The original “Millionaire” “Matchmaker”…dead

With no due respect to Bravo, and for as long as I have been a game show freak, one of my favorite hosts was the man called Gentleman Jim…Jim Lange, who led the Lange Gang on radio in San Francisco, but will forever be known as a game show host, died at his home in Mill Valley California after a heart attack at age 81 according to his wife a former Miss America whom he married in 1978.

He was born in Minnesota in 1932.  It was there in his teens after winning a radio audition his carrer began and his life changed. He would graduate from high school, before going to the University of Minnesota on a golf Scholarship. After graduating from there and serving in the Marines, Lange moved to San Francisco.  He would be “The All-Night Mayor” on powerhouse KGO before moving to afternoons on KSFO in 1960.

His first big break came in 1962 serving as a sidekick for the San Francisco-based Tennessee Ernie Ford Show.  But he would be introduced to the world of game shows in the Bay Area in 1965 on a show produced at KGO-TV called Oh My Word.  It was a show where local celebrities and contestants tried to figure out weird but dictionary certified words, a format later used in 1987 on NBC’s Wordplay with Tom Kennedy.

Later that year, though things took off for Jim.  A producer named Chuck Barris wanted to create shows that seemed out of the ordinary and would pave the way for the “reality TV” we sadly have today.  Barris created The Dating Game and hired the tall man with the melodious voice and easy going style for a show that was anything but.  The concept…one man asks three women (or vice versa) behind a screen questions designed by the show’s writers to elicit sexy answers, something in the Television Code world was just about verboten.  But the show worked and even had celebrities play the game including Michael Jackson, Steve Martin, John Ritter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bob Saget even a pre-“Charlie’s Angels” Farrah Fawcett.  The show was first seen in the afternoons on ABC, later a weekly primetime version offering more amazing dates to places around the world.  In 1973, The NEW Dating Game was on in weekly syndication.  In 1978, Dating Game came back on even more salacious than ever and with Jim decked out in the gaudiest tuxedos on television hey it WAS the 1970’s.

Pardon the video quality, but this was the first 1978 episode of the show.

Between those stints, Jim hosted some short-lived shows such as 1975’s Spin-off  where Jim’s chops with a quiz format was tried.  Basically it was a Q&A with spinners, poker strategy and a shot at $10,000.  There are some scenes available on YouTube like in this “pitch tape.”  It’s been rumored on the web all the episodes of this show exist somewhere.

Another 1975 show was Bill Carruthers Give and Take, a women only show where shopping strategy and a light quiz along with a spinning arrow were the elements.  I think I like what Carruthers put out ten years later…a little show called Press Your Luck.  And yes, there is an episode on YouTube.

After The Dating Game, Jim who also worked at LA’s legendary KMPC 710 alongside other game show legends including Geoff Edwards, Wink Martindale and Gary Owens, went back to a bigger production company, Barry Enright to host Bullseye, a show based on B/E’s two hit shows, Tic Tac Dough and The Joker’s Wild.  Jim hosted the Match Game clone The Hollywood Connection in 1977.

On Bullseye, contestants spun on a big three window board with swirls picking from two categories on top and a contract window on the bottom where from 1 to 5 questions must be answered or the Bullseye which meant unlimited questions until the goal of $1000 (later $2000) was reached to win.  The winner then faced Bonus Island, which was the cool part of the show as a giant button slid from upstage down and sometimes crashing to near the neon board.  There the player relied on luck and skill to get 3 Bullseyes to double their money stakes and win prizes while avoiding mean old lightning.  It was basically the three B’s…Bullseyes, Bucks and Bolts.  But during the pilot show, which came out 35 years ago, Bonus island was worth $1,000,000 if three Bullseyes kept showing up.

In this episode from 1981, one player did what a few others did on Bonus island, beat lightning 10 spins in a row to win a prize package and $5000 cash.

It’s rumored some players got three Bullseyes on one spin with the windows open (everytime they appeared players could lock the window hoping lightning was covered) and won automatically, even setting off the alert siren from Star Trek.  Even Johnny Carson himself according to the Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows visited the show when it was taped at NBC in Burbank (later CBS TV City) and marveled at the neons and lights.  Carson himself a former game show host (Who Do You Trust). The sets, swirls and their hypnotic sound and Hal Hidey soundtrack made Bullseye hit the target for three seasons.

In 1984, with Tom Kennedy hosting Body Language for CBS, Sandy Frank hired Jim to host the revival of The $100,000 Name That Tune.  The daily airing of Tune featured a monthly tournament where contestants who won the Golden Medley by naming 7 tunes in 30 seconds competed for $100,000 in cash and prizes.  The show lasted one season in syndication (moving to before sign-off on WABC-TV in New York was a sure sign the melody wouldn’t linger on), but lasted for years in countless reruns on cable’s USA and CBN (now ABC Family).  But their celebration for winning the 100 large felt more like for winning $1,000,000.

Speaking of the mega, before Regis Philbin, Meredith Vieira, Drew Carey, Bob Saget, Pat Sajak and Howie Mandel did it, it was Jim who first gave away the mil on “The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime.”  Two couples competed in a series of word puzzles solving clues and picking from a giant keyboard.  The couple who won the most money after three puzzles played the million dollar round.  There they has 60 seconds to ala Scrabble’s Speedword solve six words fitting into a category.  Doing that three days in a row netted the megaload, first an all cash deal, later $100,000 in prizes plus $900K in cash and the wildest sirens and horns to out sound the Price Is Right’s “Clangs and Whoops” when both showcases are won…EVEN FIREWORKS (wonder if Vince McMahon was a fan of the show).  One of the show’s nine couples to win it all was Bill and Cheryl Gilmore.  YouTube has all their appearances including the big win.

The show lasted two seasons in syndication (seen here on channel 9 in prime time).  But game show freaks like myself know it was the show that set the tone for the million dollar shows to come.  That was Jim’s final game show.  The Hollywood Reporter said Lange also made acting appearances, including playing himself in an episode of Laverne and Shirley hosting The Dating Game.

His last TV appearance was on Hollywood Squares in 2003 for their game show week.  Sure he starred on TV, but radio was his love. Lange told the Bay Area Radio Digest what he loved about the medium was “you don’t have to worry about lighting directors and cameramen or script writers and all that. Good radio is still the most fun it always will be. Plus, you don’t have to wear makeup and you don’t have to shave.”

One of Jim’s pals, Wink Martindale posted the following on his Facebook page…

I was saddened beyond words to hear of the passing of my longtime pal Jim Lange. We first met when Jim, Bob Eubanks and I were hosts in the Chuck Barris stable. But my relationship with Jim reached far beyond television. First and foremost we were both avid radio performers. Jim’s initial success came in his beloved San Francisco. Then LA. For me it was Memphis. Then LA.

Jim had been a mid-day fixture on Gene Autry’s flagship KMPC when he chose to return to Frisco radio. I was chosen to take over Jim’s noon-three slot on KMPC, where I remained for the next twelve years.

Jim’s presence on radio and television made a permanent mark that will not be forgotten. When recently asked how he would like to be remembered Jim said, “As a gentleman who did his best as a husband, father and performer, and enjoyed life all the way.”

Jim Lange was a gentleman pro, in every sense of the word. He will be sorely missed.

Wink hosted the program “How’s Your Mother In Law?” for Barris, one that seems to have been forgotten

So let’s blow one final Dating Game kiss to Jim as he joins the great hosts in game show eternity.  And in a sign-off from one of his other shows, I hope everything we go for in life hits the BULLSEYE!

So long, Gentleman Jim.

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