George Hamilton on the road: ‘La Cage’ star reflects on Evel Knievel, Hank Williams and so much more

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

The other day I rang up George Hamilton.

He was out in L.A., catching some rays poolside. And my first thought was: Well, where else would he be?

“Couldn’t be a better day,” the actor/producer said. “I love to be in the sun, sitting around the pool.”

Hamilton, thought of less as an accomplished actor than a charming personality, is on the road with the national tour of “La Cage aux Folles,” the award-winning musical that opens next week at Starlight Theatre. Hamilton plays Georges, the owner of a nightclub where his partner, Albin (played by Christopher Sieber), performs in drag as the club singer Zaza.

When Georges’ son brings his fiancée and her conservative parents to visit, Georges and Albin have to conceal the nature of their relationship. Laughter ensues.

Hamilton, 73, plays the “straight man,” as it were, but says his real job is to charm the audience.

Hamilton has been performing steadily since the late 1950s, when he was a contract player at MGM. In that era he appeared in a number of high-profile films — “Light in the Piazza” with Olivia de Havilland, “Home From the Hill” with Robert Mitchum, “All the Fine Young Cannibals” with Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood — and he has maintained an active career since.

Christopher Sieber and George Hamilton in “La Cage.” (Paul Kolnik)

He played Hank Williams in “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and eventually began developing and producing his own films, including a biopic about daredevil Evel Knievel and the comedies “Love at First Bite” and “Zorro the Gay Blade.”

He was part of the cast of the prime-time soap “Dynasty” and even appeared on “Dancing With the Stars.”

In 2008 he published a memoir in which he described his unconventional upbringing — his father was a bandleader, his mother an actress — and his relationships with a cavalcade of actresses and other famous women, including Lynda Bird Johnson when her father was president.

The book also revealed that he and his stepmother had an affair when he was 12, although he hardly considered himself a victim.

But in our conversation, Hamilton revealed a businesslike attitude when it comes to his chosen art form. He’s not a man who tries to impress you. But he does have some great stories to tell.

Q. Tell us about life on the road.

A. I’ve grown to like the show. It’s a very difficult thing to do for me. It’s a steep learning curve. I love to do things that are a little out of my reach, sometimes out of my grasp. But I always like the challenge. And so it’s gotten easier for me. If the audience doesn’t feel you’re pleased to be there, why should they?

I like the people I’m working with. I like the part. I like the atmosphere. The challenge is always still there because there’s so many … things that go on in a live performance that you have to develop a whole new set of techniques than you would in film. And I like that a lot. I’ve had a lot of things happen that have given me a chance to dig down and try things I hadn’t tried before.

Q. How long had it been since you performed on stage?

A. Four or five years. I was on Broadway with “Chicago.” But then I was hurt and had to have an operation on my knee, and then I came back and did it again.

Broadway is a different animal than touring, and touring is a different animal than dinner theaters and plays. There’s a circuit of summer things that a lot of actors do, and I used to do without telling anybody because it’s the only way to learn timing. So I made it my business from the time I was under contract to the studio to make them think I was in the south of France living the life of a playboy, but the truth was I was often billed above the roast beef out in the sticks. So it’s been fun for me to do it. Touring for me is pretty hard. It’s much harder than Broadway. You have eight shows a week, five of which are Friday through Sunday. And you then have to go to the next city and get ready for your next performance. And you have press and travel all in the same time. So there’s no time off. You learn a whole different set of survival techniques.

It’s not very glamourous, the life on the road.

Q. A couple of years ago a local theater company produced the musical “Light in the Piazza.” Coincidentally, Turner Classics showed the (1962) film about the same time, so my wife and I watched it. We agreed you were convincing as a young Italian guy and there you were playing Rossano Brazzi’s son. What was that like?

A. You can be in the business for a lifetime and still not have captured what you’re about on film or have a performance you can point at and say, “This is really good or great.” Because this business is about their vision of you and not what yours is. It’s very hard to break molds and stereotypes, especially when you’re under contract to a big studio as I was.

Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton in “Light in the Piazza.”

That movie came at a time when contract players were thought of as chattel. So being under contract to a studio was not a really a help. It was more of a hindrance. New actors were coming on the lot and they were independent. … (The studio) knew they had you in a pinch, but they didn’t respect that very much.

So I knew that I had to do things that were not expected.

They used to have what they called the script cage, where they mimeographed all these scripts at night that would go out to producers. So I spent a lot of time after hours … and I’d read every script the studio had. And I found “Light in the Piazza.” I loved the idea of it. I thought it was a very sensitive movie and one that would be hard to pull off.

So I started working on the accent, and I went to Rossano Brazzi and said to him, “I want to play your son.” Rossano was a very nice man, typically Italian, and was henpecked by his wife quite a lot. But I spent time with him, and I would watch every mannerism he had and how he would speak.

I went to the head of the studio, who didn’t want to know about it at all, and he said they had a fellow by the name of Tomas Milian, who was a young actor, and he was going to play the role. And I said, “He’s not Italian.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter, he’s got an accent.” I said, “It does matter. Don’t you understand the difference between an Italian accent and a South American accent?”

So I said, “Why don’t you let me do the (screen) test?” They were surprised that they had the guy right under their nose who could play the role.

I had a lot of other things I wanted to do. But even if you did that they didn’t believe you could play another character. And characters were what I wanted to play.

There was a character named Hank Williams. He was a very sensitive country and western musician … and he was really a wonderful writer. So I went down to Nashville. It was a small picture. It wasn’t thought of as anything except the exploitation (of the songs).

And I actually worked on it and could do the songs to the point where they almost let me do the album. But I had to convince them. And that was the hard thing. They really wanted to put me in the playboy roles and leave it that. So I had to buy my way out of my contract with MGM.

Hamilton in “Love at First Bite.”

And then finally when I got to produce my own movies, I would hire me. You know, I’d say, “OK, I’m going to play Dracula and do ‘Love at First Bite’ and put myself into it.” So I raised the money, had the script written and played the role — and made $78 million dollars for them. … Then I had the ability to go on and produce another movie, which was “Zorro the Gay Blade,” and I again hired myself for that role.

It’s much easier to produce a film than it is to convince the producer of another film to hire you. I found that out the hard way. And there were periods when I was basically dead in Hollywood.

Q. If we could go back to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” for a moment, didn’t Hank Williams Jr. actually record the songs for the soundtrack?

A. The studio was very uncertain about the music track because Audrey Williams (Hank’s widow) wanted a lot of money and wanted certain controls. I went down to Nashville and spent about a month with her and convinced her that I was the right actor for the role.

The studio didn’t see that at all. They thought I was a sophisticated playboy. I had to explain to them I was born in Memphis, Tenn., and went to military school in Mississippi. I knew all about country music.

Poster for “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

Finally I began rehearsing the songs. Because anyway you figured it I had to sing ’em to lip-sync them. And I got them nailed to the point where I could finger the guitar and sing the songs. … They were willing to let me do the recordings for the movie, but finally they made a deal with Audrey that Hank Jr. would do them. So I was lip-syncing to Hank Jr.’s interpretations of his father’s songs.

Q. You also produced and starred in a film on the life of Evel Knievel. How did that come about?

A. I was doing a TV series at Universal, and it required some stunts. And there was a young producer on the lot and I kept having lunch with him, saying, “God, I’ve got to get a stunt man who can do this stunt for me.” And he said, “Well, get Evel Knievel.”

And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who’s Evel Knievel?” And he told me about this guy and my first thought about him was he was kind of outrageous, kind of ridiculous. But I had the studio hunt him down. I had a stunt that had to be done, and he said he could do it.

He didn’t show up when he said when he was going to show up … and then one day, we were a week away from shooting the stunt and they called me from the gate and said there was a man out there with a huge semi-truck and some backup cars named Evel Knievel wanting to meet with me. … And I said, well, have him come to the commissary and meet me for lunch. And they said, “He can’t walk.”

They carried him into the commissary and put him down in the booth with me. And I said, “Mr. Knievel, I think there’s been a big mistake here. I would love for you to do the stunt, but I can see you can’t do it, and it would be ridiculous to pursue this.”

The real Evel Knievel.

And he said, “No, no, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong. When is the stunt?” And I said it’s in a week. He said, “I’ll be ready.” I said, “You’ll be ready to do a stunt in a week?” He showed me this 11-pound piece of metal that was going into his … left leg.

He said, “I’m going in tomorrow morning, they’re gonna put that in there and they’ll snap this thing into the hip, and I’ll be out of there in three or four days and be ready to go.”

And I just sat there looking at him thinking, “This man is totally out of his mind.” And the more I started realizing that he was out of his mind, the more I found him interesting.

I said, “Look, you don’t have to do this stunt, but I’d like to talk to you about other things.” And he said, “Well, let’s get the stunt out of the way. I wanna know if your money’s good.”

So he called me on the day of the stunt. He called me from a hospital, and he said, “I’m ready to do the stunt for you. Which gate should I go to?” And he’s talking and suddenly I hear this kaplunk and … I thought the phone went dead. And then a nurse picks it up and said, “Mr. Knievel just passed out. He shouldn’t have been out of bed.” I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

So I went out there and he was lying in bed and he said, “Oh, I had a little problem there. They gave me too much medicine. I could have come and done it. I told them not to give me any pain medication but they gave it to me. It’s their fault.”

So I kept trying to talk to him and find out his psychology and what he was about. And I thought this is what America is about. It’s about making our mark on the north wall of the Grand Canyon. It’s a little bit crazy here, what we’re doing.

I found him very interesting. He was a sociopathic guy. And he was a very potentially dangerous human being. … Evel put a shotgun to my head one night when I brought the script to him.

Hamilton as Evel Knievel.

And I said, “What is this about?” He said, “I want you to read the script to me.” I said, “I don’t need a gun stuck to my head to do it.” He said, “You do in my case because if this is gonna be a bad movie it’s gonna be ended right now.” I read that script probably better than anything I read in my life.

Q. What’s next for you after this tour?

A. It’s always a good question because you don’t know. I never plan my life, and I’m surrounded with people who do and they’re always a year or two years ahead. There’s been an offer for a TV series, weekly, based on “Love at First Bite.”

There’s a one-man show that I would take on the road. … I kind of don’t know what I really want to do yet. I think after this the first thing I’ll do is settle in for a long winter’s nap.

Q. Well, thank you for this time.

A. I didn’t talk too much about “La Cage” (laughs).

Q. I did read a quote from your co-star, Christopher Sieber, who said you don’t have a diva bone in your body.

A. (Laughs.) That’s nice. I like to believe that I am a very dedicated and totally professional actor, and I don’t have any room in my life for ego. You can’t expect to be as proficient as people who have been in this play for a long time, who are singers and dancers and dedicated to Broadway.

But what you can bring to it is a certain showmanship and a sense of providing the audience with a kind of permission to enjoy themselves because you’re enjoying yourself. That’s a hard thing to do. You can’t fake that one. You just have to enjoy it, and if you do it’s infectious. My gift, if there is such, is to be delighted to be there.

Read more arts and entertainment new from the Kansas City Star at kansascity.com.

KC Fringe: It’s all about the ripple effect

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Funny thing about KC Fringe — even when it’s over, it’s not over.

The annual festival of music, dance, theater, film and visual art in venues scattered across the Crossroads and midtown officially wrapped up Sunday. But the ripple effects continue.

Katie Kalahurka, for example, will reprise her Fringe show, “Lessons From Marlene,” this Friday and Saturday at the Fishtank Performance Studio to coincide with First Friday.

Vicki Vodrey’s impressive play, “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon,” which received its world premiere at the Fringe, moved on to New York to be seen as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival this week.

Samn Wright and the creators of “Slaughterhouse Opera,” a rock musical about the zombie apocalypse, plan to mount a Kickstarter campaign to record the piece.

And David Gaines, who attracted sizable audiences with his “7 (x1) Samurai,” stayed over to conduct a clowning workshop Tuesday at Just Off Broadway Theatre.

Marcie Ramirez, left, Eric Tedder and Amy Hurrelbrink in “Sexing Hitler.” (Susan Pfannmuller/Kansas City Star)

The eighth edition of KC Fringe appeared to come off without a hitch, although some spectators were still confused by the requirement to buy a $5 festival button before buying a ticket to an individual show. But most people who attend the festival and learn how it works tend to take its general inefficiency for granted.

There were 160 artist entries this year, which translated into 459 performances at 20 galleries, theater spaces and other ad hoc performance venues. Events followed a complicated, staggered schedule. The festival’s website is well-organized and fairly simple to negotiate. But this all happens with a volunteer work force. The only people who get paid are the tech crews who run lights and sound for performances.

Throughout the year the organization is run by an operations committee of 23. During the festival itself, that number jumps to 140. The front-of-house volunteers — the people who sell and tear tickets — put in an estimated 3,000 hours this year, according to festival director Cheryl Kimmi.

Part of the time is consumed by the nightly task of tallying that day’s attendance by physically counting paper tickets.

“We have a team that does that every night, and we’re usually here until 2 or 2:30 in the evening,” Kimmi said.

David Gaines performs his one-man show “7 (x1) Samurai” at KC Fringe. (Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star)

Kimmi said the festival leaders have a wish-list that includes an automated ticket system, but there’s no money for one in the immediate future. The festival receives small grants from the ArtsKC Fund, the Missouri Arts Council and the city of Kansas City, but most of the festival’s revenue comes from the sale of the $5 festival buttons.

Kimmi said the festival has formed a development committee to explore more fundraising options. Kimmi is glad the tech crews can be paid, and she said the next step would be to pay the house managers at the venues.

“We’re planning to take it to the next level,” she said. “We have to grow it correctly.”

Last year the festival attracted an audience of about 14,500, and Kimmi said the festival was on track to match that figure once the final tally is in. Anecdotally, this reporter saw no sparsely attended shows this year, and two were standing-room-only.

Kimmi said attendance on most nights grew by double digits compared to last year, including a 27 percent jump on the first Saturday of the festival. But midweek performances, which usually attract fewer spectators than weekend shows, experienced a huge increase: 49 percent on Monday and 55 percent on Tuesday.

The final Friday of the festival saw a big drop-off, which Kimmi jokingly attributed to the opening night Olympic ceremonies on television.

From a critic’s perspective, the festival has played a significant role by allowing performing artists an opportunity to take risks and by exposing the public to experimental performances. It has also helped break down some of the barriers between art forms.

“There are different crowds for different things,” Kimmi said. “The fashion-show crowd is very much focused on the fashion show. But we have some crossover. That’s what our goal is, to cross over these audiences so we give the hard-core theater crowd an opportunity to experience dance and music, and we have the hard-core dance crowd who has the opportunity to experience theater.”

Fringe Festival highlights

The final week of the KC Fringe Festival, which ended Sunday, offered typically diverse performances. Here are some highlights:

“Sexing Hitler,” written by Bryan Colley and Tara Varney and directed by Varney. This peek into a weird corner of Nazi history — Heinrich Himmler’s decision to manufacture inflatable “comfort dolls” to prevent the spread of venereal disease among the troops — managed the neat trick of being raucously amusing, touching and ultimately haunting all in one package.

It was a loose-jointed performance, but central to the show’s success was dancer/choreographer Amy Hurrelbrink, who played the doll prototype. In the eyes of her manufacturers and the soldiers who “test” her, she gradually acquires human characteristics, only to be destroyed in the Allied firebombing of Dresden.

“Lessons From Marlene,” written and performed by Katie Kalahurka. Kalahurka is a gifted comedian, and her trippy, absurdist step into a kaleidoscopic dream-world populated by the ghost of Marlene Dietrich and a character named Katie, among others, becomes a showcase for a memorable performance. The show, directed by Vanessa Severo, has been extended through the weekend. Kalahurka will perform the piece at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Fishtank, 1715 Wyandotte St. Call 816-809-7110 or go to brownpapertickets.com/event/260143.

“Buck Hoss,” written by Scott Cox and directed by Trevor Belt. Cox’s attempt to transpose “The Bacchae” by Euripides to a backwoods Americana context didn’t quite work, but the Fringe production showcased some strong performances, particularly by Corbin Hernandez and Chris Roady as cousins, both preachers, each claiming divine ordination. The show admirably addressed heavy questions about human spirituality and our conceptions of God.

“Pilgrimage,” written by Ry Kincaid and directed by Bob Paisley. Kincaid’s rock musical based on Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” was an impressive achievement. Kincaid’s rhyming verse was consistently clever, and his songs were irresistible. He had a formidable cast to help him bring the show to life, including Cody Wyoming, Katie Gilchrist and Vi Tran.

“Skillet Tag,” written by Pete Bakely and directed by Sam Slosburg. This was the second memorable R-rated farce I saw at the festival — the first was Natalie and Talia Liccardello’s “Ice Cream Social…Issues” — and it again demonstrates that there’s an appetite out here among the great unwashed for rude, crude comedy. This show depicts a “team building” exercise at a megalomaniacal executive’s home that goes terribly wrong, resulting in a series of murders and some very strange sex. The festival cast was strong, with standout performances from J. Will Fritz and Kenna Hall.

“7 (x1) Samurai,” written and performed by David Gaines. This was the most polished show I caught during the festival. Gaines celebrates and spoofs Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” in this 60-minute performance.

Gaines has performed this piece a lot and it showed. He’s a highly skilled clown, and his mime-based performance, punctuated with guttural samurai “dialogue” and the occasional phrase in English, was very funny but also conveyed something of the film’s epic sweep.

KC Fringe: Where comedy and tragedy share time and space

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
How nice it would be to see every single KC Fringe performance. Alas, that would be impossible unless your humble theater critic could be cloned three times over.

But the best of five shows I caught during the first weekend of the annual festival was “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon,” a play by Vicki Vodrey, for whom raucous humor and profound tragedy are in no way incompatible.

Scott Cox and Vanessa Severo in “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon.” (Megan True/Kansas City Star)

Steven Eubank directed the show, which is playing at the Unicorn Theatre during the festival, and had the benefit of a superior cast in the form of Vanessa Severo, Scott Cox and Mandy Mook. Severo plays Angela, a suicide victim who becomes an irreverent presence at her own funeral as her twin brother Ethan (Cox) reads a eulogy composed entirely of “thank-you notes” Angela wrote before she died.

The play is an eccentric comedy in the early going, but its seriousness is revealed as Angela’s notes become increasingly revelatory. The funeral becomes a transformative event for Ethan and his wife, Betsy (Mook).

Severo and Cox are equally matched, each handling difficult roles with spectacular results. This play is disturbing, but it’s also inspiring. Vodrey has a unique voice. There’s one more performance at 8 p.m. Friday at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St.

Other shows from the first weekend:

•  “Ice Cream Social … Issues” by Natalie and Talia Liccardello is a clever comedy about a family intervention that goes as wrong as possible. People have gathered for an ice cream social in a church basement in an effort to get help for a family member who is a heroin addict. Everything deteriorates rapidly. Manon Halliburton, as a Xanax-gobbling aunt with control issues, is excellent. She delivers a memorable comic performance and anchors an excellent cast. Directed by Warren Deckert, who demonstrates a keen eye for character details.

Performances are at 6:30 p.m. today and 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St.

Manon Halliburton, left, and Danelle Drury in “Ice Cream Social . . . Issues.” (Megan True/Kansas City Star)

•  “Tack Driver,” written and directed by Jerry Genochio. I caught this on the opening night of the festival, and I imagine it’s considerably different now. This is Genochio’s first play, in which Kyle Hatley and Matt Rapport are cast as brothers who swore an oath to kill their abusive stepfather. Apparently rewrites could continue right through the festival. At times on opening night, Hatley and Rapport performed holding pages with new dialogue. It’s intriguing and rich with possibilities — and it’s fun to watch Hatley and Rapport work together. It’s at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center.

•  “Foreign Bodies” by Arika Larson. Larson’s three-character comedy imagines what might happen if a gay man and a lesbian fell in love. Directed by Scott Cordes, this smart comedy of manners about sex and love in an urban, digital world highlights Greg Brostrom, Kate O’Neill and Missy Fennewald. It continues at 6 p.m. today and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central St.

•  “4Play,” a quartet of one-acts by Jose Faus, Ken Buch, Michelle T. Johnson and Jack Phillips. This grouping of short comedies covers religious mania, sex, love and hypocrisy with varying degrees of success. Best of the bunch: “As the Guiding Light Turns,” a witty piece by Johnson about church politics and sexuality. See it at 11 p.m. Friday and 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St.

Read more theater news at http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/theater.

(c) 2012 by the Kansas City Star

Bob Barker is the Devil

[ Note: This column, in slightly different form, was published in 2005 in the Sunday magazine of  The Kansas City Star. ]

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

Bob Barker is the devil.

You know it’s true. You’ve watched him on television your entire life. He never goes away. He’s always there, smiling, intoning, seducing, inviting us into a world of naked materialism.

Maybe this seems self-evident, but my conclusion was not reached lightly. It began when I drove my wife to the emergency room. There was no way we could know it at the time, but that was the prelude to our passage into cancer world.

Hospital waiting rooms and oncology clinics are never very happy places, of course. Patients and their loved ones gathered there devote their psychic energy to a set of basic goals: Don’t bolt from your chair and flee. Don’t scream. Don’t cry. Don’t do that thing you see people do in movies where hysterical laughter morphs into inconsolable sobbing and only a slap to the face can return them to their senses.

They gather every morning in clinics and hospitals across America, sitting beneath flourescent lights in rooms often lined with dreary wood paneling, terrified of what the doctors may find but trying not to show it.

Some people thumb through magazines. Some stare into the distance. Others watch television.

The Monarch of Hell

There’s always a television. And it’s always on. And in the mornings it’s always tuned to the station that carries The Price Is Right.

This is why I will always link the image of Bob Barker, the 81-year-old host of the longest-running game show on television, with my wife’s cancer.

When I sat in a waiting room at Baptist Medical Center during her surgery, Bob Barker was there. When I accompanied her to chemotherapy at her oncologist’s office on Prospect, Bob Barker was there. Not long ago I drove her to a sonogram at St. Joseph Health Center, and there was Bob Barker—the silver-haired, silver-tongued Dark Lord of Greed.

Here’s a memory: My wife is seated in a recliner as a plastic tube pumps chemicals into her system through a port imbedded in her chest. From a television across the room emanates the screams and antiseptic music of “The Price Is Right.” I’m in a room full of women facing their own mortality, and there on the screen are screaming, jumping contestants focused on one thing only: Taking home a Cracker Jack prize.

My wife and I had fallen into the living hell of cancer—there’s no better word for it—and Bob Barker was our master of ceremonies. This is how I came to view him as El Diablo.

Look at his face and tell me I’m wrong. Study the glint in his eye as he builds the expectations of contestants who moments later walk away empty-handed. Listen to that effortless tone of empathetic disappointment when a contestant loses or the calculated elation in his voice when somebody wins a coveted piece of merchandise.

Oh, Barker’s good. He has been performing before television cameras for most of his adult life. In the ’50s he starred on Truth or Consequences, a game show that featured, among other things, a chimpanzee named Beulah the Buzzer.

But for most television viewers below a certain age, Barker is the face of The Price Is Right, a show that never goes away. It began in 1956 with a different host, but Barker’s involvement goes back 32 years—longer than many of his viewers have been alive.

Recently I made a point of watching several episodes of The Price Is Right. The experience simply confirmed my belief: Bob Barker is the Prince of Darkness, a leering, malevolent presence in doctor’s offices across America.

With a soothing tone, suave bearing and calm authority he appeals to the worst instincts in all of us. The show celebrates our lust for possessions and our need to be anesthetized against the horrors, big and small, of daily existence. Crucial to its popularity is the implied promise that you can get something for nothing.

That’s untrue, of course. There’s always a price. Those who fill the Bob Barker Studio at CBS in Hollywood each day agree to humiliate themselves for a chance to spin the Big Wheel or to play Bonkers or Pick a Pair or Switcheroo. They greet Bob with a frenzy usually reserved for football games and rock concerts.

They cheer. They shout. They scream. They high-five each other. They exchange hugs. It all has the aroma of a tent revival, with Bob Barker playing the role of preacher. It is, in fact, a form of worship—the worship of stuff.

Listen to him.

Barker put it rather eloquently at the conclusion of one episode. A contestant named Kathleen had won the “Showcase Showdown” and rushed off camera to be with her new possessions.

“And there she goes,” Bob Barker said, “to look at her motorcycle and her boat and all that stuff.”

Bob likes people to win. He doesn’t much care what they win as long as they win something. Cars, living room furniture, cappuccino machines, sailboats, motorcycles, gas grills, luggage—the list is infinite. The unseen Rich Fields—successor to legendary announcers Johnny Olson and Rod Roddy—trumpets the unveiling of each product with a high-decibel carnival barker’s pitch: “It’s a new C-A-A-A-R-R!” or “It’s an exciting P-O-O-O-L table!”

Barker is beloved by his contestants, and they seem to love him all the more when he mocks them in his cool, detached way.

One day a contestant named Alisa played a game called 3 Strikes, shoving her hand into a canvas bag designed to look like a big baseball in the hopes of pulling out the correct token to win a new Lincoln LS. With each unsuccessful try she screamed bloody murder.

“That scream may sound loud at home but I’m telling you when you’re no more than 36 inches away from it, I will never hear out of this ear again,” Barker said.

The camera never gets too close to Bob on The Price Is Right. You usually see him from the waist up and sometimes in head-to-foot shots. That way you can see Bob’s masterful body language and the cut of his suits.

A few years ago, however, Bob made a cameo appearance on the long-running daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful. Bob appeared as himself, accompanied by a couple of his “beauties,” the models who with fluid hand gestures and frozen smiles “present” the refrigerators and ranges and motorcycles and new cars.

But The Bold and the Beautiful showed Barker in disturbing close-ups. The unnatural tan had a sort of radioactive glow, and there was something about the thick white hair that wasn’t right. He looked like an animatronic theme-park character.

This is why it’s so easy to imagine Bob as a demonic presence. He seems “natural” only on the set of The Price Is Right. Remove him from his universe of cardboard sets and garish lighting and it just seems wrong—even when you insert him into the phony world of a daytime soap.

For many The Price Is Right is nothing more than addictive entertainment. And Bob is widely admired for his devotion to animal rights. The former Springfield, Mo. resident projects an unassuming Midwestern manner, often greeting his guests with “Howdy.”

Cloven Hoof and friend

Oh, there were some unpleasant lawsuits from former staffers and models a few years ago. They accused Barker of behavior that was unbecoming to a beloved celebrity.

But Bob has never been distracted from his overriding goal—dragging Americans into a vortex of consumerism. Picture yourself, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, caught in the eye of a tornado, with patio furniture, vacuum cleaners and skate boards spinning all around you.

That’s where Bob wants you to be.

But the funny thing about products is that they really don’t mean much to people dealing with cancer. People on chemo just can’t get excited about new kitchen gadgets or curio cabinets.

What they see on Bob’s show is an endless river of disposable junk—cars that will rust, vacuum cleaners whose belts will break, furniture that will someday be scarred and pitted. All the shiny new products destined to reside in landfills simply remind us that our bodies will eventually fail and that life must come to an end, no matter how diligently we try to forestall the inevitable.

But Barker keeps on keeping on, his place in the Television Hall of Fame secure. Five days a week he torments his guests with condescending charm as they struggle to guess the price of a stereo or a sofa or a ping-pong table.

Maybe you have your own notions of the Dark One. Maybe you believe he really exists. Maybe you just see him as a metaphor for the human animal’s capacity to inflict evil on his own kind.

Regardless, history and literature offer plenty of stand-ins for His Satanic Majesty: Vlad the Impaler, Richard III, Jerry Springer, Hannibal Lecter. It’s a long list. And somewhere near the bottom is my personal Mephistopheles: Bob Barker.

And what an impoverished figure he is. At the end of the day he’s just a huckster with a cane and megaphone promising unimagined pleasures if only we’ll step inside the tent.

(c) 2005 the Kansas City Star