The year after finishing college, I accepted the Jesuit Volunteer Corps challenge: rent, food and $75 each month in exchange for working full time at a nonprofit in San Jose, California. The volunteer catch phrase for this lifestyle was “simple living,” and if we adhered to it, the directors assured us, we would emerge a year later with a clearer picture of the difference between our wants and our needs.
But after 10 months of simple living, which in my case meant limited Big Gulp consumption and eating everything cooked in mushroom soup, I was ready to return to consumer culture, if only for a weekend. Two of my more corruptible roommates and I indulged in the most spectacular sell-out our California home offered: The Price Is Right.
The Price Is Right, now in its 31st season, features the sequin-wearing, improbably named senior citizen Rod Roddy calling the most manic audience members to “Come on Down” to contestant’s row. Once in the row, the four contestants attempt to name the price of a household item, like a washing machine, without, as all fans loyal to host Bob Barker know, going over.
Whoever achieves this seemingly simple task then runs up on stage, banters with the spry senior host Bob and plays, for more random prizes, one of more than 60 silly games: miniature golf, cracking a safe or guiding a wooden Alpine yodler on his ascent up a mountain.
My ascent to fame and a modest game show fortune was considerably rockier than that of the noble yodler. We took our place on line at 5 a.m. on a Monday morning, which put us as 289, 290 and 291 in line out of 300 allowed in the studio for the 1 p.m. taping.
The Price Is Right was the original reality television show, the chance for ordinary viewers to become part of the action, winning not only prizes like the vaunted new car but a chance to mingle briefly with Bob, Rod and Bob’s “beauties.” I quickly discovered Stage 33 in CBS Television City was more than just a room filled with thousands of lights and orange, purple and red walls. It was nirvana: much more than a game and much more than a show.
The Price Is Right was a lottery with surer odds, a small chance to fulfill an unlikely dream of stardom. In the eight hours we spent waiting for the show to begin, the sizing up of us by our fellow audience members was intense. Some would-be contestants were hostile and thirsty for action and prizes. Others confessed to saving for years to travel to Los Angeles for the chance to win. A couple from Ohio spoke with pride of seeing Barker’s Beauty Kathleen, who, they said, came from their home state with big starlet dreams now fulfilled. Many spent the night sleeping outside the studio door. Nearly all told the producer (who interviewed everyone waiting in line) that it was a long-held dream to appear on The Price Is Right.
Though the dream wasn’t mine, I didn’t come to Los Angeles to lose, either, and I was definitely hoping to be called upon to win some serious loot. A new car never hurt anyone, I reasoned, and it certainly would help hurry the retirement of the enormous blue-green 1980 Ford Thunderbird I was driving.
Once inside the studio, each audience member contributed to the silent, primal scream of ME! PICK ME! The familiar music started, Rod appeared onstage with a nifty warm-up act that included a reminder that men were not to kiss Bob, and suddenly he was yelling my name to “Come on Down!”
I obeyed, lunging first into the chair in front of me and then out into the aisle, defying physics by vertically jumping straight up in the air while running down to my spot in the row. Destiny, I reasoned, was about to be fulfilled. I had been called upon to do a job and I planned to do it with ease, confidence and a very little kiss for Bob Barker.
In the row, I turned my attention to Bob, who announced the first prize up for bid: the Lob-ster. The Lob-ster launches tennis balls onto the court for players to hit, and the show was throwing in 10 dozen balls. This was no good. I hadn’t played tennis in more than a decade, and only with a human Lob-ster.
$250? I ventured.
$930, Bob said, calling Angeline onto the stage, where she quickly lost a car.
Next, a refrigerator and a supply of air freshener went to a guy named Hilliard, who sported a T-shirt reading “I just graduated from culinary school and all my friends went to Europe but I came on down to TPIR.” His T-shirt grammar was off, but his knowledge of the games was dead on. Before the afternoon was over he would walk away with the jackpot Showcase Showdown.
“You are to all of us what Jerry Garcia is to the Deadheads,” Hilliard told Bob Barker. “You are our God.” Hilliard then cracked a toy safe, winning a color TV and brass bed.
I grew more desperate as the game continued, as did the crowd. “Bob, pick me,” cried one woman during a commercial break. “I have twins and I need a car.”
While not totally dismissive, Bob wasn’t completely sympathetic, either. “You have twins, the lady next to you has triplets,” he replied.
A man to her left chose a different approach. “Bob, do you like the Chicago Bulls?” he asked. “Do you want my national championship shirt?” As he pulled off his red-and-black T-shirt, Bob quickly intervened, telling him gently to keep his shirt and assuring the crowd that their name might be called next.
From my front-row seat I watched in horror and frustration as senior citizen Rita won a chair, ottoman, supply of Dove soap, washer and dryer, and a grandmother clock. Then Eddie, wearing a T-shirt with a necktie painted on, walked off the stage with a stereo, computer and $100. Not only was I completely ignorant of the cost of any type of household item, I was also stuck next to Jennifer, a blonde Los Angeles babe with the irritating habit of bidding $1 higher than my bids, essentially knocking me out of the game. With only two games left, I watched as the Beauties wheeled out a blue scooter, the kind of thing I never even considered riding, let alone buying. “Is that the Honda 50?” asked Rex, a wrestling coach from Oregon. “Yes, the Honda Elite 50,” Rod said.
There was no hesitation from Rex: “$1,599.”
Less than three minutes later he was walking off the stage with not only the scooter but also a Chevy Cavalier and $100 for correctly guessing the scooter’s exact price.
With one game left, the 292 remaining audience members realized only one of them would be selected. I realized I had actually made it onto contestant’s row in the first round but may not make it on stage. The crazy energy that kicked off the show was subdued.
A fax machine was wheeled out and the Beauties fawned over it with manicured hands. I wildly guessed $400, and Bob asked me to join him on stage. Yes! I was back in the game, minutes before the game was about to end. After Bob and I shared a brief, awkward embrace, I faced the next obstacle: pairing two household prizes that have the same price. I solemnly matched toothpaste and polish. The price was right; the prizes were mine — the fax machine, a set of fine china and a pine veneer dining room set.
Rex, Rita and I battled it out on the big wheel, with Rita spinning a cumulative 95 cents, winning her a place in the Showplace Showdown. Cast off the stage, I signed some papers, anticipated a hefty tax bill and told my mom in Pittsburgh to expect a large shipment of furniture.
I sold my prizes, and a recent accounting revealed that I have no idea what I spent the money on. I’m left with a videotape of the episode, a once-in-a-lifetime story and a new appreciation for the sheer amount of meaningless angst and effort that often accompanies seeking things. Maybe those Jesuit Volunteer directors were on to something after all.
Kara Spak is a reporter with the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper.