In his memoir, “Priceless Memories,” Bob Barker, Hollywood’s longest-running daytime TV legend, gives an inside look at his childhood in rural South Dakota, the accidental discovery of his true talent and how he always stayed true to himself throughout his 51 years in show business. An excerpt:
Chapter one: Truth or Consequences, My First National Show
My first show was December 31, 1956. We did the show live back in those days in the NBC studio at the corner of Sunset and Vine. The reason for that four-week clause in my contract, I learned later, was that out of eleven people voting in the original hiring meeting, I got only one vote. But I got the right one, Ralph Edwards. He told them, “This guy is your man. You give him four weeks and see if you don’t agree.”
During that first show, I said to Ralph on air, “Following you and Jack Bailey, I feel like I’m hitting after Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.” Ralph said, “Well, we’ve got to bring along the Mantles and the DiMaggios.” He was very kind. I’ll never forget that.
I was definitely nervous backstage before the show. My heart was beating so fast that I thought I might have a heart attack before I ever got out there. But on the show itself, I wasn’t nervous. The staff and crew did everything possible to make me feel at home, and the show went well.
We had Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight boxing champion, on the first show. He was a real gentleman. Jack was much bigger than I had expected. I had read that he was a relatively small heavyweight. But small was not a word I would associate with him. His hands were huge. When I shook hands with him it seemed as if his hand covered mine all the way up to the elbow. We also gave away a Studebaker, a sporty five-seater called the Seahawk. That was a huge prize back then.
Years later, I remember we had another boxing champion, Joe Louis, on T or C. This was long after he had been champion and he was retired. He was a very nice fellow, soft-spoken but outgoing, and a good conversationalist. I interviewed him at some length, and I asked him, “Who was your toughest opponent?” When he answered, “The IRS,” everyone in the audience knew exactly what he meant. Poor old Joe, they knocked him around a bit.
The tremendous popularity of Truth or Consequences over the years was a result of the show’s humor, the games and practical jokes, and the audience participation. We also had many celebrity guests, but the prizes added to the excitement. Many of the products given away were new additions to the American home. We gave away refrigerators, washers, dryers, and other large home appliances. Even the small gifts, like coffee percolators, were new products that advertisers, sponsors, and consumers were all excited about.
We really did have a lot of firsts on T or C. We were one of the first shows to broadcast in color — and we were one of the first shows to tape in Burbank. All shows would tape occasionally, but we were the first national television show to tape on a regular schedule. Later on, we were the ﬁfirst show to produce directly for syndication with the Metromedia television network. Before that time, all of the shows in syndication had been reruns.
Although it is difficult to imagine now, in 1964 the NBC studio in Burbank was literally in the middle of a field. We hated it. We lost all of the foot traffic we had in Hollywood, so there were no walk-ins. And worse yet, you couldn’t play jokes on people walking by — because nobody walked by. If you wanted to come to the show, you had to take the bus or drive to Burbank. Tourists had trouble even finding Burbank.
On a happier note, one of the best aspects of Truth or Consequences was that it was always fresh. We did three consequences a day, and each one was different and self-contained. We produced ﬁfive shows a week. I’ve always said I was lucky to get the Truth or Consequences job early in my career because I learned so much doing it and it prepared me so well for other things I did in broadcasting. Each consequence was like a drama. You start with a question, reveal the consequence, carefully build toward the climax, and then pay it off with a hilarious finish. Every consequence was a learning experience, particularly during my first few years on the show. I believe many people never get the opportunity to demonstrate their sense of humor.
One of the great parts of my job as host was to bring out this humor in people and to enjoy it. That was one of the rewards of my work — seeing people having fun and laughing uproariously, not just at others, but at themselves.
Choosing contestants was like casting a play or a movie. I knew what the act or stunt required, and I tried to find the best person in the audience to play the role. I went through the audience and asked who wanted to play Truth or Consequences. Practically all of the people in the audience raised their hands. Then I picked one and asked him or her to stand up. When you stand up, you’re no longer part of the audience, you’re an individual now, and all eyes are on you. I wanted to see how potential contestants were going to react and how the audience was going to react to them. Some people have this wonderful thing: as soon as they stand up everybody loves them. I’d say, “What’s your name?” And he’d just say, “Fred Jones,” and right away people loved him. Audiences react that way to certain people. I selected contestants very carefully, based on the potential contestant’s reactions, the audience’s reactions, and my knowledge of what the consequence involved.
For example, I might choose a younger man rather than an older man because the consequence involved something physical. Many acts required couples, so I looked for married folks who were there together. Other times, I might look for older women or men or someone middle-aged. And, of course, we had children on from time to time. On T or C, I almost always worked with contestants who were not preselected or coached. Almost all of the contestants were picked by me right out of the studio audience, and I preferred it that way. I prefer to work with unrehearsed people right out of the audience because that spontaneity is so vital. I think that spontaneous reaction is a major part of the success of both Truth or Consequences and The Price Is Right. So many memorable comic moments are unscripted — in fact, those are the best kind.
The contestants didn’t have a week to worry about being on television. They hadn’t had their hair done or selected their best dress. They weren’t even made up. They had their normal street makeup on, if they were women, and there they were: suddenly on television — just like the people at home who were watching them and identifying with them.
Before I did Truth or Consequences for the first time, Ralph told me, “Bob, you are the star of this show now. Go out there and do it your way. Don’t imitate me or anyone else. Do it Bob Barker’s way.”
I think Ralph’s advice to me was right on. I believe in it so much that I have repeated it to every young host who has ever asked me for advice: “Do it your way.” Don’t forget that Frank Sinatra even put it to music!
In the early days of Truth or Consequences, someone told me: “You’ve got to remember you’re playing to a lady who’s in front of an ironing board, somewhere in the room with her is a baby crying, with one hand she’s trying to iron and the other hand she has on the TV dial. You have to capture her attention and entertain her or she’s going to turn that dial!”
That’s what you always have to remember. When you are doing the show, you are talking to that person at home. If you ignore that fact, you’re in trouble. On Truth or Consequences we had a camera for me to speak directly to the home audience. Every once in a while, when I was talking to a contestant, I turned to look directly into that camera and spoke to the audience at home. That was important. Of course, you want the studio audience to be a part of it from the moment the show begins to the moment it ends. You want to keep them completely involved — just gather them in and cradle them — but you never want to forget the fact that the person at home is watching.
On Truth, I always made sure that nobody answered the question correctly. I had chosen the contestants because they were just right for the consequences, and I didn’t want to lose them. I made certain that the questions and answers were so comically crazy that there was almost no chance of a correct answer.The production team on Truth or Consequences was like a well-oiled machine, and we had fun doing the show. The writers were fantastic. Some of the stunts and games they came up with were amazing. One of the most popular acts was the reunions. One moment the audience was howling at one of the consequences, and the next moment we had one of these reunions with a soldier and his mother, or long-lost brothers, or someone like that. Frequently, everyone, sometimes including the production staff, was in tears.
One reunion I will never forget. We had these two Italian sisters on the show who had not seen each other for thirty years. One lived in California, in the San Fernando Valley, and the other one still lived in Italy. We had the sister from Italy ﬂown in, and we were going to surprise the sister who lived in the Valley. I got the sister who lived here in California on the stage, and when her Italian sister walked out from the wings, it was too much for her. Her mouth dropped open and she fainted dead away. Out cold.
It was toward the end of the show, and we couldn’t revive her. I had to sign off with two or three members of the staff still over her trying to wake her up. We decided to have the sisters back the next day so we could show our audience that the “victim” of the reunion had recovered. So the next day, I opened the show standing onstage with the sister from the Valley — the one who fainted — and I tell the audience: “You remember yesterday ... Well, see, she’s okay, we revived her and everything is fine. Let’s bring out her sister again.” And when the sister from Italy walks onstage — boom — the Valley sister faints again. This time we just hauled her off. No more explanations!
The reunions were such a popular feature of the show that they spawned This Is Your Life, which ran on NBC for eight years. Charlie Lyon, an associate producer as well as our announcer, orchestrated all the reunions. His brother was a diplomat in the State Department, and I could see why. Charlie had the same genes. He was a perfect gentleman. We called him the Rembrandt of Reunions because he arranged so many of them so well.
I had thirty-five great years on The Price Is Right, but Truth or Consequences will always hold a special place in my heart for many reasons. It was my first national television job; I had the opportunity to work with one of my heroes, Ralph Edwards; and Dorothy Jo and I began to enjoy more financial security. We didn’t change our lifestyle much, but the opportunity to do the show was a fulfillment of a dream we had had. It was also a glorious pioneering time in television, and so much of the country was energized and united by television. The whole entertainment industry was thriving. We were living in Hollywood, working in Hollywood, and I was having fun doing what I loved to do. Truth or Consequences was a fun-filled, richly rewarding eighteen-year ride for me. I’ll always cherish those early years.
I was delighted to have Ralph’s son, Gary Edwards, who was a little boy when I went to work for his father, in the front row five decades later, cheering me on as I taped my last The Price Is Right on June 6, 2007.