March 26, 2017
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The final gong has sounded for game show impresario Chuck Barris. A family spokesperson said Barris, who created The Gong Show, The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and who revived Treasure Hunt in the 1970’s died of natural causes Tuesday afternoon at his home (ironically) in Palisades, New York at age 87. I’ll get to that irony in a little bit.
Barris was born in Philadelphia in 1929. His was a story of triumph over instant tragedy. Barris was left destitute, along with his sister and their mother, when his dentist father died of a stroke.
After graduating from the Drexel Institute of Technology in 1953, he took a series of jobs, including book salesman and fight promoter.
After being dropped from a low-level job at NBC, he found work at the then younger ABC, where he persuaded his bosses to let him open a Hollywood office, from which he launched his game-show empire.
Now for the irony. One of his first successes came in music. He wrote the 1962 hit record, “Palisades Park,” which was recorded by Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon.
Four years later, his TV empire would start. He would change the game show genre, known for being run by Goodson-Todman with The Dating Game. Hosted by Jim Lange, who died in 2014, the show had a young female question three males, hidden from her view, to determine which would be the best date. Sometimes the process was switched, with a male questioning three females. But in all cases the questions were designed by the show’s writers to elicit wild, sexy answers. The show was a big hit in both daytime and nighttime.
The Dating Game sometimes invited celebrities to try their hand at finding love. Stars and stars to be who appeared as contestants included Michael Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steve Martin and a pre-“Charlie’s Angels” Farrah Fawcett, introduced as “an accomplished artist and sculptress” with a dream to open her own gallery. Also featured were John Ritter, Phil Hartman, Pee-Wee Herman, and even Madonna. The Dating Game and New Dating Game in syndication would end in 1974.
The Dating Game would enjoy a ribald syndicated revival in the late 1970’s, complete with Lange decked out in the gaudiest of tuxedos. The show would be revived in the 80’s with hosts Elaine Joyce and Jeff McGregor. In the late 90’s the show was brought back one last time with Brad Sherwood hosting under a totally different format, but all was corrected in the last two seasons of that run with another dating show host Chuck Woolery (Love Connection) taking over.
Barris would also create The Newlywed Game, hosted by Bob Eubanks, where four couples married less than two years wold be asked revealing questions. The answers revealed a lot about the couples. And this was all in the days before Maury, Jerry Springer, even Ricki Lake. Like Dating, Newlywed had success in daytime and primetime until 1974. In 1977, The Newlywed Game came back in daily syndication wilder than ever. it would last until 1980. In 1985, Eubanks would come back with The New Newlywed Game, well new in terms of the set. Four years later, the format and host changed. Three couples played along with host comedian Paul Rodriguez.
In the late 1990’s Gary Kroger became host, again with three couples, but with a different format a la the Dating Game, including a final round where the husbands had to respond with “That’s my wife” on paddles. The oversight was corrected and for the last two seasons, Eubanks was brough back. It was as if he never missed a step.
In 1973, Barris revived the 50’s game show Treasure Hunt, which was then hosted by Jan Murray. The New Treasure Hunt had 30 boxes, klunks, and a then staggering grand prize of $25,000. In 2014 I wrote about host Geoff Edwards after his death.
The show, The New Treasure Hunt, got rid of the 1950’s run quiz contest and replaced it with a pop up surprise to decide who went on the treasure hunt. The contestant, always a woman, was shown 30 boxes, each one containing things from showcases of amazing prizes, cars, trips, even cash to booby prizes called clunks, a word Geoff himself invented.
BUT…in one and only one of those boxes was the show’s grand prize…TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS (excuse me, but I can’t resist doing that).
Each box had an envelope with it containing a cash amount of up to $2500 which the player could keep instead of the box. Regardless of what happens. Geoff looks inside the box and then proceeds to use his acting chops to perform in a skit which could lead to a prize or a clunk. For the big check, the piece of paper itself was in the box.
If it was found, and not given up, the set would explode in balloons and sirens. The New Treasure Hunt was another hit for Barris going until 1977. But there are stories as to what brought down the show.
After the 1976-77 season, Barris decided to flex his sadistic muscle, according to Edwards and other sources. Barris at least according to Geoff, had his “evil” plans hatching including giving a contestant a new car…only to tell her all she won was…the windshield. After hearing that, Geoff no longer wanted to be a part of the show and quit at the end of the 1976-77 season. Despite it being a hit, Barris couldn’t find a replacement for Geoff who had his energy, his style, so The New Treasure Hunt was cancelled.
But in 1976, Barris would create and later host the show that made him a legend…The GONG Show. The wild talent show predating American Idol, The Voice and America’s Got Talent by generations.
Patterned after the Major Bowes Amateur Hour show that was a radio hit in the 1930s, the program featured some performers with amazing talent, some with peculiar talents and, often, no talent at all. When that third part showed up, any of the celebrity judges would hit an an oversize gong. And Barris as the show on NBC and syndication (1976-80) went on, he would go from tuxedos to a desheviled look to wearing crazy hats.
If there was to be a permanent set of judges for The Gong Show, the answer would be obvious…Jamie Farr, Jaye P. Morgan (THE JUICE IS LOOSE! and if there was a Spice Girl nickname for her, it would be Gong Spice) and Arte Johnson. Their chemistry with Chuck was comedy gold. That’s my big three.
And there were the crazy characters, including the never to be forgotten Gene Gene The Dancing Machine who was a NBC stagehand who was known for doing some dancing during breaks in recording shows. Barris asked him to be a part of the spectacle and a legend was born. He died a few years ago.
In a fit of irony, ABC is thinking about bringing back The Gong Show to capitalize on their game show revivals of Match Game, To Tell The Truth, Family Feud and The $100,000 Pyramid. But if you ask me, I think when Chuckie Baby heard about this, he probably got sick, given how raunchy TV is even these days. The times in the 1960’s and 70’s was TAME compared to the SJW/PC culture these days. There are a LOT of people I would love to give that gong to (Katy Perry anyone?).
In 1981, Treasure Hunt was brought back, but now with a cheaper prize budget, 66 boxes and a jackpot check which began at $20,000 and went up until it got to $50,000. It was basically a recycling of The New Treasure Hunt. Even though Barris was one of the Executive Producers, he had nothing to do with that show. For that reason, or so we are told, Edwards said he had some more fun on the show.
But Barris luck seemed to run out thanks to righteous indignation over the show Three’s A Crowd. The 1978 project, hosted by an out of place Jim Peck, dared to ask the question “Who knows a husband best? His wife or his secretary?” That show lasted one season, but thanks to airings on Game Show Network including a wilder revival hosted by the late Alan Thicke, it’s remembered more as a cult classic.
He flamed out it seemed after 1980’s disaster The Gong Show Movie. Barris checked into a New York hotel and wrote his autobiography, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” in two months. In it, he claimed to have been a CIA assassin.
The book (and the 2002 film based on it, directed by George Clooney) were widely dismissed by some in the CIA who said Barris “allowed his imagination to run wild when he claimed to have spent his spare time traveling the world, quietly rubbing out enemies of the United States.”
“It sounds like he has been standing too close to the gong all those years,” quipped CIA spokesman Tom Crispell.
Barris, who offered no corroboration of his claims, was unmoved.
“Have you ever heard the CIA acknowledge someone was an assassin?” he once asked.
I more believe Chuckie Baby than the CIA itself, thanks to people like Alex Jones and Edward Snowden…but I am going off someplace else.
Barris’ life changed in the 1980’s. Seeking escape from the Hollywood rat race, he moved to a villa in the south of France with his girlfriend and future second wife, Robin Altman, and made only infrequent returns to Hollywood, mostly to promote “Confessions…”
Tragedy soon followed. Barris’s first marriage, to Lynn Levy, ended in divorce. Their daughter, Della, who would sometimes appear on The Gong Show, died of a drug overdose in 1998. He married his third wife, Mary, in 2000.
WABC-TV New York reports “In lieu of flowers, his family suggests that donations be made to the New York Police Foundation.”