A Conversation with Gene Wood, Part I
(as told by David Hammett, May 27, 1996)
In response to some requests, I was able to arrange a phone call with Gene Wood, game show announcer extraordinaire, to discuss his life and his work in game shows. He has a wealth of stories to tell, so many that the conversation lasted two nights. I'll post the first night's remarks in Part I, then follow up with Part II.
Gene came from a show biz family... his mother was a dancer, his father a drummer. Before Gene went overseas in WWII, he participated in a talent competition put on by the Air Force, where he did impersonations. But when he returned to the United States, Gene wanted to be a doctor. A lack of finances, however, led him instead to Emerson College in Boston to pursue a Speech and Theatre major. "We did 6 plays every year; each class did some number of them for the public. I was in the freshman play, and after that they put me into Advanced Theatre. The standard of performance was quite high," says Gene.
While in college, Gene made a trip to New York. By this time, he had already played Iago in "Othello," and Petrucchio in "The Taming of the Shrew." He went at the request of a talent scout from 20th Century Fox, who wanted to offer him a contract. This was 1948. Gene's response: "I told him that I'd have to wait to get my degree first." Sure enough, two years later Gene went
back to that same guy, saying "I'm ready now," but only to find out that this new medium called television had decimated the motion picture industry. Gene notes: "So I got involved with TV. Compared with Broadway, the studios were clean, and the people were courteous."
Gene's first TV work was with Milton Berle. "Berle looked after young performers; he used me as a sketch man." Again in comparison with Broadway, Gene told of a situation where the director on Berle's show was yelling for the extras to get ready. Berle retorted, "Those are not extras... those are actors and actresses." "The treatment was a lot different in television,"
After the stint with Berle, times got bleaker for Gene. But he still had his fun. Gene relates this anecdote: "I was working in this building delivering boxes to the various floors. On the fourth floor I assumed an Irish character, while on the fifth floor I put on a French accent, and on the sixth floor I was a Russian immigrant. The ladies all loved me, whichever character I was... and they bought it, until the day I happened to meet all
three of them in the cafeteria and they cornered me!" Still, during this time Gene didn't make much money; he remembers a family from Greece that couldn't have been very well off either that gave him some bread, cheese, and coffee one day. "There was a restaurant owner that, to make sure I got food, made me a taste tester," Gene says.
Eventually, an old high school chum of Gene's came calling... Bill Dana. "Bill was very bright and talented. He worked for McDonald Douglas before trying to break into the biz. I wrote him while I was a page, and we got together to make a comedy team. We actually replaced Kate Smith on TV for 13 weeks!" Bill, of course, later went on to hook up with Don Adams, Tom
Poston, and eventually land a spot on Steve Allen's show.
Then Gene made an appearance on Garry Moore's show. "He was a star; people loved Garry as a person... he was so kind and protective. Nobody was better at launching new talent." One anecdote involves eventual "Hollywood Squares" regular George Gobel; says Gene: "George was on Garry's show, and before the show he goes into Garry's dressing room carrying a drink. He sees that Garry doesn't have one, then says, 'You go out there
Gene eventually got work in commercials; for seven years, he never did less than 100 commercials each year. Within a year, he had paid off $11,000 in debt and made $7000 more. He remembered doing one for Bromo Seltzer where, after several takes, he had drank 11 glasses of the stuff. "I didn't have a headache for 23 years," Gene said. He remembers that he was always amazed at how much they were willing to pay him to do this kind of work.
He also became a writer for Robert Keeshan and Associates... yes,
Captain Kangaroo himself. Gene: "Bob was a kind, sensitive man. He had enormous courage... Once when they wanted to use a commercial on the show featuring a child at the store saying, 'Gimme, gimme,' to her mother, he refused, saying he didn't want mothers to be put into that situation. The advertiser threatened to pull all of their spots, but Bob remained firm, and
eventually the advertiser backed down." Gene also developed an animated feature for the show called "The Adventures of Lariat Sam."
After doing some more plays, Frank Wayne... "one of the best game show producers ever," according to Gene... came to Gene and said, "We're bringing back Beat the Clock, and we want you to be the announcer." Frank and Gene had become friends years before; they did a pilot together where Gene played a French chef who appeared in vignettes that the contestants were ultimately quizzed on, and then later they worked together on Password. Game show announcing turned out to be the perfect job for Gene. "I got to work with people, and between shows I'd create improvisations for the audience. The audiences were great... once they know you won't hurt them, and once they know you respect them and want to have fun, they'll do almost anything."
Gene goes on to talk about game shows in general as being some of the best programming on television: "On Card Sharks, a mother who had been supported by her son won $17,000, then commented, 'Now I've got something to take to my son.' On Family Feud, a family was literally transformed... at least one was pregnant, and the family went on to win at least $50,000. It's like a Greek tragedy, but with a happier ending!"
While announcing BTC, Gene got involved with a show called "Anything You Can Do," a stunt show similar to BTC that involved a battle of the sexes to see which group could do the stunts faster. Gene: "I quit that show; someone got injured, and I saved another woman from getting hurt. The contestants trusted that what would happen to them was OK, and it turned out not to be."
Meanwhile, back at BTC, Jack Narz had left his position as host.
Gene: "I don't know why Jack left; maybe the negotiations for his contract got difficult. Anyway, I became the producer and the host at that point. Hosting was interesting... a change... lots of fun." Eventually, though, the Canadian authorities (the show was taped in Canada) wanted to get 50% of the profits from fee items the show used. Gene didn't want to set a bad precedent, and Mark Goodson agreed, so production of the show ceased.
On Mark Goodson, Gene had this to say: "His whole life *was* ideas... he was an intellectual of the highest order." Gene was flattered that Goodson trusted his judgment in the handling of the BTC/Canadian government affair.
So now Gene begins his long run of announcing on a host of G-T shows. He has comments about most of them... some lengthy, others not. Here goes:
NOW YOU SEE IT: "That show had the greatest opening... the music, the words... fantastic... exciting to announce!"
TATTLETALES: "Frank Wayne asked me to do this show one night while we were having dinner. Bert Convy was great... he had a way with people, and was so likable. He loved to play practical jokes: Once while I was doing the "rattle" (list of parting gifts at the end of the show), Bert came over and proceeds to undo my pants and pull them down while I was trying to read my copy! Another time, he arranged for the UCLA band to play outside Burt Reynolds' house at 6 a.m. in the morning! He loved the business, and was a good director. We even did a pilot in Nashville together for a sitcom." Gene also relates a couple of practical jokes he played on Bert: "Bert always liked to kiss the person sitting by the mike on Tattletales; once this was a girl who had a huge wart on her face with hair growing out of it. Bert played the perfect gentleman, however, and said it would be his pleasure to kiss her. Another time he was forced into kissing three girls... and a guy!"
SHOWOFFS: "That was such a strange situation; the program has so much sadness attached to it." Gene's referring to the sudden death of Larry Blyden, the planned host of the show, in a car accident in Morocco weeks before the show premiered, as well as the eventual early loss of Bobby Van years later.
There's more, but it comes in the next half of the conversation. I'll post that ASAP... look forward to stories about Richard Dawson, Alex Trebek, Allen Ludden and Betty White, Bill Cullen, and Gene Rayburn... to name a few!
Click here to read the second half of David's conversation with this all-time-great!