Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Game Show Perils

Nobody could say the words “It’s an Amana Radaraaaaaaaaaange!” like Don Pardo.

He was the announcer on “The Price is Right.” The real one with Bill Cullen. That’s where I first heard him as Cullen grinned and asked him to “tell him what he wins.” Then he moved on to many years on “Jeopardy.” The real one with Art Fleming (trivia: Doug Browning filled in for him for three shows in 1966). Considering how many game shows Pardo announced and then his long career on “Saturday Night Live,” it’s odd thinking of him as a news or sports announcer. But he was that, too. Pardo walked into NBC and emerged with a radio staff announcer’s job on June 15, 1944. A staff announcer did what the assignment sheet said. Station IDs and promos. Programme intros and extros. News. Sports. Always live. Almost always anonymously.

Pardo died last night at 96. If he wasn’t one of the last surviving network staff announcers from the war era, he was certainly among them. What’s remarkable is NBC’s voice people back then all seemed to have a similar sound. Not Don Pardo. His voice was distinctive.

You can read a couple of stories about him from the ‘60s on this post. There’s also a little tale about Pardo in a story written by Art Linkletter (with Leslie Lieber) for This Week, one of the many weekend newspaper magazine supplements. Besides pushing a book he had written, Linkletter told some great stories about unexpected uncomfortable things happening on live game and audience participation shows in the ‘50s. It’s lengthy but interesting. But if you just want to read the Pardo story, just do a word search on “Pardo” and your browser will take you to that part of the article.

This was published on December 13, 1959.

If the quiz-fix scandals gave you the idea that everything that happens on television nowadays is rehearsed, I can tell you there are some moments on camera as unpremeditated as the bounce of a football. If you don’t believe it, talk to some friends and colleagues of mine—the TV emcees.
There’s nothing fixed about their job except the fixed gaze of millions of viewers waiting for them to make a blooper and wondering how the dickens John Daly’s “going to get out of that one.”
The TV emcee meets crisis head on, under “combat conditions.” His ears are always cocked for the first faint blips of bad taste and off-color innuendoes.
The perils of emcees
The initials M.C. actually stand for “Mighty Cautious,” says Bert Parks, a long-standing associate of mine in the care and coddling of contestants. For the master of ceremonies is painfully aware that one serious violation of good taste can lose the sponsor his customers, the network a sponsor, and himself a job. Yet, every week he sticks his professional neck into a noose held by some stage-struck stranger who is apt to profane the coaxial cable, insult five minorities, or tear up the studio by the roots—all before the poor moderator can say “Good-by, Neilsen.”
The emergencies that crop up on professional-panel shows are usually not as nightmarish as those involving amateur cut-ups. Nevertheless, on programs like “What’s My Line?” the ad-lib often verges dangerously close to the ad-libido. To warn when the panel is approaching thin ice, John Daly—like other “control panel” emcees—has secret signals. John tugs on his earlobe.
Daly practically dislocated his ear one Sunday while his panel was trying to guess the profession of a guest who had already been identified for home viewers as a manufacturer of Pullman berths. “This thing you’re connected with,” inquired a panel member, “can a boy take his girl there for a vacation?” Daly’s feverish ear semaphors quickly shunted the questioning onto a safer track.
Panelists can be perilous all right—and the wittier and more amusing they are, the greater the potential danger. But amateurs are even more of a problem.
Garry Moore’s storm-warning signal on “I’ve Got A Secret” is a strictly unconscious gesture—he pats the top of his crew-cut with the open palm of his hand, or twirls rapidly in his swivel chair.
One night, an Air Force Captain, whose secret flashed on the screen for the audience’s benefit, was: “When I was a child, I broke Sally Rand’s bubble with a slingshot.” Poking around for a hunt, a panelist asked the bemedaled aviator, “Do you do this on direct orders from President Eisenhower?”
The audience howled. But Garry, sensing danger ahead, stopped the line of questioning. The panel got the high-sign by watching Moore’s crew-cut.
Once in my many years as a radio and TV welcoming committee-of-one I had to sock a guest in the jaw to preserve the peace of the airwaves. It was during a man on the street broadcast emanating from a big Texas Fair. Unfortunately, it was raining and there was hardly anybody around. Finally I saw a figure careening through the downpour, and latched on to him before I found that he was spiffed to the fills. “Give me that microphone,” he bellowed. For two terrifying minutes, a see-saw battle raged for the mike, into which my interviewee was pouring his alcoholic vocabulary.
Out of breath, I gasped to the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, you’ll have to forgive me, but in a situation of this kind, my obligation is to you—and your children.” So saying, I put down the microphone and knocked the poor fellow out cold.
I was relieved when my unseen audience responded with congratulatory letters and telegrams asking when the “return bout: would be held and suggesting Madison Square Garden as a worthy setting.
This slugfest was a Little Lord Fauntleroy affairs compared with another melee that took place on war-time on our “People Are Funny” show. We had secretly placed two stunt men in the audience with instructions to get up in the middle of the show, start battling each other at their seats, and then chase each other onto the stage and finish their “grudge fight” up there. Later we intended asking startled members of the audience to give their versions of what happened, to show how unreliable eyewitness evidence can be.
The marines landed
Unfortunately, we had overlooked a crucial fact: our audience that day consisted almost exclusively of servicemen. When the disturbance started, three kindhearted sailors seated next to the stunt men dove in to stop the fight. But when four soldiers saw the sailors attack, they attacked the sailors. Six marines then piled onto the other two branches of the service—and the free-for-all spread to every corner of the theater.
I figure that in that situation as in many others, honesty was the best policy, and I shouted the truth to the embattled audience. “You see, folks,” I concluded above the Donnybrook, “as I’ve always told you, people really are funny.”
Kids, of course, can be terribly funny—as I’ve already revealed in this magazine as well as in my new book, “The Secret World of Kids.” But Garry Moore had an experience with a tot that could have been far from funny. He had a cute little 19-month-old girl on his show. Her secret: “I learned how to swim four months ago.” Well, she could swim all right, performed like a little dolphin in a wet run-through that very afternoon in the pool “I’ve Got A Secret” rented and trucked over to the studios. But that night, with millions watching, she just sat on the edge of the pool and refused to go in.
One shove would have solved the problem
Here was a typical emergency: the sponsor, the advertising agency, and millions of people expected this child to swim. Someone standing off-camera behind Garry whispered, “Push her in! Push her in!” But Garry made a wise decision. He just sat down beside the tot, hugged her, looked the TV camera straight in the eye and said: “Believe me, folks, she swam this afternoon.”
One of the most embarrassing moments for an emcee happened to George DeWitt on “Name That Tune.” A likeable young butcher’s apprentice named Mario Cicero on the program had often talked so endearingly of slicing pork chops and of his fondness for “Schwartz’s Meat Shop,” where he worked, that the program’s producers secretly decided to buy out his beloved Schwartz’s and present it to him lock, stock and sirloin on his final TV appearance. Unbeknownst to its contestant, the program went into a huddle with lawyers, bankers and Mr. Schwartz and purchased Schwartz’s Meats. They had an immense sign made with “Mario’s Meats” splashed across it and unfurled it amidst a wild orchestra fanfare and applause on the program. All eyes then turned to Mario to feast on his joy. He was the picture of dejection.
“I cannot accept,” he said. “My ambition has always been to go into the florist business. Last week, my brother and I took my winnings and bought a florist shop. It’s to be called ‘Flowers by Mario.’”
So “Name That Tune” found itself in the meat business for a couple of weeks. Then Mr. Schwartz bought it back—and “Name That Tune” has since gone the way of most quiz shows.
A crisis—one second before airtime
The orchestra leader’s baton was already poised one second before airtime the night I emceed the Emmy Awards dinner in Hollywood when the lights in the staging area went out and somebody knocked over a tall row of Corinthian columns. Though made of cardboard, they were fairly heavy. They crashed into the orchestra, sending musical scores off the stands and musicians sprawling on the floor, breaking instruments and knocking out three violinists.
Nerve-racking? Maybe, but believe me, that’s a simple crisis to explain—even in the dark as I had to do—compared to the emcee’s worst bugaboo: the weird and unpredictable guest who, suddenly smitten with the urge to be on television, walks onto the stage like a dreamy somnambulist and gives you the fish-eye.
Recently, I was interviewing a little boy on my CBS-TV “House Party” when a strange woman walked into camera range and shouted: “Stop ruining this child’s life. You have already ruined mine!”
When you can’t laugh it off
In a case like this—with a strange woman telling millions of your fans that you have ruined her life—an emcee thinks ten times before he says a word. Could this, I wondered, be a practical joke staged by my friends, the producers? One look into those wild eyes told me no. I asked the woman if she was a relative or parent of the child. Her only response was to repeat her accusation. This was serious—something that no public figure could slough off as a big joke.
Time was running short, so I looked into the camera and said, “I have long tried to prove to the TV audience that ‘People Are Funny,’ but this afternoon, I’m getting more assistance than I need. This lady says I’ve ruined her life. I think you’re entitled to hear details of what she accuses me of—so tune in tomorrow and find out.”
The network’s legal eagles didn’t want me to run the risk of what the woman might say. But I did. Her accusation: that I have been hypnotizing her on TV and preventing her from coming to Hollywood to win prizes. I flippantly snapped my fingers to “bring her out of it” and suggested that all listeners similarly affected come to Hollywood to have their spell lifted.
One of an emcee’s ugliest problems is handling slurs against races and religions. Most of us are governed by one cardinal rule learned from bitter experience—if not from heartfelt conviction--never let an offensive remark slip by in the hopes America didn’t hear it! They hear it all right, and there’ll be trouble.
I will not allow a slang phrase against minorities to pass on any show of mine. Usually, calling attention to such a slip is enough to elicit an apology. But one of my TV guests not only refused to ease the situation but repeated the stinging racial slang-phrase with I-said-it-and-I-meant-it finality.
“Sir,” I told him, “you have forfeited all rights as a guest of mine. I’d like you to leave now and don’t try to come back. And if you don’t leave on your own accord, I’ll have the ushers throw you out!”
This happened to express my sentiments exactly; so it wasn’t hard to say.
Faye vs. the spider
Though profanity is another scourge that can turn an emcee’s hair gray, it’s sometimes better to let a verbal lapse pass rather than embarrass everyone by making a Federal Case out of it. As an example, take what happened on an “I’ve Got A Secret” Halloween program. The producers had strung a huge spider from the ceiling which they suddenly let down in front of Faye Emerson’s face in the middle of the program.
“Take that damn thing away from me!” yelled Miss Emerson, cringing from genuine fear. The next time her turn came to speak on the panel, she apologized profusely for what she had said. What she didn’t know was that the mike had been turned off and didn’t catch her outburst. But thousands of people, mad with curiosity, wrote in demanding to know what Faye had said that was so bad. She couldn’t tell them without cursing again.
Sometimes the crisis takes place even before the show begins. Recently Bob Stewart, producer of “The Price Is Right,” had to make a last-minute decision that could have involved life-and-death for several hundred people in the studio audience. Just before this top-rated telecast was scheduled to go on, the New York Police Department got a telephone call informing them a bomb had been placed under a seat. Thinking fast, Stewart called Don Pardo, the program’s warm-up announcer, backstage, and with police co-operation whispered a plan in his ear. Pardo went on stage and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to give an extra prize tonight. We will award it to anyone in this theater who finds something under his seat. Now get up and look—immediately!”
There was a gay flurry of excitement in the theater while the audience, to a man and woman, took part in a treasure-hunt for what they little realized was a bomb. With the police standing by, ready to empty the theater, Pardo requested that anyone who had found a package under his seat to raise his hand. The police held their breath. No hand was raised.
“Then I must have left my raincoat on the subway,” said Pardo amid gales of laughter from a jolly audience who, until they read these line, never knew they might have been sitting on dynamite.
Anybody want a job?
I’m not sure this article will ever be used as an enticing want-ad for emcee recruits. But we’d certainly welcome some smooth-talking mavericks into the fold. The background required for the job is minimal: just a little experience wrestling alligators, walking a circus tightrope, and flying into the eye of hurricanes will do just fine.

By the way, stories abound that Art Fleming spoke the words “Tell him what he wins, Don Pardo.” It never happened. “Jeopardy”’s contestants got cash. Losers got an encyclopaedia set and the home version of the game. If NBC hadn’t foolishly destroyed archives of its shows years ago, it’d be easier to correct this kind of misinformation.


  1. I spent many a day as a teenager at NBC studios in NY watching game shows being taped including Jeopardy, Sale of the Century, The Who, What or Where Game, Concentration, etc. I would try and talk to whomever I could as I wanted tv production to be my career. Don Pardo was always nice and accessible, even once getting me the Final Jeopardy graphic card as a souvenir. In those days is was about an 11x14" black card with a hand lettered yellow question. The camera would chroma key out the black and superimpose the yellow question over the contestants. Those experiences fueled my love of television production and a 30+ year- still ongoing career in television for me as a cameraman, editor, etc for various NYC stations. The business has changed dramatically and I'm glad to still be a part of it, in what I feel are its waning days at least as far a local news production is concerned..

  2. Nice story, Coop. Thanks.
    Yes, things have sure changed over the years. People coming in today are confounded by the technology of those days.