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These Gladiators Perform in a Tubed-Shaped Arena : Entertainment: 'American Gladiators' combines sport with glitz in a program that's more real than wrestling but restricted by the confines of TV.

September 07, 1990|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a few weeks this summer, Universal Studios tour trams stopped at Stage 27, and tourists were treated to standard Hollywood thrills and wizardry--with one major difference: Unlike Jaws, King Kong and the rest of Universal's ersatz attractions, this one was real.

With the sound stage transformed into a futuristic arena, the "American Gladiators" syndicated TV show was taping all 26 episodes in five weeks. But unlike pro wrestling, the competition was genuine. So were the bad feelings between gladiators--Hulklike professional athletes in spandex tights--and contestants, mere mortals chosen from public tryouts.

"This girl went to my face, and it made me mad," a gladiator named Ice told host Mike Adamle in an on-air interview after a scuffle in Powerball, the most brutal of the five events that make up the 60-minute show.

Adamle told Ice to "let bygones be bygones" and then changed the subject, but after the interview, Ice and another gladiator, Lace, were still steaming over what they saw as a disregard for gladiator safety.

"The rules say no shots to the face," Lace said. But the contestant "was throwing them. All she got was a slap on the wrist, and that's not enough. We could get hurt. The producers should take care of the gladiators. If she broke my nose, what would I do? They better tighten up the rules."

Easy enough. This is "American Gladiators," remember, not the National Football League. With no tradition of the game to worry about, the producers--Samuel Goldwyn Television--are able to make it up as they go along.

Events, rules and equipment have evolved radically since the show made its debut a year ago. Old events such as the Eliminator have been overhauled and improved. Others have been replaced. Of the 10 gladiators, only two remain from the original cast. Overall, the look of the show has become more high-tech--a video game with sweat--to entice the 18-to-34 male audience.

But the biggest change is philosophical: Though the first shows emphasized the personalities of the gladiators, who were expected to act like cartoon characters, the focus now is on competition, not shtick. The realism has elevated "Gladiators" above other so-called "Crash TV" shows, including the now-canceled "RollerGames," which was marketed as roller derby for the MTV crowd.

"Originally, the producers were looking for actors who were athletes to play gladiators," said Lace, a former Canadian gymnast whose real name is Marisa Pare. "We had definite characters, but our characters eventually just became caricatures, which detracted from the physical competition."

The changes were made by Eytan Keller, a two-time Emmy winner hired in February to replace Barry Frank as producer. "One element that separated the show, even in the early stages, from 'RollerGames' and pro wrestling was that it was legitimate competition," Keller said. "Nothing was fixed."

TV audiences responded, making "Gladiators" the highest-rated new hourlong show in syndication. Aired locally by KCAL, Channel 9, on Saturday nights and repeated on Sunday nights, "Gladiators" had a combined weekend Nielsen rating of 4.9 last May, before reruns. It makes its season debut on KCAL this Saturday at 7 p.m. and airs at the same time Sunday.

TV fans may have paid attention to "Gladiators," but the sports media virtually ignored it. Last season, results went unreported, and stories about the show were usually relegated to the TV pages. It isn't being taken seriously as a sport, partly because it hasn't been around long enough and partly for a more fundamental reason: The sports media has long regarded made-for-TV sports shows with skepticism because they lack the spontaneity of a true sporting event.

With "Gladiators," the competition may be authentic, but almost everything else is an illusion, pure Hollywood magic. At the recent taping sessions, the live audience was merely atmosphere, background noise put there for effect, like the fake smoke that filled the arena. A quarter of the 400 studio seats were filled courtesy of the Universal Tour, but at least the tourists were real: Last season, the prop department painted cartoon faces in the stands.

Cued by the PA system, audiences were commanded to cheer like crazed Raiders fans, even though they often didn't have a clue what they were cheering for. "The rules are pretty confusing, and I never know who's winning," said John Golfano, 36, a tourist from South Bend, Ind.

The show also lacks credibility with the sports media because it is edited. The need to change the massive sets requires taping to be done in bits and pieces instead of continuously from the opening gun. This creates suspicion: If mistakes by announcers Adamle and Hall of Fame football player Larry Csonka are edited out, could the results be altered too?

"What we call in the truck is what you see in your living room," Keller insisted.

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