LOS ANGELES - It was full-blast Bob-o-mania. Frat boys, grannies and groupies - wearing T-shirts emblazoned with come-ons like "I Got My Dog Buddy Neutered" and "I TiVo U Everyday" - had camped on a sidewalk for up to 33 hours to hear their white-haired idol exclaim, "The actual retail price is ... !"
While hundreds of giddy fans lined up outside a studio, TV legend/animal activist and vegetarian Bob Barker was still at his 1920s Hollywood Hills home, where he ate a soy cheeseburger for lunch with his rescued golden retriever/chow mix Jessie at his side. Barker also looked over requests to his spay-and-neuter charity and played with Mr. Rabbit and Honey Bunny, his beloved long-eared housemates who chewed up his new recliner chairs.
|BOB BARKER - Things got a little giddy as Bob Barker presided over his 6,500-plus episode of 'The Price Is Right.' CNS Photo by Carol Kron. |
Soon the 83-year-old retiring host of "The Price Is Right" drove his Lexus to CBS Television City, a routine he was about to end. In less than three weeks, the longest-running and most-kissed game show emcee would give away his last "BRAND NEW CAR!" and for the final time urge viewers to help control pet overpopulation, his sign-off since 1981.
For half a century - 35 years with "The Price Is Right" and the rest with "Truth or Consequences" - easygoing, smiling "Bob" was a constant comfort for stay-at-home moms or dads and kids home sick with (or faking) the flu.
Now the 17-time Emmy winner wants to hang up his Plinko chips. Barker, who has donated millions of dollars to animal causes, says he'll continue the fight for critter rights. He'd like to travel. Work out on his elliptical machine more. Maybe remodel his kitchen. (No wait, he rethinks the latter. Can't do that because the rabbits live in the bedroom upstairs and they'd be scared by the construction noise).
"I'd like to have more time to read and just, what do they say now?" he asked during an interview in his CBS dressing room. Was he thinking, chill out? "Yeah, I'd like to chill out. I'm not sure what it means, but that's still what I want to do."
Off-camera during his TV tenure - in between lobbying to ban elephants from circuses, gifting Harvard and other law schools big bucks to study animal-rights law, and marching in protests while chanting "Fur is murder!" - the widower of 25 years survived two mild strokes, prostate surgery, an operation to unblock his carotid artery, and various legal entanglements, including a high-profile sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former "Price" model. (He claimed he and Dian Parkinson, who later dropped the court case, engaged in consensual "hanky-panky" during their 1989-91 affair).
On camera, he survived scores of overjoyed contestants who hugged him with bone-crushing intensity because they knew how much a box of Rice-A-Roni cost.
"I have been bruised. They step on my feet. They kick me. Women stand beside me and say, 'I'm so nervous, I'm so nervous' and pinch my arm. I had one - she bent over to come up the steps and butted me right in the abdomen with her head. The worst experience was a girl about 5-6 or 5-7 who got under my chin and jumped up and down ... it's a very dangerous job," he deadpanned.
Perhaps no contestant is as memorable, though, as the woman named Yolanda, who was told to "Come on down!" during a 1977 taping. She didn't notice that in her exuberance, her tube top slipped, exposing bare breasts.
"She began jumping up and down and both of them came right out of the tube top. She came on down and they came on out," Barker said with that suave smile.
A half-hour before taping began this day, with the Grocery Game guru nowhere in sight, the amped-up studio audience danced in the aisles, clapped their hands overhead and roared in unison, "Bob! Bob! Bob!"
Finally, the familiar jaunty theme music played, and announcer Rich Fields commanded four delirious souls to "Come on down!"
Then, up on the hokey, nostalgic set, which seemed awash in green glitter and old-fashioned blinking light bulbs, the dapper demi-god burst through large paneled doors. Amid wild cheers, a model handed Barker his usual mike (with the cord!) and the old pro launched into his 6,500th-plus episode.
"What are we bidding on fellers?"
"Bob, it's cool guitars!"
Sitting in the frenzied audience, it was often impossible to hear Barker throughout the hour-long show because the slap-happy masses kept screaming ear-shattering bids. ("34-95! 34-95!") No wonder he's retiring; it's unnerving.
Thankfully, there were commercial breaks. That's when Barker, a one-time Navy fighter pilot, strode to the edge of the stage to chat with the 325 seat warmers from around the country.
"Can my mother give you a kiss?" a man shouted. Barker ambled down the aisle to a 60-ish woman who looked more gaga than if she had won the eight-piece Broyhill dining room set.
"I've been saving that kiss for weeks. When you get my age, you can only pucker up so often," Barker cracked.
The next break, another fan begged to smooch him. "No, I'm not puckering up again!" he shot back, sounding a bit perturbed.
During more downtime, a young woman hollered, "I love you, Bob!"
"I love you, too!" he replied.
Later, in his dressing room, which was adorned with animal photos, the genteel Barker figured he's had "in excess of 10,000 kisses" on the job. "I think the most memorable kisses have been the men who've kissed me," he wryly said.
As for his own love life, when asked if he currently has a girlfriend, Barker blurted out, "She dumped me." He won't name names. (Barker's longtime on-and-off-again companion has been fellow animal activist Nancy Burnet. The two once rescued chickens from CBS' "Big Brother" set - the fowl had been left after the season finale - and moved them to a sanctuary.)
Barker's true love, he says, was his high school sweetheart and animal-adoring wife of 36 years, Dorothy Jo. The couple were childless when she died of lung cancer in 1981. He named his DJ&T Foundation, which funds clinics nationwide that provide free and low-cost spay and neutering, after Dorothy Jo and his mother, Tillie.
"My wife was really ahead of the curve. She stopped wearing fur and she stopped wearing leather before it occurred to me we should. And I followed suit."
Soon after that awakening, Barker got "The Price Is Right" to stop giving away fur coats as prizes. In 1988, in an infamous flap, he stepped down as the 21-year host of the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants after organizers refused to banish fur coats from its contests.
Barker also paved the way for game-show hosts to go gray. In 1987, he stopped dying his hair, shocking "The Price Is Right" home audience when he appeared as a brunette one day and his natural shade the next (the episodes had been taped some time apart).
"I had dark hair on Tuesday, say, and then I came through the doors with white hair on Wednesday. This fellow wrote and said, 'You must've had one helluva night,'" he recalled.
With today's TV dregs, where contestants back-stab and eat bugs, Barker symbolizes Americana.
"I've been watching him for 24 years. My grandmother raised me on it," said 24-year-old Brandon Young, a Baton Rogue, La., oil-company worker. With a first-come policy, even though they'd had advance tickets for months, he and his 76-year-old grandma slept overnight on the sidewalk to make sure they got in to see their "lifelong dream."
Barker expected that the day he awoke with no Showcase Showdown to preside over, "I'll go through withdrawals." ("Price" will continue with an as-yet-unnamed successor).
He reminisced for a few more minutes. "The first car we gave away in 1972 was $2,670, a Chevrolet Vega" he said. "And 50 years ago, I wasn't having male contestants wearing earrings."
It was about 4:30 p.m., and Barker, his face still coated in stage makeup, was about to head home. Once there, he'd first check to make sure his housekeeper left on the air conditioning so Mr. Rabbit and Honey Bunny were comfortable.
"I'll see if they look happy," said the TV icon watched by 5.5 million viewers daily. "I may scratch them for a while and play with them. Then I'll do the same with Jessie. And then I'll put on my jammies and wash my face."
Copley News Service