Bob Barker, who hosted ‘The Price is Right’ for 35 years, unknowingly had a big part of influencing me in my television career.
When I was a kid, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the truth was I wanted to be the next Bob Barker. Barker, who spent 50 years on national television between Truth or Consequences and The Price is Right, died over the weekend at 99. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Dec. 12.
Barker retired from the show at the end of his 35th year back in 2007. That was a sad day for me. I think a lot of people took it that way. After all, to more than a generation, Barker was the babysitter who kept us entertained anytime we were sick and home from school. He entertained us during our summer vacation. Some of us still found the show enjoyable after we graduated and watched whenever we had the chance.
I don’t know many shows that so many association with such fondness.
Barker was an early favorite
I was fortunate enough to grow up in the 1970s. You could call that decade the golden age of TV game shows. So I grew up watching The Price is Right, Match Game, The Hollywood Squares, Family Feud, Wheel of Fortune and plenty of other classic shows. Of course, I found plenty of favorites, though ‘Price’ and ‘Match Game’ jumped to the top of the list. I also quickly found a handful of emcees that I liked a lot. Bob Barker, Bill Cullen, Gene Rayburn, Allen Ludden, Peter Marshall, Dick Clark. So many greats worked those shows back then.
I suppose the upbeat music, bright colors and flashing lights of game shows all attracted me as a kid. The fun atmosphere of each show also drew me to the television set.
My favorite of the bunch, I’m sure you’ve guessed, was The Price is Right. I certainly didn’t tune in to learn the price of a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese or a grandfather clock. But Barker created an atmosphere where anyone could follow along. I also quickly became fascinated with the staging of the show, particularly thanks to moments where Barker would show a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes goings-on:
And there were plenty of other moments where you would get a glimpse of what was going on off-camera. In this clip we got to see longtime cameraman Marty Wagner:
This much more recent clip gave us a look at a few cameras and how they’re positioned on the stage:
That got me thinking about how the show worked from a production standpoint. Instead of playing along with the pricing games, I’d start thinking about how the director would position the four cameras to capture all the action.
Yes, I was enough of a TV nerd to watch a show like The Price is Right and contemplate camera angles and blocking.
He kept the show watchable
Barker knew how to narrate what was happening as it happened. You didn’t have to keep your eyes glued on the screen. He always explained the goings-on in a way that kept you part of the action even if you weren’t giving it your full attention. That’s a lost art these days, dating back to the days of live radio.
Several streaming channels, including Redbox and Pluto offer “The Price is Right: The Barker Era” as a 24/7 live channel where you can watch Bob Barker episodes of the show. The current inventory includes shows from 1982 through 1985. It’s amazing to me how watchable the show still is. Sure, prices and fashion changed a lot over 40 years. But you can watch for a couple of hours without reaching for the remote. You find yourself getting lost in time.
He brought animal rights into the spotlight
While there have been plenty of celebrities over the years who made no secret about their love of animals — Betty White comes to mind as well — no one did it quite like Barker.
He told interviewers that he always loved animals. When he was growing up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, his mother could always find him by looking for a pack of dogs. She knew he’d be close by. But as Barker told it, his wife, Dorothy Jo, was the one who made him more aware of animal rights issues. She stopped wearing furs and encouraged him to reject leather jackets and shoes.
As he learned more about animal rights issues and animal causes, he began ending each episode of ‘Price’ with a simple message: “Help control the pet population: Have your pets spayed or neutered.”
My meeting with Bob Barker
I had the chance to meet Barker when I went with a crew to do a behind-the-scenes piece on the show in 1997. One of the first people I met on the set was longtime producer Roger Dobkowitz. Barker often referred to Dobkowitz on the show and called him on camera from time to time. As a longtime fan, I immediately recognized him.
We went in knowing Barker wasn’t doing interviews with local crews because of scheduling. But I told Dobkowitz had a letter for Barker and asked if he could slip it to him backstage. Dobkowitz did more than that. A few minutes later, as we were shooting scenes around the studio, he pulled me aside and took me backstage to Barker’s dressing room so I could hand-deliver that letter.
To say I was starstruck is an understatement. I did manage to string a few sentences together, amazingly enough. But I knew that the main things I wanted to say were in that envelope.
This, unfortunately, was before the days of iPhones and selfies, and there was no way to get a photo with Barker without causing an inconvenience. So I didn’t ask. But I got something better. I had included a donation to his DJ&T Foundation, a charity he set up (and named after his wife, Dorothy Jo, and his mother, Tilly).
We were backstage behind the big doors when he walked to his mark to make his entrance. He stopped when he saw me and thanked me for the note — and for the check! So I knew he read it.
Within days, I received a note from him
I was very surprised to receive a note from Barker himself on his own stationery. It was a very nice gesture on his part, but one you’d think someone of his fame and success wouldn’t bother to make. I looked at the postmark: he sent it the very day we visited the set!
In his own handwriting, which is unmistakable to a fan, he wrote:
Dear Patrick —
Thank you very much for your nice letter. I am delighted to know that you consider me a positive influence on your life. Thank you, too for your generous contribution to the DJ&T Foundation.
After the behind-the-scenes stories I produced aired, I sent a VHS tape of them to Dobkowitz and thanked him for his hospitality during the visit. I also thanked him, of course, for sneaking me back to meet Barker.
About a week later, I had a second note from Barker. It turns out Dobkowitz showed him the tape. In that second note, he wrote, in part, “I congratulate you on a job well done.”
Talent that’s hard to develop
When Barker started in broadcasting, the audience participation show was popular. They weren’t necessarily “game shows” back then. Sometimes, there was no game. There weren’t always prizes. It was the early days of radio and television and an audience participation host had to walk up to people and start a conversation. A good host had to be able to think on his feet and keep that conversation going.
For those of us who are natural introverts, it’s hard to be able to start a conversation and keep one going. But there are little things I’ve noticed over the years in how he would start conversations with contestants he’d never met before. There are still times that I can turn on the “Bob Barker” switch in my brain long enough to break the ice.
But more than keeping the conversations going, he had to keep them entertaining. That’s a rare talent these days, especially when you consider how heavily-edited most shows are these days. Shows actually retape pieces if an announcer makes a slip-up or if some part of the presentation isn’t perfect.
When Barker hosted, those imperfections stayed in. It made the show more human and often, more entertaining.
During Barker’s time at the mic, everything was recorded in a style known as “live to tape.” That meant that it was recorded as if it were a live show, so that if things went wrong, they just kept going.
That takes even more of a talent to be able to navigate his way out of a crisis. Barker had that talent and kept us entertained for decades.
In my case, he was part of the inspiration that made me want to go into this crazy business.
Thank you, Barker, for a job definitely well done.