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‘Price’ is still ‘Right’ for Bob Barker fans

After a lifetime of watching, a fan and his mom see game show in person. By Ken Smith
/ Source: contributor

It is a little strange to think that I spent a recent vacation hanging out all night on a street corner in the middle of Hollywood, surrounded by a couple hundred people sleeping in tents, sleeping bags or plastic chairs. It was strange — and very exciting.

After all, I was in Hollywood to see the legendary Bob Barker.

When Barker announced his retirement last fall, demand for tickets to the “Price is Right” shot sky-high. Since having a ticket alone doesn’t guarantee entry into the show, wannabe viewers started lining up on the streets outside CBS's Hollywood studio incredibly early to reserve a spot. I got in line at 3 p.m. Sunday for the 2:30 p.m. Monday taping — and 150people were already in front of me.

Around 2 p.m. the crowd was buzzing because we knew it was getting close to show time. You could feel the excitement in the air.

Finally, the doors opened up and we’re led up the stairs, past the giant painted “Price is Right” logo, and into the studio itself. We enter daytime television’s Mecca.

The first thing I noticed is how vintage the set looks, with its old-school light bulbs and glitter paint. I could clearly see the silver paint peeling off the giant “$1000000” sign they hang during the ‘Million Dollar Spectacular’ episodes, and the place even had a certain musty, old theater smell to it. While it’s comforting to know that the show hasn’t changed much in 35 years, I wasn’t expecting it to appear quite so lived in.

On T.V., the "Price" studio seems cavernous, but in real life, it’s so tiny it feels like you can touch any wall just by reaching for it. The place only seats 349 people, but the way they move the camera around, it looks like many more are there. Camera tricks are also used to make it appear like contestants are going quite a distance, when in fact, they’re taking just a few steps.

It was surprising to see that stage was full of workers at any given time, even while taping, and it was weird to see large set pieces like the Big Wheel standing on casters, or the showcase podiums being carried away by a single stagehand. Viewers don't think of it, but these set pieces do need to be moved quickly during filming.

Before the show starts, music is pumped into the studio and people start dancing in their seats. Rich Fields, the show’s announcer, comes out and pulls a few people from the crowd to come dance on the stage — saying they may not go home winners, but they can tell their friends that they’ve been on the “Price is Right” stage. Fields does a quick introductory talk and then he heads to his podium so he can introduce Bob Barker and start the show.

Bob makes his entranceAnd then, the place goes nuts.

The screaming and applause is deafening as Barker comes out and greets the audience. Even as he starts the first pricing game, I hear nothing but the crowd. If it wasn’t for the crew member pointing out people, or the stage hand holding up a sign with each contestant’s name on it, I don’t think anyone would have known who was being called.

Right away, something unexpected happened: Barker made a mistake. As he was walking a woman across the stage, he realized he was guiding her in the wrong direction. The veteran host stopped, turned to the audience and announced, “Crap, I screwed up.” The audience roared with delight, having heard something that we normally don’t get to hear on the broadcast version. Quickly the cameras were reset and their walk started all over again. This time, there was no screw-up.

That wasn’t the only touch of Hollywood magic on “The Price is Right.” The two showcases do not happen instantaneously after each other. How it flows together on television is the result of great editing because after the first one is revealed there is an abrupt stop, and the crew resets the stage and the prizes.

They can do that without the audience seeing the prizes in advance partly because a giant pricetag-shaped wall drops in from the ceiling, and partly because Barker’s charisma trumps everything else going on.

Everyone is so captivated when he walks to the front of the stage and talks with the audience that no one appears to notice the large set pieces or soon-to-be awarded cars being moved behind the wall. Barker’s charm is undeniable as he takes questions from the audience (I ask him when was the last time he won money — last year on football, 75 cents) and people seem to forget that we’re here for a taping and not for a Q&A session.

Common themes pop up when people ask their questions. One is “can I have a kiss and/or handshake?” Another theme rotates around family. There’s a girl with her parents celebrating her 21st birthday; a boy is celebrating his 18th birthday at the show with his family. Myself, I made the pilgrimage with my mother, a longtime fan. It's evident that “The Price Is Right” is one of the few shows left that bridges generations.

Watching the show unfold in front of my eyes felt like the fastest two-and-a-half hours of my life. I was ecstatic when people won prizes because I “knew” some of them, having spent almost a full 24 hours waiting in line with them.

Then all of a sudden, it was over. All the games had been played and Bob Barker had left the stage. I was never told to “come on down,” but asking him that question made everything worthwhile. As far as I’m concerned, I was a winner on “The Price is Right.”

Ken Smith is a writer in Seattle.