The dawn of the cable infomercial and the pay-per-minute 1-900 telephone business opened up some pretty suspicious scam opportunities. TV psychics could tell your future, you could spend quality time with a pre-recorded Corey Feldman or a myriad other celebrities, and of course you could find some foxy company for the night – all delivered very slowly for an insane amount of money per minute. I wasn’t aware of 1990’s The Great American Telephone Trivia Game until today, but this scam might really take the cake.
This “show” features original “Jeopardy!” host Art Fleming at the helm of what appears to be a standard trivia game show, but there’s an amazing futuristic twist. Thanks to the miracle of cable tv and telephone technology, viewers can now call in and play the trivia game as well. If they answer 9 questions correctly, questions similar to the ones the contestants are answering, they win $100!
The scam is clear: the contestants on the screen are getting softball questions (“In what city does ‘Cheers’ take place?”) and the ones on the 1-900 number are much more difficult. What’s more, I’m willing to bet that the questions are delivered very slowly and you don’t know whether you answered any of them correctly until all nine questions are completed. At one-minute per question and $1.95 per minute, you’re in for at least $20 on this call – and that’s assuming there’s no lengthy intro or outro sucking more more time, which was another common 900-number tactic. So best case scenario you’re up $80 assuming the questions are really just as easy as the ones on the screen. Which they’re not.
Fleming also rubs the prizes that the studio guests will win in the viewer’s face, amazing prizes that the viewer will never be able to win or afford.
Spoiler: BOTH CONTESTANTS WIN. It’s beautiful in its terrible awfulness. Here it is, with some strange formatting that I can’t explain. What a find.
While the US was Vegas-ing up its Gambit reboot in 1980, our friends across the pond went with a more traditional approach. The British version of Gambit is as quaint as you’d expect, with a kicky stop-motion intro.
The set design trades in the Vegas glitz and glamour for… something resembling a Grateful Dead album cover.
Gambit, the blackjack-themed game show, has a sort of complicated history. Originally premiering in 1972, Gambit was an instant success, beating out competing shows Sale of the Century and a pre-Trebek Jeopardy! In 1975, though, a hot new show called Wheel of Fortune came on the scene and pretty much obliterated Gambit in the ratings, leading to its cancellation in 1976.
Cut to 1980. Failed daytime talk show experiment The David Letterman Show was pulled off of the air and the idea was to revive Gambit to take its place. The Gambit 2.0 twist came in the form of a live show from the Tropicana in Las Vegas, and Las Vegas Gambit was born.
And then died again a year later, but whatever.
Wink Martindale hosted both iterations of Gambit. Is Wink Martindale the poor man’s Chuck Woolery, or is it the other way around? Wink’s game show career started earlier, making him the incumbent. However, Woolery’s first game show gig, the aforementioned Wheel of Fortune, spelled the original Gambit’s demise. Woolery’s got the more impressive resume: while Wink had some solid shows including Tic Tac Dough! and Debt, Chuck’s got Love Connection, Scrabble, The Dating Game, and (a personal favorite) Lingo. Personally, I’m going to give the point to Chuck. Wink’s got an unsettling way of talking to the audience, to his contestants, and to women in particular. I’m not saying he’s our reality’s Randall Flagg, I’m just pointing out that he’s never been in the same room as Randall Flagg.
There are a few things about Las Vegas Gambit that are special – first of all, the set is a fantastic tribute to Vegas-style gaudiness. Covered in gold and rich in font treatments, the first part of each Gambit match is a trivia round with correct answers rewarding cards which are then built into a blackjack hand. Two teams compete, the first team to reach as close to twenty-one as possible without busting moves on to the final round.
The final round, the Gambit Galaxy is some sort of casino from the (1980s) future, boasting a wall of screens and a single craps table. The contestants roll oversized dice, using the resulting numbers to clear out the screens. If they can do so, they win it all.
The other noteworthy thing about Las Vegas Gambit is the enthusiasm. Part of this is thanks to the era; these were the days of Let’s Make a Deal, Press Your Luck, and the original The Price Is Right, and contestants in general were just generally more amped-up than they are these days. Still, though, it comes down to whoever’s job it is to pick contestants picking good contestants, and Las Vegas Gambit got that part right. In the below episode, this lady’s life changes. That’s significant.
Speaking of this episode, it’s a real roller coaster. I recommend watching the whole thing.
By the way, Las Vegas Gambit had awful ratings and was cancelled in 1981. Sorry, Wink. Speak more considerately to all genders next time.
This 1981 reboot of a 1950s game show seems centered around insulting and humiliating people while occasionally throwing them a few dollars, and also about confusing the rest of us.
Bob Eubanks conducts this train wreck in which contestants earn the titular Dollar A Second for as long as they’re on stage. A counter overhead keeps track of how much they’ve earned. The contestants are dressed ridiculously (by the show) from the get-go, putting them at an instant disadvantage.
They’re then given a string of “A or B” questions and tasks to perform in either case instead of just verbally answering. Once a contestant gets an answer wrong they’re taken to the next level of humiliation, where they Pay the Penalty.
Here they’re given a Russian Roulette sort of choice to make, where all but one choice could put them back into the game and the fourth embarrasingly knocks them out. There’s not really a final round – they count on the players quitting and taking their winnings or continuing and getting knocked out. Pretty half baked. The pilot didn’t get picked up, so we’ll never know if it would have evolved past a crude trivia show that got cheap, uncomfortable laughs from captive audience members.
Here’s an episode. Like I said, train wreck. Hard to watch, hard not to watch.
My Weekly Reader
Dreams of Space has a couple of roundup posts for a weekly children’s publication called My Weekly Reader. These editions predictably focus on our 1950s efforts to conquer space and because of this they’re right of my alley. Hit the link for all of them, here are some of my favorites.
The 1976 Travis 4th of July Parade
This Super 8 footage of Travis, RI’s Bicentennial Parade really gets me.
1991 Sizzler Promotional Video
This 4+ minute image piece for the Sizzler is the most dramatic, most nineties, most beautifully perfect image piece for a family-and-budget-friendly restaurant I’ve ever seen. They don’t make image pieces for family-and-budget-friendly restaurants like this anymore!
Despite being shot on location in beautiful 1975 Hawaii, this very short lived game show didn’t accomplish much beyond giving host Bob Eubanks a chance to get a tan.
The Diamond Head Game featured four mini-rounds consisting of basic trivia with contestants pulled from what can only be referred to in this post-Arsenio era as a Dog Pound. These contestants are also the entire audience, presumably given the restrictions of the location, and they’re really happy to be there.
Once all four first rounds are done, the climb up the mountain begins. The four winners of the first round are pitted against each other to remember a list of nouns and recall them one after another. This is as mind-numbing to watch as it sounds.
Once a winner emerges from the mountain climb the final round begins: the money volcano. Or, a wind chamber with flying tickets.
The contestant is given one last chance to trade their haul for a secret prize and, if they decline, are given each ticket they collected one at a time. The tickets have dollar values or prizes on them, but if a contestant pulls a one dollar bill they lose it all. They’re given the chance to bow out and keep their winnings after each ticket is revealed.
Here’s the show – it’s actually really worth watching for the novelty of a mid-70’s game show shot outdoors in a beautiful location but not for much past that. For every element in the game there’s a show that did it better.
Also, the theme song was another Alan Thicke joint, too. That guy is made of theme songs.
RCA Remote Control
This 1960s introduction film for the remote control is pretty charming. While it’s definitely impressive and I can appreciate the waves this thing made at the time, I imagine somebody in the future will look at a how-to video for a Harmony remote or Homekit integration with the same smug appreciation.
In which a mime performs a terrifying death before two children to illustrate the dangers of retrieving kites from power lines. Canadian film and television was painted with a really special brush back in the ’80s.
How about that appearance?
Color Computer 3
Love this commercial for the Tandy Color Computer 3.
This short lived Game Show featured an amazing set, a strange format, and good old Rod Roddy.
Whew! is basically a string of lightning rounds with a little twist – in the “normal” part of the game one contestant tries to get through the board in a set amount of time while the other places ‘blocks’, little land mines that take away five seconds each time they’re uncovered. If the blocks are uncovered, the defending contestant gets the money.
The first contestant to win two rounds gets to go to the final round, which is basically the same thing but with ten ‘villains’ delivering the questions and no blocks. If they can make it through each villain they get the grand prize, $25,000.
The set is pretty fantastic, but I have a hard time putting my finger on specifics. It alternates between a grandiose production and something in somebody’s basement, but you can tell someone had their eye on design in all components – even in the live, composited stuff.
Whew! lasted just over a year before being cancelled – April 1979 to May 1980. A pretty wacky show, and it moves really fast. Here’s an episode.
Home Alone (NES)
Of course there was a Nintendo game for Home Alone; there was an everything else for Home Alone, so why not a game for the NES?
Different versions of the game were made, each platform having its own format and objectives. In the NES version (developed by Bethesda, current developers of the Elder Scrolls and recent Fallout series!) the premise is pretty simple: evade Harry and Marv for 20 minutes until the police show up. Kevin picks up different traps and places them around the house to slow the Wet Bandits down. It’s not as easy as it looks. Get caught and it’s game over.
Here’s a longplay.
I wish I knew more about this fantastic 19th Century poster. What I do know is there’s a wrong way to put a bunch of different fonts together, and then there’s this way. I can’t stop looking at it. It’s beautiful.
What is Pippin?
A somewhat dry intro to Apple’s ill-fated video game console, the Pippin. Would you have paid $700 for this in 1995?
Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli never fail to scratch the itch.
Stephen King’s pretty well-regarded nowadays, but in the 1980s and 1990s he had a polarizing level of fame. While he had a dedicated fanbase, he tended to be regarded in the mainstream as a shlocky horror writer who put out a new book every week and opinion of him was formed on whether you liked that sort of thing or not. He was a bestseller, sure, a rockstar of a writer, but it seemed like there was a level of respect for his writing that he never got.
Besides the fact that his crazy creative output in that era meant you always had something new to read, the volume also provided an easy business opportunity in the space that Time Life and Columbia House had forged – subscriptions. Enter the Stephen King Library.
For $7.95 (the first time, $14.95 each shipment thereafter) you got a new King book, hardback. It’s crazy to me that there could be a book subscription service for one author, but there you go. I love the commercials for the service; this one seems to imply that publishers are approaching people on the street to try to sell Stephen King books:
While I love the cheesy comments and the hokey “scary music”, the comments reinforce that shlocky image that King’s writing had back then. It’s not wrong, really, just… incomplete. The narrator also clearly hands the first guy a copy of Needful Things but calls it Dolores Claiborne.
Here’s some commercials for specific books – The Stand, which would be a steal even then at $7.95:
I love that the extra content is pitched as something that we “weren’t allowed to see before”. Here’s one for Gerald’s Game:
These visuals aren’t really backing up the content of the books themselves; did anything really come up out of the ground in The Stand? That’s more of a Pet Semetary thing…
The Stephen King Library is still alive and kicking, too! That’s even crazier to me than the fact of its existence. I’m just glad that time has borne out King’s reputation as a great writer and we can all now move on to arguing about whether those fat cats in Hollywood are doing his work justice. How many days until The Dark Tower releases?
Coming Soon: Portable Computers!
Here’s a cringeworthy trip through all of the newest tech for those geeks with tons of disposable income in 1994. It’s neat to see how big our ideas were and how limited our ability to execute those ideas was. The delay on that videophone cannot be unseen.
That’s, what, $9,000 worth of tech in that video? $10,000? And a printer you can use in the car? Worthless.
K-Tel Records: Looney Tunes
From the people who brought you the Sesame Street soundtrack, here’s Looney Tunes. Not the Looney Tunes you’re thinking of. It’s weird.
Even weirder? How about I’m Telling!, which is basically The Newlywed Game but with child siblings instead. This one didn’t last long – it ran from September 1987 to March 1988.
Uncle Sam Says Garden
Beautiful poster encouraging Americans to grow their own food in order to cut down on waste.
In the summer of 2001 ABC tried to create a televised version of the crazy successful trivia video game show You Don’t Know Jack. It was not successful, but it did end up being kind of crazy.
The show was pretty loyal to the game’s format. Instead of the game’s regular host Cookie Masterson (who still performed as the show’s announcer), Paul Reubens played Troy Stevens – and did a really great job at it.
The guests selected were pretty colorful people, some with pretty colorful talents.
The “standard” trivia questions were typically worded or executed in a unique way, true to the video game’s style. There were also mini-games throughout the show, just like in the game, that offered bonus money.
The “Dis or Dat” minigame picked one player and gave them two categories. Troy would then run through several items that the player had to place in the correct category.
Narrative arcs sometimes carried through the shows as well, centered around Troy. The final round is the same as in the video game, the “Jack Attack” lightning round that pits the top two contestants against each other . Reubens really puts on his Pee-Wee hat for this round.
All in all, a fun show – I guess America wasn’t ready for game shows that didn’t involve asking if you wanted to be a millionaire or what’s in a briefcase. You Don’t Know Jack ran for six episodes and was cancelled.
Here’s an episode.
This bizarre 1982 arcade game has two types of rounds. In one, you are rescue workers saving stock brokers who have jumped out of windows in attempts to commit suicide.
In the other, you are presumably a banker or stock broker running through the streets of a foreign city destroying tanks that are pursuing you and collecting large sums of money.
Here’s some gameplay. I don’t understand. I mean, I understand the gameplay, but not the container that the gameplay was placed in.
In 1918, the YWCA provided personnel to assist the Armed Forces in World War I. Here are some gorgeous posters from designed to raise money for the effort.
This mid-’80s McDonald’s training video features a Michael Jackson ripoff encouraging employees to clean the restaurant. I use the term “training video” loosely, as there’s not much how-to here other than “clean it”!
The score for the original Castlevania on the Nintendo Entertainment System is real funky! Who knew, or remembered?
This is pretty great. A 1973 Sci-Fi series created by Harlan Ellison, The Starlost has a fun premise and a lot of promise. Unfortunately, it fell pretty far from its original intentions and we’re left with a 16-episode glimmer of what might have been.
The Starlost follows Devon, a young man raised in a farming community who questions the truths he’s been taught.
He discovers that the leader of their community is faking the voice of their God, and when he tries to expose him is forced to escape. With the help of one of the older residents of the community, he’s shown a tunnel through which to flee.
The tunnel turns out to be an industrial hallway, with technology that borders on magical.
Devon comes across a computer that looks like one of Dana Carvey’s characters from The Master of Disguise, and he learns the real scoop: his community is one of several biospheres aboard an ark which departed a dying Earth 500 years ago. There was an accident 100 years into the voyage, and the ark got off course and became lost. For the past 400 years the ark has been on a collision course with a sun, and Devon learns that someone needs to go to the bridge to correct the problem.
He returns to his community to tell them what he’s seen, but is immediately gagged and imprisoned. He escapes with the help of his friend and takes his girlfriend who is engaged to his friend who helped him escape (it’s complicated) back into the belly of the ship. The friend follows them to bring his fiancee back, and the trio comes together at the bridge to find the crew long dead.
The bridge empty, the entire future of humanity on a collision course with a star, and a host of unique environments attached to the ship to explore and search for clues. Pretty great setup for a series, right? Well, here’s the thing: the show is slow. Really slow. They started with a new approach to filming, a way of matching an actor’s movements on a bluescreen with simultaneous camera-tracking on a model set, but that didn’t pan out. As a result, the bluescreen technology that is there is pretty obvious. There are good design ides, but poor implementation – the result of the original camera technique falling through as well as other budget cuts. Ellison went on record as citing budget cuts as the reason his original story was dumbed down for the series. Bit by bit, it added up to a less-than-ideal show.
But it still has charm. See for yourself.
From the same folks who made The Crystal Tower, Interceptor was a 1989 game show that takes two contestant, gives them two locked briefcases, blindfolds them, sends them to remote locations via helicopter, and tasks them with finding the keys to each others briefcases and meeting up to unlock them. Also there’s someone chasing them the entire time: The Interceptor.
One of the two briefcases contained $1000; the other contained weights. Each briefcase had five infrared targets on them, and the Interceptor had twenty ‘bullets’ that he could use to take the targets out. If they were all taken out, the case couldn’t be opened.
Here’s an episode.
3. Space Puppets
A beautiful ad for some spacey hand puppets…
4. Weebles Commercial
…and a beautiful commercial from the 1970s for those weirdly compelling Weebles dolls.
5. Nerds Plushes
I have to admit, I spent a lot of time as a kid convincing myself that the sugar nuggets inside of the Nerds boxes did resemble the characters on the outside.
Alice in Wonderland/Alice Through The Looking Glass – This 1985 TV Movie adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s classic novel is as notable for its star-studded lineup as it is for how weird it gets with its star-studded lineup.
Broadcast on CBS as a two-night event in December 1985, the story pretty closely follows the novel’s story beats. There’s a way in which one could view the special as Alice travelling through Wonderland meeting al sorts of fantastic characters. There’s also a way one could view it as Alice travelling through Wonderland meeting one fading Hollywood legend after another.
Seriously, the roster is insane. It includes Red Buttons, Sherman Hemsley, Shelley Winters, Scott Baio, Sammy Davis Jr., Imogene Coca, Telly Savalas, Anthony Newley, Roddy McDowall, Sid Caesar, Ringo Starr, Carol Channing, Sally Struthers, Harvey Korman, Merv Griffin, Patrick Duffey, Steve Allen, Eydie Gorme, Steve Lawrence, Jonathan Winters, Ernest Borgnine, John Stamos, Beau Bridges, Lloyd Bridges, and Red Buttons. Among others!
The big departure from the book is the obscene amount of musical numbers – the first hour of the special has nine (!) songs and the second hour has ten. The songs are where the oddness of the whole thing really shines the brightest. Here’s Sherman Hemsley singing about how he hates dogs and cats…
…Sammy Davis, Jr. transforming from the caterpillar to a human to perform a funky version of “You Are Old, Father William”…
…and on the top of the pile, Carol Channing singing “Jam Tomorrow”. This performance has stuck with me for thirty years, and the ending is pretty great nightmare fodder.
It’s not a bad special, really; it’s just weird. Really weird. See for yourself.
2. The Crystal Maze – The early 1990s saw this beautifully bizarre British game show, a sort of Legends of the Hidden Temple for grown-ups that embraced teamwork, sci-fi and fantasy, and mad scrambles to catch flying cash in a wind chamber.
The Crystal Maze was made up of four zones, each representing a different slice of space and time: Aztec, Futuristic, Industrial, and Medieval. Each zone had its own set of challenges appropriate to the setting, and each challenge had the chance to grant the players crystals that could later be exchanged for time in the wind chamber.
The neat thing about The Crystal Maze was that it was completely co-operative. There’s one team in each episode and the team either wins or loses as a whole. There are circumstances under which one team member drops out of the game, but they’re few and far between.
The Crystal Dome is the final portion of the game, where the team trades their crystals for time spent catching gold and silver banknotes that are blowing around. The amount of banknotes caught affects the prizes the team gets at the end.
Between the elaborate set design, the enthusiastic “Dungeon Master”, and the all around friendliness of the game itself, this might be the best game show that I’ve ever seen. Where was I between 1990 and 1995? Oh, that’s right. In America.
Here’s the first episode. It’s a little weird that there’s no music in it, but otherwise solid stuff.
3. Archie Gets All The Brakes – I love old comic book ads like this that masquerade as actual stories. Archie had a ton of them.
4. Batman Forever VHS Commercial – This five-minute video was produced to appeal to retailers in the hopes they’d carry VHS copies of Batman Forever in their stores. It’s beautifully cringe-worthy, especially when it gets down to about two straight minutes of marketing-speak in the middle.
5. Awful Coffee Ad – Just terrible. Harvey doesn’t deserve her!