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Da Holy Hour

My Mom, Bob Barker and the Enduring Power of Dreams

October 05, 2003|Fran Tunno | Fran Tunno is a freelance writer and voiceover artist living in Glendale.

Some women love athletes, others love actors, but only the truly discerning woman has her passions inflamed by a game-show host. That was my mother. In the late '70s, my Italian-American mom became obsessed with Bob Barker. She'd say, "Bob-a Barker, dare's a guy I like-a. He treats-a da ladies wid-a respect, he's a real-a gendleman."

Each morning at 11, the household paused as she watched "The Price Is Right" with more passion than she exhibited for a really good salami.

My mother's love affair with show business began when she was young and beautiful and everyone said she resembled silent-film actress Pola Negri. She never mustered the nerve to pursue acting. Instead she worked behind the beer-stained counter of her parents' western Pennsylvania tavern, dreaming of stardom. She eventually married, had a family and discovered that all she ever lacked was confidence.

Years passed and she saw there weren't many roles for overweight Italian women. So Bob Barker became important to her. Maybe she felt "The Price Is Right" offered her a last grasp at diluted fame, or maybe she just thought Bob was cute. Whatever the reason, it didn't sit well with my father.

She talked constantly about how she wanted to be on the show, which made people in our small town chuckle. They thought her big dreams were absurd. Martha from her card club even said, "What makes you think you're gonna win?" Her stinging words only strengthened Mom's will and her finely honed revenge gene.

So my decision to move west came at the perfect time. My mother was inconsolable that Francy, her youngest, was leaving. She sobbed until I said, "But, Ma, if I move to Los Angeles, you can finally see 'The Price Is Right!' " Her tears stopped midstream, she turned to me beaming and said, "Really, Frenzy, you ting I have a chenze?"

Such was the power of Bob Barker over my mother. My father maintained his dislike of all things Hollywood, but eight months after my departure, my parents made their first visit, which included a trip to "The Price Is Right." At CBS Studios, Mom was like a little kid. Grabbing my arm, she'd say, "Frenzy, you ting-a dey call onna me?" Then looking up she'd say, "Jesus, pleece, eef-a dey call onna me, tella me whatta to say. Frenzy, what eef I getta tongue-a tied?" Then back to Jesus, "Jesus pleece, you putta da words inna my mout . . . . OK?"

My dad lumbered along, muttering, "What are you so excited for? It's a stupid TV show."

We stood in line, name tags on, nervously waiting to be interviewed by the show's producer. My mother was interviewed first. If she'd been any more excited she would have experienced lift-off.

Producer: "Hello, Mary, tell me about yourself."

Mom: "Well-a, every day atta elevena clock, I go to da TV and-a put onna Bob-a Barker anna da 'Price Iza Right'-a. My husband calls itta 'Da Holy Hour.' I justa love-a his-a show. He's a very niza man."

She flashed her biggest smile and was peppier than I'd ever seen her. This was as close as she'd come to her dream of stardom. I was terrified they wouldn't pick her. The producer then interviewed my dad, then me, both dull as nasal spray compared to Mom. They seated us in the studio in one of the last rows in the back. The corners of my mother's smile drooped and she murmured, "I don'da ting a dey gonna peek us iffa dey put us alla da way inna da back."

Bob's announcer, Johnny Olson, breezed through the audience, flirting with the women. He kissed me. Mom thought this meant I was a contestant.

"You're a younga gal . . . a-whadda do dey wandda wit an oldda baddle axe liga me? Dey gonna peek-a you, honey," she said, smiling weakly.

The audience lights went down and Bob Barker strolled out in a smart dark suit. The first four contestants were called and my mother wasn't one of them. "Please let her make it," I prayed, and began wondering what I'd have to promise God to swing a deal. I'd forgotten the heavy hitter was right beside me.

If you're not familiar with the mysteries of Catholicism, there's a prayer Catholics save for things like the World Series and childbirth, called a novena. You say the prayer for nine straight days and at the end, you miraculously get what you prayed for. My mother, who never went a day without seven holy medals pinned to her bra, had made 9 billion novenas in her lifetime. Johnny Olson announced the next contestant: "Mary Tunno, come on down!"

"Meeeeee! Dey peeked-a me!" she squealed as she jumped from her seat. She trotted down the aisle in her bright blue dress, waving her fists. She was radiant, ready to meet her idol.

"I'll be damned," my father mumbled. In my head, I could hear everyone in our small town, including Martha, saying the same thing.

Mom took her place on contestants row and tearfully told Bob, "I been-a wanding-a to see you for a long a time-a." She then nervously lost the first two rounds, but guessed the price of luggage and moved onstage. I envisioned Martha's plate of crow as Mom placed a loving kiss on Bob's cheek.

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