as balloons, record players, dishes/cups, and balls of almost every type. Most stunts in some way involved physical speed or dexterity. Contestants often had to balance something with some part of their body, or race back and forth on the stage (for example, releasing a balloon, running across the stage to do some task, and running back in time to catch the balloon before it floated too high) [the one I was involved in had me on my father’s shoulders, trying to remove a Christmas wreath from a pole sticking out of the wall of the set without using my hands and without dropping it at any time. The fact that I wore glasses was a great help as I was able to catch the wreath on the top of the frame and hold it securely as I maneuvered the wreath off the pole].

Prizes – Sylvania era
The jackpot prize during Sylvania's tenure was always a Sylvania television set. Sometimes a hi-fi stereo/phonograph--with "famous surround sound"--was included with the television, and it was noted that the jackpot prize was "worth more than $500!". A notable (and often pointed out) feature of Sylvania's TVs at the time was the "halo light", which was an illuminated frame around the image which was supposed to have made watching the image easier on the eyes. The sets, as was the style at the time, were freestanding pieces of furniture that sat on legs on the floor with a speaker mounted next to or below the screen. (quoted from Wikipedia)

So that was my fifteen minutes of fame, in this case almost literally.

That is a cool memory.
Huh-- I wonder if you can find a tape of it... Time for somebody to go to the Museum of [American] Radio and Television.

Apropos of nothing, I think James Dean once worked as a tester of the stunts on Beat the Clock. Mmmm -- James Dean.
I remember a pale, late version of that show in syndication. I preferred those panel shows like "To Tell the Truth" and the classier game shows like "Password" and "Split Second."
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