Bob Barker

Bob Barker at the 16th Hall of Fame Ceremony in June 2004 at the Television Academy campus in North Hollywood

August 28, 2023
Emmy Rewind

Emmy Rewind: Bob Barker

Celebrate the life and legacy of The Price Is Right host Bob Barker with this Emmy Rewind from 1996.

Since his debut in 1956 as the congenial host of Truth or Consequences, Bob Barker has been a beacon of daytime television. But it wasn't until his thirty-five years hosting The Price Is Right that he would earn eighteen Daytime Emmy Awards and the distinction of appearing on the longest-running game show in United States television history.

Barker came on down to Hollywood in 1950 and, appropriately, landed his first job as host of a radio game show, demonstrating ranges, refrigerators and washer-dryers. He hailed from South Dakota, where he grew up on a reservation with his schoolteacher mother, Tilly; his father, Byron, died when he was six. The family later moved to Missouri, where Barker attended college on a basketball scholarship; his studies were interrupted by World War II, when he served in the Navy reserves. In 1945 he wed his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Jo, who would later become familiar to Barker's TV audience.

That radio gig, broadcast from the auditorium of the L.A. Department of Water & Power, led to Barker's big television break. Producer Ralph Edwards (This Is Your Life) heard Barker on the air and in 1956 called him in for an interview. The young man soon took over as host of the television version of Truth or Consequences, which Edwards had created. For twelve years on NBC and eight more years in syndication, Barker presided over T or C's embarrassing stunts and sentimental family reunions, awarded countless consolation bottles of Jungle Gardenia perfume and reminded viewers, "May all your consequences be happy ones."

In 1966, Barker began another long-running gig, as emcee of the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants. In 1987 this association made headlines when Barker, who had become a vigorous animal-rights advocate, asked producers to substitute synthetic furs for the real ones worn on the show and given as prizes. They did not agree, and Barker left the job.

Barker, who passed away on August 26, 2023, at the age of ninety-nine, received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Daytime Television in 1999. In 2004, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

How did you see your future when you were growing up?

My dream was to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals. I grew up in South Dakota, and during the summer my mother and I used to go down to Missouri to visit my grandmother. She lived in Springfield, which is a farm club for the Cardinals. I would go to baseball games all summer long and dream of pitching, but I was held back by a complete lack of talent.

So you had no idea that you would go into entertainment?

None. When I was a baby — I was born in 1923 — my mother had someone do my horoscope. They said that this boy was going to earn his living talking. My grandfather had been a minister, so my mother thought I'd be a minister, or something like that.

You were raised on a reservation. What was that like?

The Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota — it's a Sioux reservation. My father died when I was only six years old. This was the beginning of the Great Depression. Mom found a job teaching in the high school in the town of Mission. It was like growing up in a Clint Eastwood Western. They had a hitching rail and cowboys with chaps, boots, spurs, and hats. They came in and tied their horses up and went into the local pool hall. On weekends, families of Indians would come into town on buckboards. There was no electricity, no sewers, and many still had outdoor privies. My mother and I lived in the hotel, which was the only two-story building in town. And when she was looking for me, she'd go up to the roof of the hotel and look for the dogs. I always had a pack of dogs with me. We left there, though, when I finished the eighth grade.

As a young man, you joined the Navy as a pilot.

I was one of seven Navy fighter pilots at Banana River, Florida, which is now Cape Canaveral. My wife was with me. We had a great life. It didn't last long, though. They sent me to Michigan and I was there, waiting to go to sea, when the war ended. But I didn't want to sit on a carrier for a year with no war. So I got out and finished college. I got a degree in economics.

Why economics?

Why not? I didn't know what I wanted to do for sure. Yet when I got out of college, I remembered that a high school teacher had told me I had done a good job on the public announcement system during football games. I had heard about the manager of this radio station who was crazy about airplanes. So I put on my naval officer's uniform and my wings of gold, and I applied for a job. He and I talked about airplanes for an hour or so, and I had a job writing local news and doing local sportscasts. Then I became an announcer and a disc jockey. In those days every radio station had a studio where they originated part of their programming. So I had an opportunity to do exactly what I do now — audience participation, talking with unrehearsed contestants out of a studio audience. My wife heard me and said, "Barker, you do this better than anything else you've ever done. This is what you should do." So we set out to get me a national radio show. That was our goal.

Which you accomplished within days of coming to L.A. ...

When I arrived, I thought I'd get a job as a salesman and sell an audience-participation show or host it. I went down to Sunset Boulevard where there was a radio station and talked with the sales manager. It didn't take him long to figure out I had never done any selling. But he said, "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'm going out to this supermarket, and I'm trying to sell them a show. You help me sell it, and then you can host it."

We didn't manage to sell the show, but on the way back we stopped at an appliance dealer and this dealer started talking with me. He told me he could get Zenith to sponsor half of a show, and Hotpoint to sponsor the other half if I could come up with a radio show they'd be interested in. So I sat down with my wife and we worked up a show. I was at his door the next day and he liked it, and so did Zenith and so did Hotpoint. I did my first show within a week.

What was the idea behind it?

They wanted to get women into the auditorium where they would do a demonstration with a freezer or a washer and dryer. The show was questions and answers. Dorothy Jo used to write poetry, so she'd write singing commercials to the tune of some song in public domain. We'd have fun with the audience, get them laughing. The idea was to get them to tell their neighbors that it was fun and that they should come. And it worked. I did that for thirteen weeks.

The appliance companies began to hear about it, and they came out scouting the show. Westinghouse had a talent show on television at the time, and they weren't happy with it. They hired me to host the show [Your Big Moment]. It was the first thing I ever did on television. The Southern California Edison Company saw the show and offered me a deal doing radio shows all over southern California. Dorothy Jo produced them and I hosted them — that's what Ralph Edwards heard.

So, that's how you met Ralph Edwards?

He had sold Truth or Consequences to NBC five days a week. He was auditioning hosts in Hollywood and New York but hadn't found just the one he wanted. Fortunately for me, he happened to tune into my radio program. He liked my work and called me. Just to have him call me was a thrill. I had listened to him host Truth or Consequences himself. He used to do it at a frantic pace, fast and hilarious. Then when I came to Hollywood, I used to watch him do the show. Well, he called me and invited me in for a meeting. I did a series of auditions and, on December 21, 1956, at five minutes past twelve noon, he called me and told me I was to be the host of Truth or Consequences. Ralph and I have had lunch together every December 21 since. At five minutes past twelve, we drink a toast to our long and enduring friendship.

Was that your big break?

That was undoubtedly the most important and most exciting thing that ever happened to me professionally. It changed everything for me. I had never done a national radio show and I had certainly never done a national television show. To have that opportunity changed everything. 

What's the hardest thing about working with an unrehearsed audience?

Well, you never know what to expect. Each audience has its own personality and you must handle each one just a little differently. That is what has kept me intrigued all these many years. You really have to listen to people when you don't know what someone is going to say. These people will offer all sorts of opportunities for fun and laughter if you listen.

Which moments from Truth or Consequences are the most memorable?

We had so many moments. I can remember one reunion that developed into a series, practically. We had two Italian sisters who hadn't seen each other for thirty years. We surprised the one living here by flying the one in Italy out here. So I was talking onstage to the sister who lived here, and I said, "We have a wonderful surprise for you — here's your sister from Italy!" The sister stepped out, and the one who lived here — boom! — fainted away. It was right at the end of the show, and we didn't have a chance to revive her and show the audience that she was really all right. We decided to have her back the next day and show everyone at home that she was perfectly all right.

So we started the show and I said, "Remember that this lady fainted at the end of our show yesterday after she saw her sister." I told the audience that I wanted them to see that she's just fine. At that point her sister from Italy walked onstage again and — boom! — there she went again. After that I said, "That's it! I'm not explaining anymore." She's the only woman who ever fainted twice on one of my shows. Since then I've had two women faint on The Price Is Right.

Right to the floor?

Yup, bang. I just stepped over one of them and said, "Get me another contestant, please."

Have you ever been injured by these people who jump up and down?

I have, I really have. I've had them step on my feet where it really hurts. They've kicked me. One came up the stairs but remained crouched, and as I got closer she really rammed me, ran right into my stomach with her head. A lot of them stand beside me and pinch my arm saying, 'I'm so nervous.' I had one who was about five-foot-four, get underneath my chin and jump up and down. That was the most painful. I had one throw her arms around me and jump up and down. She hit me above the eye with her head and actually gave me a mouse. If it had been a fight, they would have stopped it.

How did you move from Truth or Consequences to The Price Is Right?

The first three years of The Price Is Right, I did Truth or Consequences nighttime, half-hour, and Price Is Right daytime, half-hour. Then they had a full year of product of Truth or Consequences, so they decided to stop producing the show and just use the product they had on hand. During that year The Price Is Right went to a full hour. They came back to me at the end of the year and wanted to start doing Truth or Consequences again, but I told them I didn't think I should do it. An hour every day, and a half hour every night, well, the world can only stand so much of Bob Barker. So I didn't do it.

What earned you to go public with your belief about animal rights?

I had spoken out against the use of fur for several years. Then I was involved in the "fur flap" with the Miss USA show. I tried to convince them [the show's producers] that they should stop giving away a fur coat as a prize. And so, in 1987, they promised me they'd stop the next year. That year I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to do the Miss USA pageant, knowing they were going to give away a fur coat as a prize — but happy that they would stop the next year.

When I arrived, I was appalled to learn that they were going to have the swimsuit contestants make their entrances wearing fur coats over their swimsuits. So I went to the producers of the show and said, "I cannot get on the stage, surrounded by these young women in fur coats. I've gone all over the United States speaking out against fur. I will be a complete hypocrite if I'm there onstage with this." And they understood. But they had a quarter of a million dollars in fur there, and they had some contractual obligations, so our conversations went on for two or three days.

During that time it leaked to the press and, without any effort on my part, we had the best media break that the anti-fur campaign ever had. It was all over newspapers, TV, all over the country. I had so many calls that I could hardly rehearse the pageant. It was just the best thing that could have ever happened on behalf of the anti-fur fight. Eventually they agreed not to have the fur coats, so I did the show. But the next year they were going to have the furs, so I resigned. That was fur flap, two.

You recently made your feature film debut, having a fistfight with Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore.

That's right, I have a screen career now. As we speak, I am between pictures. I had a wonderful time. Adam, as a little boy, had watched Price Is Right and still watches it. So when they began writing the movie, they came up with the idea for this scene, and they were writing my name in the script before they had ever talked to me. Then they called me and offered me this role. I read the script, I read that I won the fight, and I said, Sure.

How has television changed since you started in the business?

Well, when I first started, just the picture itself didn't compare with what we have today. And we did it live. And, to this day, that's the way I work. I do The Price Is Right as if it were a live show — there is no editing. I have saved CBS millions of dollars in editing fees over twenty-four years. Do they appreciate it? I hope so.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #4, 1996, under the title, "Innerviews: The Right Stuff."

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