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For Barker, Memories of Last 24 Years Are Priceless

August 22, 1996|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nearly every weekday for the last 40 years, Bob Barker has graced America's television screens. For almost two decades he hosted "Truth or Consequences" and for the last 24 years has been the amiable man at the end of the "come on down!" aisle on "The Price Is Right."

Barker, 72, has made more television appearances than anyone in the history of the medium, according to CBS.

While he has had to cope in recent years with lawsuits filed by two former models, Barker has remained a constant on the tube. To mark his longevity and the beginning of the 25th season of one of its most enduring phenomena, the network will air a prime-time version of "The Price Is Right" Friday at 8.

In addition to giving away the most spectacular "showcase" of prizes in its history, the special will be filled with clips, memories and highlights--including Barker's very first entrance, an actual marriage proposal in the middle of the studio audience, a young woman who became so excited that she came out of her skimpy tube top, dozens of ecstatic winners who chased Barker around the stage in an effort to hug and kiss him, and the awarding of the show's first new car--a Chevy Vega valued in 1972 at $2,746.

"It's difficult to put a finger on what makes 'Price Is Right' work, and I swear to you, no one in their wildest dreams would have said back when we started that it would last for 25 years," Barker said in a recent interview in his Hollywood home.

Barker's bantering with the contestants, he said, coupled with the show's basic premise--how much things cost--have made "The Price Is Right" the longest-running game show in television history. It already had enjoyed stints on NBC and ABC before CBS introduced its version with Barker on Sept. 4, 1972.

"Anyone can relate to it," said Barker, who also serves as executive producer. "And we have a real cross section of people every day: fat, thin, tall, short, old, young. I've had a 91-year-old lady as the big winner and kids who turned 18 the day before they were on the show. We have every race, every religion, people from every walk of life. Bud Grant, who was the head of all CBS programming [in the early 1980s], always said that ' "Price Is Right" is not a television show, it is an event.' And I think that's right. Every single day you get that feeling of excitement, a kind of holiday spirit."

To date, Barker has hosted more than 4,600 episodes. Combined with his 18 years on "Truth or Consequences"--the last three overlapping with the first three of "Price Is Right"--and 21 years as host of the Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants, Barker has stood on a stage under lights with a mike in his hand for some 8,500 shows.

Not bad, he quipped, for a former World War II naval aviator who got his first job upon returning from combat at a radio station in Springfield, Mo., by dressing up in his uniform and flight wings and asking for an appointment with the airplane-loving station manager. He wrote news, read sports scores, spun records and eventually hosted a man-in-the-street interview show.

"And my wife heard that and she said, 'Barker, this is what you should do because you do it better than you've done anything else.' I had great respect for her judgment and I enjoyed it. And so I set out with the hope of eventually having a national radio show of this sort, and to this day I have never lost my enthusiasm for this type of work.

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"Every day is different, and to me it's more than being up there playing the Grocery Game or Lucky 7 or Plinko. It's the people. I'm always looking for that wonderful person with whom I can create this sort of unscripted, spontaneous entertainment that gives 'Price Is Right' its enduring and unique personality.

"That's why I never get bored with it. It's probably the same fascination that miners have when they are digging for gold. These little nuggets are my thrill. And after all these years, they still are thrilling."

Barker came to Los Angeles in 1950 and began doing live radio shows for Southern California Edison, designed to demonstrate and popularize the use of electric ranges, freezers and washing machines.

Ralph Edwards of "This Is Your Life" fame heard Barker on the radio and offered him the job as host of "Truth or Consequences" in 1956.

"That was my most memorable moment professionally because it changed everything," said Barker, who still meets Edwards for lunch every Dec. 21 to drink a toast to the occasion.

"I was running around to Lancaster and Oxnard and San Bernardino doing these utility shows and suddenly I was on national television. I remember standing there that first show, waiting to go through the doors onto the stage, and my heart was beating so hard that I looked down to see if my jacket was moving. I thought, 'My God, I've worked all these years and now I'm going to die before I even get out there.' "

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