There is a story, often told in my family, of the time when I was 3 years old and my nanny, Louise Morris, made a stop during one of our afternoon walks to purchase some flowers. While she paid, I sat propped up on the checkout counter, quietly minding my own. But when the cashier dropped a few coins’ worth of change into my open hand, I had something to say: “Bob, I want a dollar bill!”
The Bob, of course, was Bob Barker, and the dollar bill was the crispy C-note that I knew was always waiting in his coat pocket for the contestant who guessed exactly right on “the next item up for bid” on The Price Is Right. By the time of this flower-shop episode, I was already a seasoned Price viewer, having been propped on Morris’ knee since roughly the age of 6 weeks as she got her daily fix — and as my vocabulary expanded to include the expressions “showcase showdown” and “actual retail price.”
For more than a decade now, I have lived in an apartment in the very shadow of the CBS studios on Beverly Boulevard — that mythical Television City where, in the pre-Internet era, Price ticket seekers were dutifully instructed to send their self-addressed and stamped envelopes. Yet, until a fateful afternoon this past March, I had never before set foot inside Stage 33, which has been home to The Price Is Right for the 35 years that Barker has hosted it, and which was rechristened in his honor back in 1998, following the taping of his 5,000th episode. This year actually marks Barker’s 50th consecutive year on television, including the 18 he hosted another long-running game show, Truth or Consequences, on NBC. (For three seasons, Barker hosted both shows simultaneously.)
But come June 6, the 17-time Emmy winner will remind viewers to help control the pet population for the final time — a historic event that will be commemorated with a pair of CBS tribute specials set for broadcast during May sweeps. Ask Barker why he’s finally decided to hang up his microphone, as I do, backstage in his dressing room after the taping, and he doesn’t skip a beat.
“I turned 83 years old last December,” he says with a flash of that quicksilver grin, “and I wanted to retire while I’m still young.”
Meeting Barker is a thrill — I’m sure when I was younger, this is what I imagined God looked like, from the shock of white hair (Barker stopped dyeing it back in 1987) to the Botany 500 wardrobe — but sitting through a Price taping is a bit more unsettling, like arriving at the Emerald City and finding that everything is made of zircon. In the cavernous hallway outside the stage entrance, the props and pricing games earmarked for use on that day’s show seem lifeless and disembodied, as if waiting to be sprinkled with some reanimating agent by those mysterious “ladies” and “gentleman” whom Barker is forever asking to “light up that price.” Inside, the studio itself looks altogether smaller than you’d think. And during the taping, one is made privy to all the laborious stagehand work carefully elided by the show’s directors from the broadcast version.
The constant is Barker, who doesn’t leave the stage from the moment he walks through those multicolored doors (to the deafening roar of the audience) until his signature closing, “Goodbye, everybody,” some 75 minutes later. During the various pauses for commercial breaks and set changeovers, he walks to the edge of the stage and chats with the audience members, some of whom have been waiting in line since daybreak or even the night before, many of whom have brought gifts. On this particular day, there are tour groups from Texas and Utah, and a student contingent from Biola University. During one off-camera segment, a middle-aged Mexican-American woman named Esperanza shouts at Barker, “I want to take you home with me!” Moments later, when she’s called to “come on down,” she bypasses contestants’ row entirely and bounds up on stage, as Barker takes cover behind one of the cameramen in mock fear for his life.
It’s unscripted moments like that, Barker tells me later, that have kept him going for all these years and instilled in him the belief that no one audience is quite the same as another.
“Every audience has its own possibility,” he says. “And when you talk to an audience during the commercials, as I do, you begin to get the feel of the audience. Some will laugh at certain jokes. .?.?. If someone asks, ‘What are you going to do after the show, Bob?’ and I say, ‘I’m going to go home and have a jug of tequila,’ some audiences will roar with laughter. With some other audiences, that’s not their thing. But you find out little things about them and you work with them. It’s like mining for gold. When you find someone like Esperanza, that’s glorious.”
Those are lessons Barker learned early in his career, when the Darrington, Washington, native, fresh from a stint as a Naval aviator, stumbled into a job at a Springfield, Missouri, radio station, where he worked stints as a sportscaster, announcer and DJ before finally hosting his first audience-participation program.
“My wife heard it,” Barker says of his high-school sweetheart, Dorothy Jo Gideon (who died in 1981), “and when I got home, she said, ‘That’s what you should do. You did that better than you’ve ever done anything else.’ She didn’t say I was good, mind you.”
So Barker and Dorothy Jo headed west, eventually settling in Los Angeles, where he began hosting an audience-participation radio show for Hollywood station KGFJ. It was that program that caught the ear of Truth or Consequences creator Ralph Edwards when he was in the midst of a nationwide search for a new host for the daytime version of the series. Edwards then called Barker in for a series of interviews and, in December of 1956, the job was his.
“But don’t misunderstand,” Barker cautions. “When Ralph heard me doing radio, I’d been doing audience participation for years. When I first came to California, my wife and I did radio shows for the Southern California Edison company. We’d do two a day — we’d go to Pomona and San Bernardino, or we’d go to Oxnard and Ventura, or we’d go to Santa Monica and Redondo Beach. One in the morning and one in the afternoon. So, I had done hundreds of audience-participation shows before Ralph ever called me.”
Barker acknowledges that such experience is hard to come by nowadays, when most of what passes as “reality” television involves some kind of scripting or rehearsal and when even the game-show hosts he admires — Alex Trebek is one — work with pre-selected contestants.
“If you get a job in a radio station today, you’re not doing audience participation,” he says. “You’re playing records or, if you have a talk show, you’re talking with writers or actors or politicians, and that’s a whole different thing. You ask people like that a question and they’ll give you a whole speech. You start talking with some guy out of the audience and he might say, ‘Uh, well, I don’t know,’ and then you have to go from there.”
Unlike Edwards, though, Barker isn’t actively involved in seeking his yet-to-be-announced successor — rumored candidates include Entertainment Tonight co-host Mark Steines, Saved By the Bell alum Mario Lopez and possibly George Hamilton. But even with a new MC, Barker doesn’t expect The Price Is Right to change very much. If it did, the audience might revolt.
“You know, a question I’m frequently asked is why I still use a microphone with a cord on it,” he says, “and I always answer by saying that when we first started the show, the cordless mikes weren’t as reliable as they are now, and if you moved around as much as I do, a cordless mikes would cut out. So I used the one with the cord, and I continued to use one with a cord because I became so identified with it that I was afraid people wouldn’t recognize me if I didn’t have it! But I’ve been told that when they get a new man, he is going to use a cordless microphone. And when I told the audience that the other day, they cried ‘No! No!’ They don’t even want the guy who follows me to use a cordless microphone. Now, isn’t that wonderful!”
In the meantime, Barker is actively engaged in planning for his retirement. “I used to say that I was going to go into bodybuilding and would eventually become governor of California. But I think I’ve changed my mind now. I had a group here from Canada, and they had on T-shirts that read, ‘Bob Barker for Prime Minister.’ So, that’s what I may do, and I’ve promised them that no matter what problems they have, I will make them worse.”