Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Password is: Fun!

I’ve been a game show NUT ever since I was a kid and used to see Gene Rayburn, Richard Dawson and Charles Nelson Reilly on Match Game in the 1970s as well as that master of snarkiness Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. Though I eventually evolved to enjoying ever-so-slightly more challenging fare such as Jeopardy, I still can’t help but love the old celebrity driven shows including Password, which is currently being featured on The Game Show Network (GSN.)

Password was a rather simple game involving teams of two trying to make their partners guess a particular word by stating one other word and then alternating turns until either the word was guessed or the point value (which started at 10 and descended with each shot) ran out. The announcer would whisper the password for the home audience. Hosted by Allen Ludden, the original incarnation ran from 1961-1975 and featured a galaxy of famous men and women as the celebrity panelists. These panelists would each be assigned a player of the opposite gender and then, after the first game, the players would switch for a battle of the sexes round. Each game winner (the first to reach 25 points) won a whopping $100 and a chance to win $250 more in the lightning round which involved the celebrity firing through 5 more passwords in a minute or less. Though this was hardly big money, that sort of sum still went a fer piece in the mid-60s and contestants were glad to get it!

Ludden, a widowed father of three, had previously hosted The General Electric College Bowl, but is now most strongly identified with Password, including a revised edition call Password Plus that began airing in 1979. Sadly, he would pass away from cancer during the run of that series and be replaced by Tom Kennedy (though, to be truthful, no one could ever completely replace Ludden.) Ludden was an easy-going, very wholesome-acting person, but one possessing a glint in his eye and a sharp sense of humor. He met his match when a game-loving divorcee and TV personality named Betty White came on the show as a celebrity panelist. He fell for her instantly, but, having been burned twice before in the marriage-go-round, she dragged her feet for about a year before giving in and enjoying a very happy 18-year union with him. (Doubtless, Miss White used Ludden as a mental guidepost when recalling “Charlie” on all those episodes of The Golden Girls.)

This couple’s affection for one another was palpable and they not only worked together on Ludden’s game shows, but also worked on stage together in such unlikely vehicles as "Guys and Dolls!" Betty was a zesty, driven and excited Password player and is the only person to play the game in all of its incarnations including Super Password (hosted by Bert Convy) and even Million Dollar Password (hosted by Regis Philbin.) No one got more thrill out of winning a game than Betty with the possible exception of Eva Gabor. Hungarian Gabor played Password in the mid-60s and wreaked absolute havoc with the rules and decorum of the show. Unable to fully understand some of the words she was given to describe, she would tug on Allen and say, “I doan know zis vord. Vat das dis mean, dahlink?” or better yet yell out, “I don’t vant dis vord! Give me another vord!” Anyone else would have been pelted with ripe vegetables, but she was so enthusiastic and charming and endearingly helpless about it that she won everyone over. In the lightning round, she would screech “NO!” to her partner if he or she didn’t get what she was after, but when they won, she would chuckle with abandoned glee as her hunkalicious counterpart Hugh O’Brian looked on in amazement from the other side of the dais.

Peter Lawford held the record in the lightning round: 5 words given and guessed in 12 seconds. It was a formidable feat and few people ever got much closer to it than about 20 seconds. Other notable and frequent Password players included Carol Burnett, Elizabeth Montgomery and football great turned color commentator Frank Gifford who, in the color episodes of the 1960s was so breathtakingly handsome and polite, it’s almost impossible to believe that he eventually wound up married to that harpy Kathie Lee or involved in the sordid (and set-up) sex scandal that grabbed headlines everywhere at the time. Amusingly, the guest stars and the contestants seemed to take great pleasure in finding the most garishly hued clothing possible once the show began broadcasting in color around 1966. (The original set was bright blue with colored strips in the background. The orange photos here are from later editions.)

My favorite thing about Password is the method of introduction at the top of the show. The female star’s face would be shown as an old-fashioned announcer would gushingly state, for example, “This is the gifted and dynamic star of stage and screen, Oscar-winner Joan Fontaine!” followed by the lady introducing her contestant and where he was from. Then the male star would appear and the announcer might say, “And this is the popular and debonair star of Lost in Space, Guy Williams!” after which Williams would introduce his partner and then say, “…and we’re all here to play Password!” Then Ludden would be introduced, take a bow and swing the cord of his bulky microphone (which hung around his neck!) out of the way as he made his way to his spot. He would be given the words, packaged in little snap-together wallets, out of a sort of pit from someone unseen that he called “The little man.” It was a simpler time, but one that is fun to revisit through the magic of reruns (not to mention VCRs or Tivo as the original show is aired at 3:30am EST!)


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