Friday, August 27, 2010

I'm Into Games

The (almost) complete demise of GSN – The Game Show Network – as a place at which to view classic game shows has been a real pain for me. When the channel started, they showed almost round the clock broadcasts of classic episodes of such shows as Match Game, The Price is Right (the old ones – with a dark-haired Bob Barker!), Hollywood Squares (with Paul Lynde), Tattletales, $25,000 Pyramid, To Tell the Truth and many, many more. Sadly for me, I didn’t have the station at that time! I was a cable subscriber and didn’t get the channel until I moved to my house and ordered satellite.

Almost simultaneously, GSN began introducing new game shows of their own and started phasing out all the classic shows. You might still catch Let’s Make a Deal, Blockbusters, Match Game or Family Feud on a weekend morning, but in order to see To Tell the Truth, What’s My Line?, I’ve Got a Secret, Password or a number of other old shows, you would have to record them because they were shown either during weekdays or, in most cases, broadcast overnight at some ungodly hour.

Now, the station is almost completely devoid of classic shows and is a wasteland of shitty original programming and rebroadcasts of recent game shows (some of which were successful like Deal or No Deal and some of which that didn’t make it such as 1 vs 100.) Having already watched TVLand enact a long, slow slide into oblivion, it has been hard for me to watch GSN do the same thing. I guess either there is no market for old game shows (which, to me, are almost always endlessly amusing, enthralling and interesting) or else they just believe that there isn’t one.

I like just about any old show (and there have been some real oddballs along the way), but my favorites are always the ones with celebrity panelists. The old classics like What’s My Line? and To Tell the Truth were, especially in the case of the former, so classy and elegant. However, even later fare such as Liar’s Club (which had a panel of four stars trying to convince contestants of the true purpose of some unusual item, only one of whom had the real answer) retained a tacky charm. Club used to give me access to one of my guilty pleasures, the smarmy, ultra-slick, tan comic actor Dick Gautier. (Look... You either like him or you don't!)

The long-running What's My Line? has devout following to this day. One reason is because each episode had a special feature at the end in which the panel would be blindfolded and were made to quiz a major star personality in order to obtain his or her identity. Often, the stars would disguise their voices to try to stump the panel. Practically anybody who was anybody appeared in this segment including some of the top stars EVER. Miss Joan Crawford appeared several times, but so did many major celebrities. Even an up and coming singer/actress named Barbra Streisand was selected to be a mystery guest. (Come to think of it, there probably aren't a great deal of living celebs who can say they were a mystery guest on WML. Most of them are dead now!)

Another aspect of the show that charmed (and continues to charm) a lot of fans was the friendly, slightly sassy, elegant and, above all, charming presence of regular panelist Arlene Francis. Miss Francis was with the show for practically all of its considerable run and could always be counted upon for winking good humor. She wore a distinctive heart-shaped diamond necklace (a first anniversary present from her husband Martin Gabel) that became legendary and took on a life of its own. Rare was the day that she didn't have it on on the air. She even wore it many years later when she was a panelist on the far more racy and loose Match Game. In 1988, a street thug snatched it from her neck, thus robbing her (and the world) of one of TV's most recognizable pieces of jewelry.

Seeing stars on game shows allows the viewer to witness someone they may only know from the movies or TV act solely as themselves (or at least as close as possible given the fact that even in this format a performer is likely to be putting on some sort of face.) The candid, unabashed moments that spring up can really endear a celebrity to the public (or occasionally turn the viewer off.)

I especially like to see stars I am only familiar with from their screen work on a show fighting to win money for their contestant. Someone like Barbara Rush or Joan Fontaine (both on Password) would genuinely strive to do her best and would be disappointed in herself if she failed. Mary Ann Mobley, on To Tell the Truth (both the 1980 edition and particularly the 1990 edition hosted by Gordon Elliott and Alex Trebek) was drop-dead glamorous, but when it came to getting to the bottom of who was the real person out of the three choices, she was like a prosecuting attorney (in a way that I nonetheless found captivating, I must say.) That 1990 version of Truth, by the way, featured a steep staircase that panelists had to descend. The always regal Miss Kitty Carlisle (who appeared on every incarnation of the show) had to navigate it in high heels and long gowns, usually with the help of a fellow panelist (in this shot, Chris Lemmon, Jack's son.)
Hollywood Squares was another outlet for seeing stars off the cuff. I adored Paul Lynde and his zingers were funny, but unexpected hilarity also came from people like the young Burt Reynolds, freed from the shackles of his action hero TV and movie persona. Vincent Price, known in later years for his campy horror films, also proved to be quite a witty person, his totally unique voice offering great spins on the one-liners. The series also allowed viewers to glimpse some of H-Town's most beautiful and glamorous women such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Elke Sommer and Barbara Bain, among many others. Match Game, especially in its earliest seasons when regulars Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly and Richard Dawson were in place and trading barbs with each other, was a terrific show, rife with double entendre and suggestiveness. When the format was revived years later, it suffered from the lack of social restraint. Since you could now write “Penis,” “Vagina” “Balls” and God knows what else on your card, there wasn’t a lot of room left for cleverness! Host Gene Rayburn was, to my child's eyes and ears, the king of lasciviousness, though watching him now he was actually quite erudite, well-read and tasteful. Match Game P.M. was a particular favorite of mine because the half hour was a self-contained game (unlike the daytime version in which games would stretch from episode to episode) and the caliber of stars tended to be a little brighter or at least a bit more unusual. Brett and Charles (who tended to wear some bizarre, deliberately ugly concoction) always sat next to one another, nit-picking each other endlessly and hysterically while Richard leaned on a Paul Lynde imitation for many of his laughs.
Regular readers of this blog (both of them! lol) know of my fascination with opening credits that show the stars’ faces and either display or announce their names. Match Game had one of the best methods for introducing the panel. A spinning, mod-looking square would spin around and reveal, in turn, the six celebrities as none other than the great Johnny Olson said their name aloud. You can imagine my delight in watching these old shows when the spinning frame would reveal Michael Landon, Joan Collins, Tab Hunter, Mary Wickes, Ethel Merman(!) and occasionally a new performer who would later become far more famous, such as Jamie Lee Curtis. One of my earliest "daddy" type crushes, CHiPs' Robert Pine, also appeared on the show occasionally in its later years. If his charming grin looks familiar, it may be because his cute son Chris Pine is now a popular actor thanks to the recent Star Trek redux.
As a kid, I used to daydream about my family being on Family Feud and would work out which five of us would be on it and in which order. Now that I’m older and my old time celebrity obsession is in full swing, I love to watch Feud eps that feature TV and movie stars playing for charity. The combinations of stars who are brought together can be quite staggering. It can also be eye-opening to see some folks who have been away from the limelight for a time and who may not have held up particularly well!

All-Star editions of Family Feud would bring together casts of shows that were either cult favorites (like The Brady Bunch) or then hits (like Eight is Enough.) There would also be groupings from Dallas, The Love Boat and other popular series. Stars enjoyed posing in offbeat ways while being revealed in the customary inset room filled with "antique" furniture and lamps. The Dallas gang lifted Larry Hagman into the air while The Love Boat men all pretended that they were flashing lone female Lauren Tewes. There would also be theme programs that bordered on the surreal (to hell with that. They WERE surreal!) Take, for example, the Heroes vs Villains episodes that put together combinations like Leonard Frey, Joan Collins, Beatrice Straight, Susan Lucci and Norman Fell as a team of villains! Some of the heroes included Marla Gibbs, Lynn Redgrave and Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas(!)

Then there was the week that brought performers who had been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This concept gave us teams that included a shockingly weathered, rail-thin Rory Calhoun and a less-than sturdy looking Dorothy Lamour! These veterans were playing alongside other folks such as Keenan Wynn, Cesar Romero, Gloria de Haven, Jayne Meadows and a still-lovely and elegant Arlene Dahl.
Tattletales was barely even a game, really. More a chance for three showbiz couples to answer questions about one another in order to win a little money for their respective sections of the studio audience. This show was unique in that it offered the public a chance to meet the spouses of the celebrities. Yes, there were quite a few celebrity couples, but often there were comedians or actors who brought their non-celeb wives to play. In the whirlwind, anything goes world of Hollywood, reruns of this show could probably be quite cringe inducing since marriages tend to have a brief shelf life there. (Take once happy, then not, Chuck Woolery and Jo Ann Pflug. I worshipped him, by the way and thought he was beautiful.) It wasn’t a requirement for the guests to be married. One infamous pairing had Dick Sergeant and “his lady” Fannie Flagg! Other times, closely connected costars from a series would appear, sometimes from daytime soaps. Due to the nature of the questions, though, it usually paid for the pair to be pretty familiar with one another.

The show was hosted by Bert Convy, he of the unbelievably thick Chia-Hair. I always enjoyed Bert and thought he was charming, attractive and good at being a host (certainly better than when he was an actor!) He hosted Tattletales, Super Password and Win, Lose or Draw among others. The odd thing is, in Peter Marshall’s autobiography (he being the longtime host of Hollywood Squares), he stated that there were only two people in the game show community that he didn’t like: Dan Rowan (of Rowan & Martin) and Bert Convy. He didn’t feel the need to state why although both men are deceased now. That remark has always confounded me and made me wonder what in the hell was up.

GSN used to sometimes run obscure shows like Double Dare, Body Language and the oddity Now You See It, which lined six (always horrifyingly dressed) contestants on a set of stairs as a wacky theme played. Half the fun is in seeing what people wore then and how they wore their hair! I just love taking in these vintage programs and always hope that someday they will dig them all back out or that a new channel will start to run them. (GSN II??)


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