A Letter from Mary Lou

(to Tom Hornikel and the GSC8 gang, June 20, 1998)

Greetings to all you Game Show Nuts!

I was just delighted to be contacted recently by Tom Hornikel through the Internet, who simply identified himself as a Super Pay Cards fan. For those of you who remember the show, I was the co-host of this Nicholson-Muir Production shot at the Montreal television facility, Champlain Productions. Many American producers have come to Canada to make films, television series, and commercials because of the benefits of the $ diffrential and the great tax incentives offered by the Canadian government, and Super Pay Cards was probably the most successful of these ventures in this type of show.

If any of you ever wondered about the female announcer and on-camera co-host, it was a device used by the producers to insure that the show could be aired in Canada as a Canadian content program. There are restrictions outlined by a government regulatory body that establish the criteria for Canadian content, and in the case of Super Pay Cards, they all boiled down to a Canadian woman in an equal role to the featured host, Art James. Nick Nicholson and Roger Muir knew Art from previous associations and were confident that his participation would guarantee them a sale of this new show in the States, where it did play across America on the Metromedia syndicate. In the American version, my role as the announcer, and I introduced the contestants to Art and the audience on camera. The Canadian show ran with less commercial time, so to make that up, the producers gave that portion to me as the host of an audience participation section. That element of the show was quite unique, as the contestants were not screened and you never knew what would happen!

For those of you who have actually been on a game show, you know what kind of screening process goes into choosing the people who get to be involved. In the case of Super Pay Cards, Nick and Roger would personally make the final choices, and it was always interesting to see who would get to the final draft. If someone was really confident, joking around and making much of themselves, for example, they wouldn't get very far because the producers knew that that kind of person would probably 'dry up' in front of the camera. I don't recall the ratio of 'wannabes' to the number that got to play, but there were always many more people on the 'reject' list than the ones who made it on the show.

I remember auditioning for the show............I had been working in Montreal as a radio host and commercial actress and had been featured in various things made by Champlain Productions. One of the fun things they had done was a remake of 'What's My Line', and I had been a rehearsal panelist........in other words, the guests needed a dry run of the show so they would know what to expect from the celebrity panel and I, along with some other Montreal media personalities filled in for the real stars. So when the Super Pay Cards audition came up, I was on the list of people to be seen. When I got there, I saw a 'bevy of beauties', tall leggy models, each one better looking than the next, and I figured, this will be one of life's little experiences, but this casting doesn't look likely to me! Well, wouldn't you know it, but the producers told me that I looked just fine, nice and friendly, and I read better than anyone else!

So I got the job, and then they had to dress me up! (Much of my professional life has been getting paid to play 'dress up'......) I got to go with the production coordinator to the Shmata (Garment) District in Montreal, which happens to be a really good one with many international designers manufacturing their wares in the East End. Typical of this type of show, a designer or manufacturer will provide the talent wardrobe for a credit, which is pretty good advertising for them, as their name comes up at the end of every program, and in the case of Super Pay Cards, it played in syndication, at least across Canada, on and off for 13 years! Nothing like Canadian content! So, there I was in this huge warehouse of dresses, and we had to choose things for 130 shows! I think I may have worn some things twice, but that's a lot of dresses. And shoes.........well, I had to use my own, but it was a good excuse to have a fabulous pair in every colour and of course, at least three inches high! You have to know how to walk in them, but if you do, they make your legs look great!

The first weekend of shooting , they scheduled 10 shows........6 on the first day and 4 on the second. Since I had never done any such thing before, I went to the producers and asked for some guidelines about how to deliver my material. The off-camera stuff was easy.......I have a pretty low voice 'for a girl', and I'd heard those guys on the other big game shows, so I did that kind of singing crescendo thing that they do when they say the name of the host........I'm sure you'll all get to do that when you play the announcer!

But introducing the contestants was a bit tricky........I was to be on-camera standing between two people with Art on the side and the camera in front of all of us. The producers told us to be natural.......talk to Art and look at the contestants, and they gave me a little script to introduce each person. I quickly realized that the only way to ' look natural' on camera was to memorize every word I said beforehand and to ' act natural'. As far as talking to Art and/or the contestants, all you saw was the side of my face or the top of my head!
And when I asked the producers what they thought of me after the first day, they said that I looked a little nervous, but would get it in time.

Luckily, I had done a fair bit of television as an actress by that point, and I knew to ask to see the tapes of what we already shot. So, the next morning I studied them furiously and saw.........the side of my face and the top of my head! Well, as we taped the next shows that afternoon, I made a point of delivering all my lines straight to the camera......in other words, directly to the 'at home' audience and made gestures with my hands toward Art and the players on either side of me. When I asked the producers that day about my performance, I was told that I looked much more confident and that it was just a matter of time! I learned right then and there that if you win a television job, the producers forget that they saw your potential and instead figure that you already know what you're doing. In all my years in television and radio as a media host, I have experienced this same phenomenon many times. It's very rare that you actually get direction. So my recommendation to you in your host hat is to wave your hands around a la Vanna White and talk straight to the camera........you're sure to look competent!

So, I've covered the audition, the clothes, the first day of shooting, the announcing...
How about what it's like to be a game show host? For one thing, there have been very few, almost no women in that role, so I feel like something of a pioneer. True, I did not have the profile on that show that Art did, and for many reasons, that was appropriate..........he's much, much older , he had a lot of experience and did a fabulous job, and he's a guy!

But in the long run of my life, being involved with Super Pay Cards was a wonderful experience. I met sone terrific people and became somewhat of a celebrity in Canada which was, for the most part, a lot of fun.......I got recognized all over the country in some very funny situations, primarily because of my voice!
The downside was the rare but occasional 'Stalker Fan', which was scary, but manageable. I had many opportunities in television that came as a result of having been on the show, and if I had chosen a logical career path in the past 16 years since shooting Super Pay Cards, who knows where I would be today.........

But, as Tom now knows, I am now living in Los Angeles and still making my living........'hollering my head off and playing dress-up'. I think I am the only person who came to Los Angeles and became an opera singer! Yes, that's my life now.
My original personal artistic pursuits had been in music, and Super Pay Cards and my other experiences in television, radio, film, and theatre were all detours from my first creative love. So, here I am, Poor in Pocket (compared to game show host days), but very Rich in Spirit! I make my debut at an International Festival of the Arts presented by the Los Angeles Arts Commision next Sunday in the title role of the grandest of all Grand Opera.......Aida........

Wish me luck as I do all of you!

Very Sincerely, Mary Lou Basaraba

(Editor's Note: I had the privilege of reading this letter to the GSC8 gang on June 23, 1998)