And now, the pinky promise is kept.
CBS made a couple of other changes to its daytime lineup 50 years ago today besides adding THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS. With the encouraging early success of their morning game show block, they carved out an hour of their late afternoon for a similar strategy, moving the recently launched NEW PRICE IS RIGHT (they were still using that prefix) to the afternoon as a lead-in for a tepid remake of a short-lived film clip-based guessing game called HOLLYWOOD’S TALKING!, a reward of sorts for Jack Barry, whose JOKER’S WILD was doing decently leading off the morning and was Barry’s personal reclamation project after his involvement with the 50s quiz show scandals was revealed. That show was gone in thirteen weeks, replaced by a reboot of a celebrity panel game show from PRICE producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman that had done reasonably well at a similar time of day for NBC a decade earlier . You may have heard of MATCH GAME. But this is not that show’s anniversary.
It is, however, the golden anniversary for the show that replaced THE PRICE IS RIGHT in the morning lineup, a show that excitedly trumpeted a return to a five-figure jackpot to daytime TV for the first time since before those scandals that Barry was involved in dramatically changed the scale and substance of those shows. Since I never knew an era where housewives would compete for such stakes, when the press release announcing a show called THE $10,000 PYRAMID hit the New York tabloids, I was excited. Even the opening seconds of the show promised something exciting, fresh and new.
A spotlight shone on two chairs facing each other enclosed by a circular guard rail, which we’d later know was called “The Winner’s Circle”. Announcer Bob Clayton, whose long stint on NBC’s CONCENTRATION had ended only the previous Friday, excitedly intoned: ”
Keep your eye on this spot!! You are about to see one celebrity and one contestant step into this circle, for the chance to win TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS in less than a minute!!! Ladies and gentlemen, this IS THE $10,000 PYRAMID!!
And with that, a flat wall rose to the ramters of the Ed Sullivan Theatre and an imposing, chase-light laden pyramid-shaped game board, with a giant flashing $10,000 sign, was revealed, trumpeted fanfare music blared and Dick Clark, who I had only known as the host of AMERICAN BANDSTAND but indeed who had a couple of prior short-lived game show hosting stints eloquently strutted out, And for many game show nerds like myself, our preferences and lives were forever changed.
The road to such a dramatic staging was a long one for its creator and producer, Bob Stewart. Stewart was once the mastermind behind Mark Goodson and Bill Todman’s most successful shows, including the word game that owned 60s pop culture, PASSWORD. PASSWORD was (as it still is) a celebrity-contestant word communication game that was played through the filter of one-word clues and a tense but leisurely pace. The grand prize in any one game never exceeded more than a few hundred dollars. Stewart went out on his own in the mid-60s, determined, as he was often quoted as saying, not to be the prince of Goodson-Todman, but the king of his own company. He was able to sell a few shows, the most successful of which was EYE GUESS, which had a healthy but uneventful three-year run, and others that never quite matched even that level of popularity. Bob’s shows were often clever word games, and a burning passion of his was to expand upon PASSWORD’s appeal by using more descriptive ways to describe things, and incorporate a ticking clock for the celebrity and civilian players to be pressured by. Several more staid pilots were produced using this concept, none of which were particularly memorable. One of them was a show called CASH ON THE LINE, which incorporated a game board with an end game involving identifying items in a particular category, the goal being to successfully guess at least one answer on a given line of possiblities. If you look at the board, with decreasing numbers of possible winning answers on each ensuine line, it kinda looked like a pyramid.
As the newer CBS shows offered glitzlier looks and relatively large daily payouts, Stewart was encouraged to jazz things up, and ultimately CASH ON THE LINE was reworked, the number of rows in tbe pyramid was reduced to four, and THE $10,000 PYRAMID was sold to CBS. Yes, I said four rows. If you look closely at the game board in the videos of the oldest surviving episodes from the show’s first week, you can clearly see a piece of plywood below what were now the bottom row of answers, The “Winner’s Circle” end game initially involved a team attempting to get ten correct answers in sixty seconds to win such a huge grand prize. As the show’s premiere date drew closer, it was apparent that even better players could not possibly be that successful in so short a time. Bob Stewart loved to save money, but having a show that offered a huge grand prize in the title that could never be won wasn’t a great formula for longevity. In the first week, the top prize was given away twice, both times by a co-star of what just happened to be one of CBS’ prime time hits, a young actor named Rob Reiner. You may have heard of him, too.
The early days of PYRAMID were, to fans familiar with later versions, rampant with growing pains. Rules and consistency of difficulty for the front game categories were evolving, as this episode shows. Scores were quite low, with winning scores of 9 or 10 out of a possible 24 points often the case. The clean two games in a half-hour format and commercial breaks were haphazard, with shows often running long. Eventually, the front game kinks were worked out. But the end game, that dramatic Winner’s Circle, was absolutely captivating. The “flute clock”, urgently ticking away the time alloted toward winning life-changing money, was a flourish not heard since the heyday of the big money scandals. The mental connection needed between celebrity and civilian to draw a picture that answered the dilemna “What do these things have in common?” was, when played well, a study in human dynamics and psychology. And the explosion of the studio audience and the adrenalin rush of those chase lights and that flashing neon sign, and the swell of that trumpeting music, when a team could “conquer the Pyramid” was electric. Even this episode from the first week, amidst all of the problems with the front game, showed that this end game would be iconic:
Initial ratings were encouraging, and it looked like the show would have a decent run. Except, ironically, Stewart’s newfound flair for big money dramatics resulted in him selling another show with an even larger possible payout, JACKPOT!, to NBC, which moved it into the longtime lunch hour spot occupied by the venerable JEOPARDY!, with the answer-and-question quiz relocated to the 10:30 AM time slot to go head-to-head with CBS’ upstart hit. JEOPARDY!, while it was beginning to fade, was still competitive enough to knock PYRAMID down a few share points. (In an even more ironic set of circumstances, the host of that show, Geoff Edwards, was also the host of that short-lived HOLLYWOOD’S TALKING! that was also launched 50 years ago today, but crashed and burned quickly). CBS swiftly reacted by cancelling PYRAMID just about a year after it launched.
But fortunately, ABC had a fan among its executives who believed both in Stewart and the format, and Clark’s longtime association with the network, recently expanded to include his producing prowess with such still-enduring staples as NEW YEAR’S ROCKING EVE and THE AMERICAN MUSIC AWARDS, made him exceptionally attractive. And with a half-hour at the end of the broadcast day occupied by reruns of LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE available, ABC saved the show from extinction and slotted it in a little more than a month after CBS’ cancellation. Six months later, the show moved to mid-afternoon, and ran for the rest of the decade as one of the most successful daytime shows on the network.
Even greater success, and some retribution, was achieved in the 80s, when the show, which had increased its jackpot to $20,000 shortly after its move to mid-afternoons, upped its ante even more and returned to CBS’ morning lineup when it once again sought to replace sitcom reruns. A companion nighttime series which raised the grand prize to $100,000 ran simulatenously for three seasons, resulting in Clark and the ever-thrifty Stewart churning out ten half-hour shows in a single taping day. But, once again, once the show had reached its sixth season, it ran out of gas. Even a short-lived return to the air after its replacement show crashed after 13 weeks didn’t lift it enough to justify further renewal.
In ensuing years, the show and its new corporate owners, Sony Pictures TV, valiantly tried to revive it. Several unsold pilots were produced. An ill-fated syndicated version hosted by Donny Osmond, which endures more because of its utility in a classic episode of FRIENDS, lasted only two seasons. An even more short-lived revival that gave Mike Richards his resume reel for his own ill-fated stab at replacing Alex Trebek on JEOPARDY!, lasted only 40 episodes for GSN. (of which only 38 aired; trust me, I was there for the tape day where a very jet-lagged and arguably inebriated Aida and John Turturro played the game even worse than the first week’s contestants did, and even my GSN colleagues were disgusted enough to be determined to never see those episodes see the light of day.).
Most recently, the show has come full circle, back at ABC but now in prime time. Michael Strahan has replaced Clark and has exhibited many of the same skills that Clark possessed, albeit in an extra-large size. Like Clark, his presence on another network staple (in his case, GOOD MORNING, AMERICA) ensures the show has a promotional base to draw from. And, just this past Friday, the official news came down via an ABC press release announcing its “Summer Fun and Games” lineup for this summer, as reported on Futon Critic.com:
ABC ANNOUNCES SUMMER 2023 PREMIERE DATES AS THE NETWORK LEADS THE SEASON AS NO. 1 IN ENTERTAINMENT
GENERATION GAP’ IS PICKED UP FOR SEASON TWO AND RETURNS ALONGSIDE FAN-FAVORITE SHOWS ‘THE $100,000 PYRAMID,’…
SUNDAY, JULY 9
8:00-9:00 p.m. “The Prank Panel” (regular time-slot debut)
9:00-10:00 p.m. “Celebrity Family Feud” (season premiere)
10:00-11:00 p.m. “The $100,000 Pyramid”
Information on the series/specials below.
THE $100,000 PYRAMID
Michael Strahan is back to host “The $100,000 Pyramid,” the timeless word-association game where two celebrities and their contestant partners face off in a race against the clock to make it to the winner’s circle. Only the best and the brightest will take home $100,000 if they can conquer the Pyramid.
“The $100,000 Pyramid” is produced by SMAC Productions in association with Sony Pictures Television. “The $100,000 Pyramid” is executive produced by Michael Strahan, Constance Schwartz-Morini and Vin Rubino.
Follow “The $100,000 Pyramid” (#100KPyramid) on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
Yes. After half a century of trying, a seventh season of PYRAMID production from a network will appear. Once again, with FAMILY FEUD as its lead-in, as it was for several previous primetime seasons in this century and for a spell in ABC’s daytime lineup in the previous one. And as I was blessed enough to have been a small part of its most successful iteration of its first 50 years, after being a fan and, if you jump over to my resume page, you will see a frustrated non-contestant, it’s an especially satisfying golden anniversary indeed.
To the many friends and colleagues involved past and present with this show’s success, grab a beverage of choice today and toast both the past and the present, and hope that this recent wave of newfound success continues. I know I’ll be doing that, and I hope you will too.
For now…so long.