On June 15, Bob Barker will end his reign as America’s longest-running game-show host by appearing in his 6,586th (and final) episode of The Price Is Right. Though the CBS series will continue (the network has tried out hopefuls but not yet announced a replacement), Price will be a very different program without the longtime emcee, 83, and his signature skinny mic.
”It’s a lot more fun to do than a person might realize,” says Barker. ”Each audience has its own personality. It’s like mining for gold. I’m looking for little gems with whom I can create spontaneous entertainment. It’s great satisfaction.”
To mark the end of an era, we go back 35 years to look at how it all began — from the host’s first Showcase Showdown to fainting contestants, a bottomless Barker Beauty, and the origin of ”Come on down!”
The year was 1972. Worried that morning repeats of The Beverly Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show were attracting too many kids and not enough women, CBS programming chief Fred Silverman and vice president of daytime Bud Grant made the bold decision to premiere a 90-minute block of game shows that fall. On the slate: The Joker’s Wild, Gambit, and a redux of The Price Is Right, which had aired on both NBC and ABC from 1956 to 1965. After luring Jack Barry and Wink Martindale to host Joker’s and Gambit, respectively, Grant set about finding the man who could deliver the now-immortal phrase ”And the actual retail price is…”
I was hosting Truth or Consequences, but I had a contract that gave me the opportunity to do a network show since Truth was in syndication…. Bud said, ”You come over here and do The Price Is Right, and something good is going to come of it.”
I was essentially offering him to be the host of one of the most successful shows that was ever on in daytime. I was asking Bob to follow [former Price host] Bill Cullen! But if you’re in this business, you have to have some ego, and Bob was better than Bill. I also think he had a better show to work with than Bill did.
I was 48 and didn’t have any thoughts about the rest of my life. It was just another show I thought I would have fun with and be well paid for.
With that big production, big stage, and Bob Barker — how could you go wrong?
With Barker in place, the show’s executive producer, Mark Goodson, set about assembling the rest of his Price pack: announcer Johnny Olson, models Janice Pennington and Anitra Ford, and a backstage crew that included a future film director (Nancy Meyers, Something’s Gotta Give) and screenwriter (Jay Wolpert, The Count of Monte Cristo).
FORD (Barker Beauty, 1972-76)
I had just come back from having a lead role in a Roger Corman movie, The Big Bird Cage. Janice Pennington was one of my best friends and she had introduced me to Goodson…. He didn’t want Carol Merrill from Let’s Make a Deal — he wanted sexy, classy New York models. It was a job in a million. [As for Pennington, she had a controversial history on the show, having sued CBS and won $1.3 million after she was accidentally struck by a camera in 1988. In 2000, she reportedly signed a confidentiality agreement after she was fired — there is speculation she was let go because she testified on behalf of a former model who filed a wrongful-termination suit against Price that was eventually settled. The show has denied the connection. Pennington declined to comment for this article.]
ROGER DOBKOWITZ (Producer, 1972-present)
I had just finished college…. Two months later I reported for duty. Walking into the studio was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. To me, it looked gigantic. Of course, people walk into the studio today and go, ”God, this is small!”
WOLPERT (Producer, 1972-78)
We worked close to 14 hours a day to develop the show — me and about a half dozen other creative executives who were part of the Goodson coterie. We’d sit around his pool. That sounds grand, but believe me, we were not swimming. We worked very, very hard while Goodson swam in the pool. [Goodson died in 1992.]
[Rehearsals] were like being in the Marine Corps! We showed up early in the morning to mark and block every single prize. I always gave my all for rehearsals so I’d look good, standing there holding the Rice-A-Roni. In many ways, it was a role that we were playing. We were there to act and to throw our passion into a microwave oven or a Broyhill sofa.
We only had five games [for the show] at the beginning: Any Number, Bonus Game, Double Prices, Grocery Game, and Bullseye. One day, Bob came by the office to see some of the games we were going to present, and I was completely starstruck. Bob has not changed. Physically he has, but he’s the same Bob from 35 years ago — very cordial, very respectful of you, with a genuinely big smile.
We were in rehearsals, and I got a call from Bob, asking if he could buy me lunch. We went to the Brown Derby in Hollywood. After exchanging the usual pleasantries over coffee, Bob said he didn’t want to do the show. I almost fell off the chair. He said he’d do Joker’s Wild or Gambit, but not Price. He thought the show could be better produced. I said, ”Barker, you will do Price because those other two shows are good, solid game shows that require a traffic cop to run them, and you’re not a cop. You have far more talent!”
The first episode — taped on the same CBS Television City soundstage that Price continues to occupy today — aired on Sept. 4, 1972.
I wore a dark green Bob De Chellis suit. I didn’t have any anxiety about [the first show]. The adrenaline was probably running a bit more than it would be. I was right at home on The Price Is Right the way I was on Truth or Consequences. But I dare say that I wanted to make it good.
DOBKOWITZ He was a little stiff. My impression was that it was very important for Bob to get through the show. He did not become that talkative person until years later. And the audience in the very first show was very quiet. Johnny said, ”Joe Smith, stand up! Betty So-and-so, stand up!” All four stood up with no applause and then Johnny said, ”Come on down! You are the first contestants on The New Price Is Right !”
It was obviously better to have them get up and [immediately] get down there. We made the change after about three weeks…. Johnny Olson’s interpretation is what made the whole thing, a phrase we hear all over the country now. [Olson died in 1985.]
PAUL LEVINE (First Showcase winner)
My mother-in-law — who I fondly refer to as the Mouth — was out here from New York, so we went down and got in line. She yelled out to the guy who [decides] if you’re going to get on that I was her son-in-law and I just had a baby. Then they called my name! Without the Mouth, I never would have gotten on the show.
The very first prize on the very first show was a fur coat. For many, many years Bob was almost embarrassed by that.
I myself was not aware of the cruelty to animals in the production of fur until about 1981. I said to Mark that I was very much involved in the antifur campaign and it’s embarrassing to be on the stage giving away fur coats. And he said, ”I understand your position. They’re gone.”
For my Showcase, there was an Exercycle, roller skates, and a piston-engine Mazda. I bid $2,500 and the actual retail value was $2,504. I think I was the closest one to the actual retail value from anybody ever on that show.
When the contestants would make their bids for the Showcase, I would have to figure out the difference right there, so we actually glued desktop calculators to the console next to the lights. It seems so rinky-dink now.
To the untrained eye, Price looked like a well-oiled machine from the start, but there were still plenty of mishaps — and wardrobe malfunctions — to contend with both in front of and behind the camera.
If both Showcase contestants go over, we sound a horn, and Bob says, ”You are both over,” so they would rebid. That happened in the second week, and I got my calculators all screwed up [during the rebids]. It was going too fast! I remember them saying, ”Stop the tape! What’s going on here?” We didn’t know how to fix it so the show was thrown out, never aired — all because of me.
There were a lot of things we were terrified of in those days — like having somebody on stage who was either drunk or didn’t understand the rules…. There was a lady who fainted during the Showcase. That was a riot. I’m basically on top of the girl, slapping her while the credits are rolling.
I knew she was going, her eyes were just rolling up in her head. It was really quite impressive, to put it mildly.
I had a bikini that I really liked to wear for the Showcases that had gold loops on both sides. One time I was trotting along backstage and Johnny Olson was right behind me when all of a sudden I heard this plop. I looked down and there was my bikini bottom on the floor. I was bottomless. I turned around and Johnny had just disappeared. We never spoke about it.
During our dinner break [from taping], we’d go across the street to have three or four drinks, and then we’d come back and laugh at the fact that we were drunk.
I heard rumors about them going across the street to the little bar, but I didn’t go with them. That’s a busy street and I was afraid I’d be hit by a car…. [Laughs] People would be surprised, I guess, to know how dull I really am.
CBS’ gamble in daytime paid off: Price, like Joker’s and Gambit, was an overnight hit, appealing to a far more adult audience than the comedy reruns, while generating a 32 share in households — meaning almost a third of the country’s TVs in use were tuned to the show. Though the network’s morning lineup would eventually evolve — Joker’s went off the air in 1975 and into syndication, while Gambit was canceled in 1976 — the reincarnated ‘Price’ went on to become the longest-running game show in U.S. history, and Barker the longest-tenured game-show host.
Daytime is a glacial medium. When you make changes it can take forever for those changes to work. But we didn’t miss a beat. We got the same ratings for the game shows that we did with the comedies, but our adult [viewership] improved fivefold.
Bob was different from minute one. The audience just adored him. When he would come out of those doors, there was a surge — and, of course, there were far more women than men. There would be a huge roar. They were just dazzled by him. I mean, my God, he looked great.
I’ve had hugs and kisses on every show. I learned late in life that if you give a woman a car, she’s going to hug and kiss you. I had one come up and say, ”I’m going to kiss you on the lips.” I said, ”No, you’re not!”
It seemed as he got older, his [sex appeal] took a big jump when he let his hair go gray. The women just loved that look. The silver fox! Swear to God, that turns a lot of women on.
It’s hard for me to envision The Price Is Right without Bob. I don’t know whether the numbers will totally hold up [after he leaves]. He is such an important part of the show.
It was obviously a smart decision for Bob to stay for 35 years. Why leave a show that’s highly successful and go to do something else? The only thing that I think Bob might have left Price Is Right for was if he had created his own game or audience-participation show and it was at the end of his contract. Bob is a good businessman.
There was one period when I did have a show idea that ABC was interested in. I did bring that into the discussion with Mark Goodson at one of my re-signings, but I decided to stay with Price…. It probably is hard to believe, but I have thoroughly enjoyed doing this show all these years. I have thought every year for the last 10 or 15 years that maybe I should quit, and then I think, ”No, I’ll do it another year.” I regret that I’m quitting now.