24 May 2007

M.C. = Men of Class

Back to game shows for a minute. Or two. Or even 29 minutes (with commercials).

Over supper at Zaxby's the other night, Seraphim and I were discussing game show hosts. The whole Bob Barker thing got us thinking about the worst hosts of all time .... but from there we went to an easier list to compile: the best.

Now you know those MCs on the bottom will be featured. You can count on that. For now, though, let's run down the Talmadge Top Ten Television Tournament Toastmaster Toteboard.

And now on with the countdown! [jingle: "Talmadge Coast to Coooooooast!"]

10) PETER TOMARKEN. One of the later school of hosts, his most famous show was my favorite one in the 1980s: Press Your Luck. Great voice, great personality and a sharp wit. Goodness knows, he needed it during that whole Michael Larsen debacle! His reactions as Larsen - who had the board pattern memorized - kept racking up "Big Bucks" without hitting any "Whammies" were beyond priceless. ("A trip to the Bahamas? With your money, you could BUY the Bahamas!")

Sadly, we lost Tomarken way too early. Died in a plane crash in 2006.

9) JOE GARAGIOLA. He was best-remembered as a sports commentator for NBC, and one of the most engaging baseball play-by-play announcers. Garagiola grew up in St. Louis, Missouri just down the street from another baseball icon, Yogi Berra. Ironically, scouts saw Joe G. as the more promising of the ballplayers .... but, after being signed to the St. Louis Cardinals, he wiped out; we all know what became of that Berra guy. Garagiola, to his credit, was always full of self-deprecating wit, poking fun at his own lackluster record. But "lackuster" did not describe his talents as a sportcaster, a radio personality .... and game show emcee. Several programs over which he presided were the original (1969-73) Sale of the Century, part of the '70s revival of To Tell the Truth, and had a stint as host of a 1969 game show called He Said, She Said (the early incarnation of what would become Tattletales). Joe G. was also one of a number of personalities who spent time hosting part of the long-form NBC radio program Monitor. It's hard to find 'em more gentlemanly than Joe Garagiola.

8) BUD COLLYER. One of an elite group of on-air personalities who wore bow ties, Collyer was all over television in the 1950s as host of Beat the Clock and later the original run of To Tell the Truth (1956-68). Before TV he was the voice of Superman on the '40s radio serials. Collyer parting words to every contestant was the phrase "God bless you." And for some reason, it sounds comforting ..... because he never beat his viewers or contestants over the head with religion; the line came from the heart (he was very active in his church as a Sunday school teacher). One need only watch the old kinescopes, and see him in action ... Collyer was a good and down-to-earth host. Another true gentleman.

7) RAY COMBS. A real tragedy. I don't give a hovering f(BLEEP)k what anyone thinks, the man was the best of all the Family Feud hosts. Yes, better than His Smoochy-ness, too. When Mark Goodson died in 1992 and left the company in the hands of his son Jonathan, it spelled the end of Ray's tenure on "The 'Feud." Jonathan replaced him with his predecessor, bringing back Mr. Ego, Richard "Kiss Me, I Have Herpes" Dawson. The show flopped. As well it should have.

Ray was a good, lively and fun person to watch host a game show. He had a great wit, and -- like Bud Collyer -- a very decent man without wearing it on his sleeve. Sadly, Combs took the fall from grandeur very hard. He ended up hosting Family Challenge, a short-lived 'stunt' program on The Family Channel (back when Pat Robertson still had it). Watching him host it is a memory I truly wish I could surgically remove from my brain. It was profoundly sad -- it was written all over his face: "It's come down to this??"

He'd kill himself soon thereafter. If you ask me, Jonathan Goodson has some of Ray's blood on his hands.

6) ALLEN LUDDEN. Mr. Password. But, unlike certain men (rhymes with "Bob Barker"), Ludden respected the franchise. And, when he was getting too ill to continue hosting, he called on his good friend Tom Kennedy to take the reins. A personality in the same vein as Bud Collyer, his type we'll never see again anytime soon. (by the way, his opening words - "Hi, Doll!" - were intended for Betty White's mother, his MIL)

5) WINK MARTINDALE. You've probably noticed a theme ... or, more accurately, the lack of one. The names you see here certainly don't fit into the stereotypical toothy, slick, smooth and smarmy GAME SHOW HOST (beautifully nailed by the late Jim Henson, with his Muppet creation "Guy Smiley"). Okay, Martindale at times has a tendency to come close. But when I think of his hard work over the last 15+ years as an ambassador and advocate for the TV game show, I quickly excuse any (tiny) shortcomings. Besides, he relates in a genuine way toward contestants.

Wink is a true Southerner, too! A native of west Tennessee who cut his teeth in Memphis, as the first morning drive jock on legendary station WHBQ when it began doing top-40 the late 1950s. A cool historical tidbit: 'The Winker' happened to be standing in the control room talking to night jock Dewey Phillips when he was delivered a newly-pressed recording from a guy named Elvis Presley - "That's All Right Mama."

Wink, of course, was best-remembered for hosting Gambit on CBS in the early '70s and Tic Tac Dough from 1978-1985.

4) GENE RAYBURN. Who else could handle a studio crammed full of six other celebrity egos, and make it hum like a fine timepiece? He did The Match Game for NBC from 1962-69, and the CBS revival -- the one most of us remember -- from 1973-82. Rayburn was a master at riding the edge of the envelope, knowing just how far to push it without going over the cliff. Oh, and he also hosted Monitor on NBC radio. Did so for more than 10 years, perhaps the most fondly-remembered personality on that program, holding down the Saturday morning shift -- Monitor's highest-rated timeslot. He was every bit as good a radio announcer as he was a TV host.

3) TOM KENNEDY. Best-remembered for the 1960s word game You Don't Say! ("It's not what you say that counts, it's what You Don't Say!") and the warp-speed Q&A game Split Second (1972-75). Kennedy was one of a small group of prolific game show hosts, who also did the 1980s nighttime Price is Right, Name That Tune in the '70s, the short-lived but cool game show Whew! (1979-80; "Tiiiiiiiiiime's uhhhhh-uuuup!").

One more person who loved the games he presided over, as well as the contestants. And it showed. Tom was a gentleman and a scholar, what more can I say?

Tom's brother was also a game show host. Remember Jack Narz?

2) ART FLEMING. Mr. Cordiality. Mr. Conviviality. Mr. Jeopardy! He hosted the original version on NBC from 1964-75. Also did the brief revival of the show in 1978-79. Anything else? Oh yeah - made two unforgettable cameos when he reprised his role as Jeopardy! emcee: 1) the 1982 movie Airplane II, and the 1983 Weird Al Yankovic video for "I Lost on Jeopardy" - a parody of the Greg Kihn hit song "Jeopardy" (unrelated to the game show). He also acted, was a radio talk show host, and - along with several other NBC game hosts - had a stint hosting Monitor.

Both cameos were made before the start of the Jeopardy! we know today, which debuted in September 1984 with Alex Trebek as host. Alex is okay, I guess, and even though he's presided over the show for twice as long as Art had it, he'll never come close to the sincerity and cordial personality of Art Fleming. You know how pompous Trebek can be ... Fleming didn't have a single bone of pomposity in his 6-foot-4 body.

What I wouldn't give to have been born with a voice like Fleming's. Authoritative, yet warm. There was a real chemistry between Art and announcer Don Pardo, and he'd sometimes drop in gentle barbs toward Pardo in the middle of frenzied Jeopardy! gameplay. And his commercial break intros were legendary: "Please watch ... thank you!"

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Aaaaaand the number one game show host of all time. I don't think you even have to guess on this one, as it's clear as his sight was with his trademark glasses:

1) BILL CULLEN.
From shows like Eye Guess to Three on a Match to being ... pay attention, gang ... the original host of The Price Is Right (1956-1965), Cullen was - perhaps - the perfect game show host. His easygoing manner, wry humor and genuine personality made him a hit. His version of TPIR in the '50s and '60s was one of the top-rated games on television, and his style of hosting was widely viewed as a big reason. Yet, unlike OTHER Price emcees, it never went to his head. What's more, Cullen was also a likable radio personality. In the early '70s, he hosted segments of ... you guessed it! ... Monitor.

It's funny -- he's hosted many, many game shows over the years. Some time back, I'd gotten a batch of vintage, short-lived game shows in a video trade -- one of which had Cullen as host. Seraphim was watching 'em with me, and she asked, "So how many shows DID Bill Cullen host?" My response: "It would be quicker to tell you the shows he didn't host."

A couple of questions I'd like to ask God as soon as I have an audience with Him: Why did you give Bill Cullen polio when he was young? And why did you take Cullen away from us and leave us Bob Barker? What if The Price is Right were celebrating 35 years on CBS with Cullen continuing to host (with his pronounced limp, he never could've done the modern version of the show). Could you have imagined Bill Cullen trying to seduce one of his models? Would Bill Cullen have used his program as a platform for his personal views ("Help control the game show population ... spay or neuter your egotistical host.")?

And there you have it. Out of the above, only three are still alive as of this writing (Garagiola, Martindale, Kennedy). I salute all of you, departed or living. Thank you for giving one person a lot of joy in the midst of a far-from-perfect childhood.

This is Talmadge Gleck saying "Help control the daytime trash population. Spay or neuter all the TV courtroom judges and talk show hosts."

Ciao for niao.

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