My TV Career (such as it was) Began With The Gong Show

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

Back in 1976, NBC debuted “The Gong Show” as a five-day-a-week alternative to game shows and soap operas. This was a very unusual move, especially back then, but for Chuck Barris, producer and reluctant host of the show, who had built a mini-empire on humiliation, exploitation, and voyeurism, among other things, this was just the next step. Every day, my partner and I watched with amazement as people from many varying degrees of talent (or lack of) were paraded on screen for not even 15 minutes, no, just a mere 90 seconds, of fame.

My partner Ruby (Monica Ganas) was not only my stage partner, but also an aspiring journalist. A friend of a friend of hers worked for LA Times, and Monica had an idea for an article, in the hopes of getting a foot in the publishing door. She thought it would be a great idea to write an exposé on Chuck Barris, who had made millions exposing the vulnerability of people, from the perspective of a contestant on “The Gong Show.” This meant the two of us would have to appear on the show, as she didn’t feel comfortable doing it alone. I was more than game, as I loved the show anyway, and I was especially entertained by Barris’s total ineptness as the host. I loved the idea of bringing him down a peg.

Getting on the show involved, believe it or not, auditioning, and what an assemblage of loonies there were on that one summer afternoon at a defunct restaurant on Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood. All the acts would be videoed and Chuck would look at the videos later on. There was one kid who couldn’t have been much out of high school, and from a show biz family, who had no idea what he was going to do, he just felt family pressure. He also mistakenly believed the show was a springboard to stardom. There was a vocal group rehearsing their five-part harmony version of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” which was lovely, but they rehearsed it multiple times, and with no consideration for anyone else.  I watched the show nearly every day, and never saw either of those acts. But somehow, our little amalgam of my Johnny Cash impression and Ruby’s Tina Turner was just enough to impress the people holding the auditions, who said “Oh yeah, Chuck’s gonna love you.”

Sure enough, they called us in San Francisco soon after to tell us Chuck wants us on the show, and two weeks later, there we were. So step one of that proposed article was now complete. Step two was going through the whole day of waiting, though they were to record five shows that day, and we would be on the second one, so only about a two-hour wait after getting made up. On the show with us, there was a semi-crazy man who did an act with his “fluga,” which was a trash can, a girl who sang a kid’s song poorly (the only one to get gonged), an Englishman who sang “Mrs. Otis Regrets” with no trousers on, a mime (who was the winner), and us. The judges were TV comedian (and one of my childhood heroes) Soupy Sales, jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, and singer/regular panelist Jaye P. Morgan.

Just before our taping was to begin, Chuck talked to all the performers backstage, and was extremely kind to us, telling us he saw something special in our audition tape. From that moment, Monica confided to me “I can’t write that article now, because I think I love him.” It was good that she didn’t, as Chuck would have us back two more times, once on the night-time version, and then as un-rated “Gong Show Classics.” The mime got a perfect score of 30 from the judges; we came in second with 27, as all three rated us a 9. Soupy Sales asked the oft-asked question, “Which one’s Rick and which one’s Ruby,” while Sarah Vaughan asked, “Is she always that way” regarding Ruby’s energy. Jaye P. Morgan actually became a friend briefly about a year later, when she had a run of performances in San Fran. I remember talking to her on the phone for an hour one night.

We were in for one more pleasant surprise. Since the winner received a check for (an amount I can’t exactly remember, I just know it was the net after tax deductions), we thought we were done, but the line producer called us aside after the taping with contracts to sign. One was a union contract which signed us up to AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and paid us each union scale, which then was about $275. Not bad for 90 seconds on screen! It turned out that all the other performers on our show were union members, and Chuck was obligated to showcase union members to satisfy certain powers that be. He would have four shows a week that were all amateurs, but he put us on the one show that was union because, as he would say later, he thought we had a future. We would also get residual pay later on for repeat showings, as well as for further appearances on the show, though AFTRA initiation fees came out of one of our paychecks.

When I moved to LA a few years later, I found that quite a few of my show biz friends had also gotten their AFTRA memberships from “The Gong Show,” with Chuck encouraging many of them to come up with an act every few months and he’d put them on. Paul Reubens, best known as Pee Wee Herman, said he had been on the show with six different acts over the mere two years the show ran.

I saw Chuck once more, post “Gong Show,” at the legendary Duke’s Restaurant in West Hollywood, next to the also-legendary Tropicana Motel, where many rock stars on their way up stayed. This was after we’d been touring with Robin Williams. He was aware of our post-Gong career, making mention of it in the maybe 30 seconds we talked. He was distracted but still nice to me.

I’m so sorry to hear he’s passed, but I can truly give him credit for pushing me and my partner to another level. Maybe that wasn’t his intention, but we were indebted nonetheless. He would be the last to say he was a good man, but for the small encounters I had with him, he came off as a good guy. RIP, Mr. B

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