Bob Barker, the longtime TV game show host who is being canonized on nighttime TV with two (count ’em!) specials, is receiving all manner of print tributes as well, the most recent in today’s New York Times.
None of these tributes, however, mention his brief but very successful career as a game show host before live audiences in Tennessee and other southern states in the late 1970s. I was a Knoxville-based stringer for The New York Times during those years, and I wrote a piece in the Times about him. Therein lies a tale.
“The Bob Barker Fun and Games Show,” as it was called, was conjured up by a Kingsport attorney named Shelburne Ferguson and a Johnson City dentist named Robert Rowe, and consisted of a profusion of prizes amid the sort of tomfoolery that Barker had perfected in his then 21 years of television. Barker would do stunts such as blindfolding a man and making him believe that he was kissing three women selected from the audience while in fact he was being bussed by his wife each time.
Then there was one where Barker brought a woman onto the stage and had her stand in front of three guys. The woman was asked to tell a joke, and when she got to the punchline, Guy Number One dropped his pants, revealing colorful boxer shorts. The audience roared, and Barker made the woman think that her stories were killing them, and could she tell another. She did, and–well, you get the drift. Many of these tricks were straight off Truth or Consequences, which Barker hosted from 1956-1965.
Wherever this schtick came from, audiences ate it up. Tennessee Partners, as Ferguson and Rowe named their company, drew 11,000 people in Hampton, Virgina, of which 4,000 were turned away. Barker played to 8,000 people in Johnson City and turned away 2,000. In Knoxville, where I attended the show, he pulled in 6,000. I sat down that night and banged out my article on a manual typewriter and dictated in over the phone to some guy at in New York.
I must have been operating under the writing influence of Tom Wolfe; my prose referred to Barker as “a perennial pitchman,” then swung into “All ages were represented in a sort of polyester congregation that, impatiently awaiting the High Priest of Hype, contemplated a stage full of prizes–color television sets, blenders, refrigerators, hair dryers, and an automobile.”
The piece ran in the Times, and was reprinted all over the country. I pitched the idea of an article on Barker and his Tennessee connection to TV Guide, and to my surprise and delight an editor called up and said they would like to commission a piece. I got in touch with Tennessee Partners and was put in touch with Bob Barker, and that’s where the trouble began. It seems that Barker didn’t take kindly to being referred to in the newspaper of record as a “pitchman,” much less the “High Priest of Hype.”
He was happy to be featured in TV Guide, it seemed, but he wanted the piece written by someone other than me. TV Guide, to its eternal credit, told Barker that it was my story and if he wanted in there he had to talk to me, which he eventually did. He was pleasant on the phone, and even sent my wife some flowers, but the piece never ran. I don’t know whether my florid prose or Hollywood machinations did it in.
Barker finally stopped doing the Tennessee Partners gigs–I never learned why–but I still see Shelburne Ferguson when I attend my father’s Rotary Club back in Kingsport. I asked Ferguson if he ever misses showbiz, and he said something to the effect of “Once it’s in your blood, you never get over it.”
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