They were just words on a script, as Bob Barker put it, but in the care of announcer Johnny Olson, the phrase, “Come on Down!” became a part of Americana. And 40 years ago today, Olson spoke those words for the first time.
The show is still going on, described as the “jewel” of CBS’s daytime crown. And who could have guessed that a game built around the pricing of merchandise could enjoy its 40th anniversary?
Olson, still regarded by many as the greatest announcer in game show history, died in 1985 at age 75. His replacement, Rod Roddy, whose flashy, sequined jackets from Thailand delighted audiences and earned him guest spots on Craig Kilborn’s late night talk show, died in 2003. Rich Fields was brought in as the show’s third announcer but was replaced in 2010 by former syndicated Weakest Link host George Gray.
The biggest, most obvious change, wasn’t in the voice of the program, but in its host: Barker, who had already become a household name with Truth or Consequences, which he’d hosted from 1956 until 1975, retired five years ago at the end of The Price is Right’s 35th year — and his 50th on national television. Now 88, he continues his advocacy work for animal rights. Comedian Drew Carey was the unexpected choice as Barker’s replacement.
To say that their styles are different would be an understatement. In many ways, both good and bad, this is no longer your grandmother’s Price is Right.
Then there have been legions of models, the longest-running of which was my favorite, Janice Pennington, who handed Barker his microphone on that very first episode and would continue with the show until an unceremonious dismissal in 2000. I still miss Janice.
I remember the oldest days of the show, when the set was largely brown and orange rather than the more familiar shades of green. I was just a few months away from my third birthday when the show hit the airwaves. I didn’t understand what all the excitement was about, or even what the games actually meant at that age, I suppose, but I still managed to be caught up in the excitement right along with the contestants. Like every other game show of the time, the show’s set was an exercise in chasing lights and bright colors: that helped, too.
Why is the show fun? Barker was a master of making the contestants the “star” of the show. Yes, Barker himself was more than happy to be regarded as the star, and reportedly didn’t make any bones about reminding his colleagues of his star power when things went against his own will, but he could bring out the humor of everyday people he hadn’t met before they were in the spotlight and ready to win a prize.
One of my favorite examples was a playing of “Shell Game,” a pricing game in which a contestant must guess which shell a ball is hiding beneath. The contestant is shown four small prizes and a price, and must guess whether the real price is higher or lower; a correct guess gives her a chip she will place in front of the shell she think hides the ball. But this contestant clearly didn’t understand exactly how this was supposed to work, and Barker did an excellent job of making her mishap an entertaining segment. You’ll have to excuse the lousy video quality, but you’ll have no problem seeing what’s happening:
There have been a lot of moments like that in 40 years.
Most of the people I met when I went behind the scenes on the show in 1997, including producer Roger Dobkowitz, one of the nicest guys to ever work in the business, are no longer with the show. The show doesn’t do it for me the way it used to, but even so, it’s still produces some enjoyable moments. And I still hope it continues its record-breaking streak; there aren’t many shows on the air of any genre that have reached the 40-year mark.
Even if I don’t watch as much, or as intentionally, as I used to.
Happy birthday, Price.