Wednesday, July 26, 2006

L.A. and The Price is Right

Now, Las Vegas is a busy place, but L.A.? Get out of here! You better get moving or get run over. The traffic there makes Vegas look like Tuscaloosa. Not to mention that you have to pay a mini fortune to park anywhere.

We found a hotel on Saturday night and then made our way to Hollywood Boulevard and walked along the Walk of Fame to see the stars. I had hoped James Spader might be in there somewhere so I could get my picture with his star, but he either doesn’t have one or I didn’t see it. Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is on the street. It’s the old home of the Oscars and the place where many stars have put their footprints, handprints, noses, dreadlocks and who knows what else in cement in front. The Kodak Theatre, the current home of the Oscars, is nearby. There’s not much else to see here but a bevy of souvenir shops.

We then drove through parts of Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive…you know….swimming pools…movie stars…and up through Mulholland Drive, which winds through the mountains. The pictures I took do it more justice than I could with words. The views and the homes (and the prices) are breathtaking.

On Sunday, we went to Universal Studios where Brian’s friend Tony got us free passes. Tony works with Brian for the Memphis Grizzlies, as their sideline reporter, and in the off season gives the backlot tour on the studio lot. The park had many of the same shows and rides you’d find in Orlando, the greatest exception being the backlot tour where you can see many locations where various movie scenes have been filmed. Sadly, the courthouse square from Back to the Future was being used for an episode of The Ghost Whisperer and Wisteria Lane was being used for an episode of Desperate Housewives so we didn’t get to see either.

We made our way to Beverly and Wilshire Sunday evening to the jewel of our quest, CBS Studios. Our hotel, The Farmer’s Daughter, was conveniently situated across the street (there is a farmer’s market behind CBS, hence the hotel’s name). Thanks to my former boss for sending me the New York Times article about The Price is Right that mentioned the hotel. We walked down to K-Mart for various needs and I grabbed a plain black shirt for the show. I had forgotten to bring a Bama shirt like I had intended and had to find a quick replacement.

I left Brian and Heather and drove an hour west to Ventura to see my old co-worker and friend Stephanie. I used to have a thing for her, a very serious thing, but it was one of those situations of one-way interest and didn’t lead down a good road. We were able to be friends, however, and it was good to see her again two years since she left The Tuscaloosa News.

Stephanie once had dreams of working for The New York Times, but as we discussed Sunday night, dreams sometimes change. She loves Ventura and doesn’t want to leave. I can see why. The downtown is gorgeous and her apartment on the hill has a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. We walked down to the beach and then had dinner. It was a lovely evening in a lovely place, but I had to get back to L.A. The location wasn’t the only reason we chose The Farmer’s Daughter; the hotel holds a nightly seminar on being a TPIR contestant.

I was already running behind when I made it back to L.A., then got lost trying to get back to the hotel, and the traffic pouring out of the Hollywood Bowl didn’t help my progress. I arrived an hour late, but the Q & A was still taking place in the hotel lobby. A balding, chubby guy named Ted sat backwards in his chair barking tips at the crowd of perhaps 20, a mix of Canadians, locals, Midwesterners and Southerners listening intently to Ted’s every word.

I only caught a few minutes of the discussion before the meeting broke, but Brian and Heather filled me in on the gist. Don’t bring your camera or cell phone. Don’t chew gum. Be there early. Be happy and excited.

We headed up the room for our short rest and then stumbled out into the street at 3 a.m. and took our places in line outside CBS. There were already about 70 people in front of us. I walked across the street to a bakery/coffee shop to rent some chairs (1 or 2 for $5, so I spent $10.) This was another Ted tip. This bakery makes a killing on his TPIR customers as nearly everyone in line walked over to rent chairs and at least half bought coffee or bagels.

The would be contestants formed a quick camaraderie. There were a few Utahans in front of us and nine Kentuckians to our back. The Utahans consisted of a couple with T-shirts that said “Pick Mommy” and “Pick Daddy” and sported a photo of their toddler with his finger up his nose. With them was an 84-year-old grandmother with another cute shirt, but I never saw everything it said. No doubt it mentioned the words “Bob Barker” or “The Price is Right.”

I’d estimate that about three-quarters of the crowd had some sort of homemade shirt professing their love for Bob or the show or with some clever phrase or slogan trying to get them picked. I remember one group with the phrase “Plinko Champion ’84”on their duds.

One group of about 15 all wore yellow shirts that said, “Pick Josh” and listed the things he could do on Monday, his 18th birthday. Among that list were the ability to vote, join the military, and, oh yeah, be on The Price is Right.

The nine women from Kentucky sported glitter-covered shirts that said they had traveled 3,000 miles to see TPIR and “Kentucky (heart) The Price is Right” on the back. (Tis a lie, as it’s maybe 2,300 miles from eastern Kentucky to L.A.) One of the women told me the group flew in to L.A. Sunday and was leaving on Tuesday. They came specifically for this show, so it would have been a mighty disappointment if they had not gotten in the audience. Ted warned us that it was a realistic prospect because large tour groups get first priority for the studio’s 325 seats and don’t have to wait in line at an ungodly hour. Even though we were early in the queue, it would be possible we could get left on the curb – literally.

We continued to wait for 6 a.m. when a man would come to the gate and hand us an order of arrival pass. This didn’t guarantee us anything; it merely allowed us to come into the studio lot at 7:30 a.m. to get our tickets numbered.

There was rustling in the tree above me and down popped an oval black object onto my lap. Yep, it was a rat turd. I never knew rats climbed trees and I certainly didn’t expect to get defecated on while waiting to be a contestant on TPIR.

“You know, rats have no bladder control,” Heather told me.

I scooted my chair back a couple of feet.

Later, a police car drove by and an officer said over his speaker, “Come on down!” Several cars honked horns as they drove past.

Everyone in the area is used to this daily routine as hundreds of Americans (and a handful of Canadians) come to this shrine to what is perhaps the greatest game show of all time. After spending only minutes with this crowd, it’s obvious how much people love Bob Barker and The Price is Right.

“This is Americana,” one woman told me. “Everybody loves this show.”

Finally, we got our order of arrival sticker and headed back to the room to shower. We then walked back outside to the TPIR studio and took seats on benches in the Bob Barker Promenade. Two of the red-coated CBS attendants took our stickers and numbered our tickets. We were told to come back again at 9 a.m. with those.

The hoops you jump through to get on this show are ridiculous, but we knew what was in store after listening to Ted. We headed back to The Farmer’s Daughter to check out and grabbed some food and drink at the bakery. We then returned to the benches and waited again. We discussed game strategies and what we’d say during our interviews.

Finally, Chuck, the red coat who had explained most of the instructions to us, came by with a clipboard with price tag stickers on them. At that moment we knew we were going to be in the studio audience. There was, of course, a large cheer from the crowd.

One red coat took our name, social security number and such while Chuck handed out the name tags. He handed me mine and I stuck it to my shirt with pride.

“How does it feel to be official?” I asked Brian and Heather with a huge grin on my face.

We were then lined up in groups of a dozen to speak with another man who was conducting quick interviews of possible contestants. Here was our chance to shine, our chance at possible selection. I mentally prepared for questions and remembered to answer with vigor and vitality.

Brian flubbed a bit when the guy asked him what he does for a living and I knew his chance was shot. The guy was quick with Heather, which also was not a good sign. Then he came to me, the last of the group.

“Where are you from, Johnny?” he asked.

“I’m also from Tuscaloosa,” I said, pointing to my posse.

“What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a poker player.”

At this point, he had an interested expression so I continued, “I’m playing in the main event of the World Series of Poker next week.”

“You’ve got quite a poker face,” he said.

At this point, I didn’t know what to say. I had a huge grin on my face, so I didn’t have much of a poker face going really. I should have said, “Not today, I’m too excited to be here at The Price is Right to have a poker face!”

Here’s what I really said: “It just broke.”


We were herded around the corner past a security checkpoint. Dozens of people had cell phones and cameras on them, including the 84-year-old Utah granny that everyone thought was a shoo-in to be picked. According to Ted, not following instructions was a big no-no that kills your chance of being selected.

More waiting was in store for us. Chuck came by and started a dance off between a college girl from Georgia and Maria, a 60-year-old Italian by way of Canada. The curvaceous Georgia peach was quite pathetic while Maria hoofed it up to the delight of the crowd. (She was later picked as a contestant. Coincidence?)

After waiting about another hour, at 1 p.m. we were finally led up a flight of stairs and into the studio. Could it be? Could it really be the set of The Price is Right? We were transformed to children again as we took our seats.

The studio is much smaller than it appears on television. I’d say the stage is 50 to 60 feet wide and 40 feet deep. I guess not seeing it all at one time creates that illusion. Another trick that may add to the effect is that many of the games and the spinning of the big wheel take place in the same spot in the center of the stage, but the wheel is filmed at a different angle. So while it may look on TV as if it’s in a different location, it’s not. Meanwhile, a few of the games and the Showcase Showdown both take place on the elevated part to the left of the stage, but it’s only steps away from where the rest of the action takes place. The doors are now decorated in 35th anniversary regalia. We were one of the first tapings of the new season.

Rich Fields, the announcer, came on stage to welcome us to the show. He said that as an 18-year-old he sat in the audience for the first time and asked then announcer Johnny Olson, “How do I get your job?”

Olson let the teen come on stage and announce, “Johnny Olson, come on down. You’re the next contestant on The Price is Right!”

The players take the stage as Fields entertains us – the four cameramen get into place, while various people sit behind computers operating controls. In just a few minutes the time has arrived. Fields goes behind his podium to the right of the set and begins announcing and the music starts to play. The crowd goes wild, so wild that one man has to hold up cue cards with contestants’ names on them so they can know to come down to contestants row. Unsurprisingly, Josh of “Pick Josh” fame is the first one selected.

After the four players take their place, Fields introduces Bob Barker and the host walks on stage. The noise from the crowd now reaches jet takeoff level. The man they’ve all come to see has now shown his face. At 82, the tall, lean Barker looks like a walking corpse, but he’s still spry and witty.

The show moves quickly. An item is presented and Josh wins immediately, as if by providence. He takes his place on stage and is presented with a game I had not seen before called Flip Flop. Josh must decide if an electric car is worth $7,629 or $6,792. He flips one number, then the next and back to the first.

“He flipped, he flopped and then he flip flopped and flip flopped,” Barker quipped.

Josh finally decides on $7,629 and his choice is revealed to be correct. Josh goes wild. The crowd goes wild. Barker promises more pricing games are the commercial break. At least, I guess he does since we could rarely hear him when the audience was cheering.

Never again would I be in a place where people shout with emphasis, “Foot powder!” or “Trail mix!” Microphones hung above our heads to capture our every utterance of prices or instructions.

A prop comes down over the center of the stage to hide the workers back there changing out the set for the next game and Barker walks front and center. He takes questions from the audience during each break or tells a few jokes.

Such as, “I was driving down the road the other day and saw the red lights blinking behind me. The cop pulls me over and gives me a ticket. He says that will be $50 and I say, ‘Lower’.”

Fields keeps calling down the contestants and they continue to not be us. Greta, one of the Kentucky crew sitting beside us, is called and makes it on stage to play a pricing game. She wins, but barely misses the Showcase Showdown by five cents.

Finally, the ninth player is called and more than 300 dreams are dashed. The hope of being a contestant is over. One could notice a measurable decline in audience enthusiasm after that, which Barker noted after the sixth pricing game was played. He encouraged the crowd and thanked the gathered masses for making TPIR what it is today.

Josh just missed winning a PT Cruiser, a computer and six months of Krispy Kreme doughnuts when he overbid and a snappily dressed black woman won a trip to Mexico and other prizes, despite underbidding by $10,000.

The music played and the curtain dropped (though not literally). Barker and Fields thanked us again and we left the studio. More than 300 people didn’t make it on stage, but I didn’t see any disappointed faces. We had all come to take part in this national institution, this slice of Americana as the Kentucky woman called it, and we had done our part. In this Democratic game, we had not been one of the chosen few, but we knew coming in our chances were slim. We had come, and that was the thing.

The show airs October 12.

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