On Sept. 4, 1972, viewers for the first time heard what may be the three most inviting words ever uttered on TV — "Come on down!" Since then, that simple catchphrase that is synonymous with the longest-running game show, "The Price Is Right," has become a part of American pop culture and a daytime TV tradition.
It's an invitation not only for contestants but for the millions of viewers who have been tuning in daily from the time Bob Barker, who died last month, began hosting through the Drew Carey era, which continues with the start of Season 52 at 11 a.m. Monday on CBS/2. In addition, a new season of prime-time specials kicks off Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. with a “Survivor” superfans episode featuring that show’s host, Jeff Probst, and an "Amazing Race"-themed show with Phil Keoghan on Oct. 9.
Long Islanders can also get a chance to come on down to the NYCB Theatre at Westbury Oct. 1 at 4 and 8 p.m. for “The Price Is Right Live,” a traveling version of the show hosted by Todd Newton that will feature the Big Wheel; fan favorite games like Plinko and Cliff Hangers; the Showcase Showdown; and lots of prizes including cash, trips and cars.
“The big difference is that we can call more people down than on the television show. We’re not limited to 60 minutes, there’s no commercial breaks, and contestants are chosen completely at random,” said Newton.
WHAT "The Price Is Right Live"
WHEN | WHERE 4 and 8 p.m. Oct. 1, NYCB Theatre at Westbury
INFO $36.50-$44; livenation.com
There will also be a tribute to Barker featuring clips of his funniest moments on the show and heartfelt words from Newton, who has hosted “Live” since it was created by Barker 20 years ago. "Bob wanted to bring a little bit of Hollywood to people who could not come to Hollywood," he said.
LI'S BIG WINNERS
While the "Live" show is sure to attract a number of Long Island fans, don't expect to see George Fletcher of Bay Shore in the audience. "I've already been on the mother show," said Fletcher, 56, a planning executive with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Fletcher, in fact, has appeared on the show twice. His first time was in 2002, when he won some small prizes and advanced to the showcase, where he lost out on a sauna, a trip to Nashville and a Pontiac after overbidding by $222. His return visit in April was much more successful: He racked up $67,752 in prizes, including two cars and a new kitchen.
And Fletcher, who grew up watching "The Price Is Right," would be more than happy to go on a third time, he just may have to be patient. "The new rule is that you have to wait 10 years before you can go on again as a contestant. If the show is still kicking, and me too, I'll definitely give it another whirl," he said.
Chances of the show still kicking look good. It consistently ranks No. 1 on Nielsen's weekly daytime TV ratings list and it continues to attract new generations of fans, while retaining viewers who have watched it since they were kids.
Newton, for example, said he got hooked on the show watching it with his grandmother. "Let's face it, all of our grandmothers had a crush on Bob Barker," he said.
"When people turn on the TV and 'The Price Is Right' is on, it reminds them of their childhood, it reminds them of their family. There's a lot of nostalgia there that is comfortable for people," explained executive producer-showrunner Evelyn Warfel.
That's certainly true for Richie Shelton, 30, an accountant from Syosset who appeared on the prime-time "Superfans"-themed episode in February and won a $4,940 set of designer Gucci luggage and a $13,649 trip for two to Switzerland.
"My dad would watch it every day, so I would watch it every day," said Shelton about the roots of his own obsession with the show.
Those years of watching were fortuitous in trying out for the "Superfans" episode, which proved to be an arduous journey for Shelton. The process started with Shelton applying online and answering a slew of trivia questions about the show as well as an explanation on why he'd be a good contestant. He also included several tips on playing the game (none of the prizes in Contestants' Row are ever less than $500; never bid less than $20,000 on a showcase).
"I figured I’d never hear anything," he said, "then about a month and a half later I got an email back from one of the casting producers saying 'We really liked your application. Would you mind if we did a Zoom interview with you?"
During that 20-minute session, he was grilled by the casting producer, who fired off questions ranging from information on past models to the number of the studio where the show is filmed.
"We put a lot of work into finding our biggest fans, people who know the show better than I do," Warfel said. "I think it’s fun to watch someone who knows the game and watch them try to figure it out."
Shelton was among the 20 people chosen for the "Superfans" episode, and one of only nine who made it to Contestants' Row. He won his trip playing Cliff Hangers, a "Price Is Right" classic that involves trying to guess the prices of three products within a total of $25. For each dollar a contestant is off, a yodeling man climbs one step of a cardboard mountain that's 25 steps long. Be off by $26, and it's curtains for "Yodely Guy" as Carey lovingly calls him.
Shelton won his trip as well as a special souvenir. "Drew took the guy off the game, signed it and gave it to me. So I have something that probably no one else in the world has," Shelton says. "It's a priceless prize."
BEFORE BOB BARKER, THERE WAS BILL CULLEN
While so many viewers may have become fans by watching with their grandparents, this is definitely not your great-grandmother's version of the show. That would be the original edition hosted by Bill Cullen that ran on NBC from 1956 to 1963 and then moved to ABC for two more seasons.
"Price" was part of the Mark Goodson-Bill Todman stable of game shows and was created by veteran producer Bob Stewart ("Password," "The $10,000 Pyramid") after spotting an auctioneer from his office window in Manhattan selling off various items.
The Cullen version consisted of a panel of four contestants chosen from the audience — including a returning champion — bidding on prizes in an auction-style format. The player whose bid came closest to the actual retail price without going over won the prize.
While the game play was not as fast-paced as the version we all know and love, the prizes were often far more outlandish. Among the offbeat offerings were a Ferris wheel, a submarine, an island in the St. Lawrence Seaway, a house in Tampa, Florida, and the business opportunity of a lifetime — a Chicken Delight store in downtown Los Angeles.
"I was more impressed with the prizes than the game play, which was kind of boring," said Shelton, who has watched some of the episodes on Buzzr.
When "The New Price Is Right" was launched in 1972 (the "New" got dropped a year later) with Barker replacing Cullen, the show got a complete overhaul. The half-hour show featured four people selected from the audience to come on down to Contestants' Row. After bidding on a prize, the one who came closest without going over got to come on stage and play a pricing game for a bigger-ticket item. After two more rounds of play, the top two winners advanced to the Showcase Showdown for a chance to win a package of three prizes. In the premiere, the $2,504 winning showcase consisted of a pair of roller skates, an exercise bike and a Mazda sedan. (The winner, incidentally, was only off by $4.)
"Price" was an immediate hit and spawned a nighttime version hosted by Dennis James from 1972 to 1977. The daytime show was expanded to one hour on Nov. 3, 1975, with some new wrinkles added. The number of pricing games was upped from three to six. And making its debut was The Big Wheel, which is marked with values from 5 cents to $1. The six winning contestants each get two spins to try and get as close to $1 without going over to earn a spot in the Showcase Showdown.
And in case you were wondering about that wheel, you might want to work out before going on the show. "It's very, very, very heavy. And it's heavy on purpose," Shelton said. "Drew said that in the past it wasn't and they would waste so much airtime with the wheel spinning around. They thought to themselves, how can we save some airtime? If we make the wheel heavy then we save valuable time. I myself could only spin it around about one and a half revolutions."
The Big Wheel keeps on turning and the format has pretty much remained to this day, with the most significant change taking place in 2007 when Barker retired and Carey assumed hosting duties
Also retired have been several of the 112 games played over the years (does anyone even remember "Shower Game" which involved six shower stalls, confetti and a car key?), but 78 are still in rotation. Two, however, stand out.
Plinko, which debuted in 1983, is easily the show's most popular game. Contestants are given one free Plinko chip and can then earn four more by guessing the correct prices of various products. They then head to the top of the giant Plinko board and let the chips fall where they may in slots ranging from $0 to $10,000 with the hope of winning up to $50,000.
"It’s pure luck," Warfel says. "You can drop it in the same place every time and it could land in a different spot."
Nearly as popular is Cliff Hangers, which some might find as cheesy as a wedge of Laughing Cow. "The prize always changes with Cliff Hangers. It’s not like Plinko where it’s always cash or one of our car games where it’s always the car. It’s not about the prize," Warfel said. "It's fun to watch the man fall off the mountain. I think there’s that anticipation of when is he going to stop. Even when he falls over, people who have lost think that it’s funny and get a big kick out of it. It’s fun and juvenile and silly and that’s why people love it."
It's a game even casual watchers of the show are familiar with. "A lot of the people I invited to my viewing party don’t watch the show, but everybody knows Cliff Hangers because they make fun of it on other shows like 'Family Guy.' It’s a very noticeable game," Shelton said.
THE PRIZE IS RIGHT
While cars and trips to locations from Seattle to Singapore have remained the most popular prizes in the show's more than five-decade history, it wasn't unusual at one time to see contestants playing for stereos, a mini greenhouse, jukeboxes and mink coats. (Animal rights activist Barker successfully lobbied to have fur banned from the show at the start of Season 11.) These days, iPhones, computers, designer shoes and handbags, and big-screen TVs pop up on a daily basis.
"We look at the things people want to have. And just like the people that watch the show, the people on our staff all come from different walks of life," Warfel said. "Some people are fresh out of college, some have children, some live in homes, some live in apartments. If someone on the staff just bought a house, we'll ask what are you looking for appliance-wise? What do you need as a new homeowner? We do a lot of studies with just ourselves."
People also never get tired of winning state-of-the-art technology items Warfel added. "You could have gotten a new iPhone six months ago and you would still be excited to win one six months later because they’re constantly upgrading and changing," she said. "Nobody’s mad when there’s a new phone or a new TV or a new computer because it's going to have features that yours doesn’t have."
Of course, that doesn't mean the show may never again offer a jukebox. At a recent meeting about an upcoming special, Warfel suggested going a little old school. "I said, we should put a jukebox as one of the prizes. Of course, it’s not like an old jukebox, but an updated current one. It is so fun when we’re having a game room or it’s a holiday to do some throwback prizes."
Just as much thought goes into selecting contestants, most of whom come dressed to thrill in colorful T-shirts emblazoned with the "Price Is Right" logo or a pithy saying like "Show me the money." But it takes more than a cute shirt to be a good contestant.
"When a person gets up there and they’re shaking with excitement and they’re loud and boisterous, that’s really fun to watch," Warfel said.
The "Superfans" episode remains one of Warfel's favorites because of the contestants like Shelton that were chosen. "When someone comes up and they say 'This is my favorite game, I was hoping I’d get to play this' and they know how it play it, it’s fun to watch. But I also love people who come up and are emotional because of how much they love the show and what it means to them."
And it's that affection and devotion that ultimately is what has kept the show going all of these years, Warfel said. "It really is a very happy, positive show. When you aren't feeling well, whether it’s because you’re sick or something is happening in your life and you’re feeling down, it’s so upbeat, you can’t help but get sucked into the excitement and enjoyment of it."
— With Verne Gay
'PRICE' BY THE NUMBERS
Since it started in 1972, "The Price Is Right" has given away more than $300 million in cash and prizes, according to CBS. Staggering as that figure is, it's not the only amazing number in the show's history. Here are some others.
The number of Plinko chips in existence. Carefully manufactured to create the "plink" sound as they fall, the chips are locked in a special box after every taping.
How many seasons the show has been on (season 52 begins on Monday).
All of the games that have been played on the show since it began. Of those, 78 are still in rotation.
Number of double showcase winners since 1974 when a new wrinkle was added to the Showcase Showdown: Winners who came within $250 of their bid also won their competitor's showcase.
The price of a Chevy Vega, the first car given away, on the Sept. 4, 1972, premiere.
Number of episodes hosted by Bob Barker from 1972 to 2007 according to the Internet Movie Database. His successor, Drew Carey, has hosted a mere 2,575 episodes.
The price of the most expensive prize ever offered — the Audi R8 V8 Spyder Quattro S Tronic. Sheree L. Heil of Tacoma, Washington, won the car playing the Gas Money game in 2013.
— DANIEL BUBBEO