- OnStage North Carolina Columnist
Like most young people who arrive in New York City to begin what they hope will qualify as a career, I struggled to make ends meet. I shared a gloomy, one bedroom, basement apartment on the Upper West Side with my three best friends from Wisconsin. Jo Ann was a fantastic singer and dancer who would eventually enjoy a wonderful career as a standup comic and television writer. Louie, also a great singer-dancer, landed his first Broadway show less than a month after arriving. Nancy, the civilian among us, got a job at a well-known law firm. And I…what?
I’d saved a few bucks by singing and dancing my heart out across the country in industrial shows, nightclub acts, and on the ever-popular State Fair circuit. I began taking classes, which is really what I’d come to the City to do. I studied acting at the Herbert Berghof Studio with Mr. Berghof himself, where I was also able to audit classes offered by his legendary wife, Uta Hagen; I took tap with Bob Audy at Carnegie Hall and jazz dance with the incomparable Luigi.
I landed the title role in an off-off Broadway production of the avant-garde play, The Minotaur, which played in a greasy basement playhouse on the Lower East Side. I also choreographed a musical based on Shakespeare’s Pericles at the I.R.T. Theater, directed by the well regarded Edward Berkley and lit by future Tony winner Jennifer Tipton. Of course I realized that, eventually, I’d have to get a real job but taking my cue from Scarlett, I would worry about that tomorrow. Funny how quickly tomorrow comes when you’re not paying attention.
Through the kindness of a friend of a friend, I was taken into the employ of the trendy East Side restaurant, Serendipity. Within the first week I managed to spill our specialty, a large vessel of frozen hot chocolate, onto Stephanie Mills’ fur coat. I also chased Diana Ross across the joint to return a lovely little china receptacle I thought she’d left on the table.
“That’s the soy sauce, dear.” she sweetly informed me.
I could see that my career in the service industry would not be long lived. Wracking my brain as to what I could do to make a buck, the logical answer came to me like a light bulb glowing above my head. A game show! I was pretty fair at word games and a die-hard fan of The $20,000 Pyramid, which was shot in NYC. I secured an audition, where I played the game with other potential contestants, and before day’s end received the call saying I’d been called back. Yes, you had to go through that exercise twice to get on the show. A couple of days after the callback I was informed that they wanted me to be on the show the following week.
The show was shot in the old Ed Sullivan Theater, now home to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. As instructed, I arrived on Monday morning by 9 a.m. What I didn’t realize was that they shot the entire week of shows in one day. They announced that the celebrity contestants for the “week” were Adrienne Barbeau and Tony Randall. Well, anyone who followed the show knew that they were two of the very best players in the history of the show. It was too good to be true! The charming host, Dick Clark, came backstage to greet us and wish us luck. They selected the first two contestants – a man and a woman – who took their seats on set and we were off and running.
The first round of the “Monday” show was won by the man so they put up another woman for the second round, which the man won again. A brief break while the celebrities changed their clothes for the “Tuesday” show. Long story short: by the end of “Friday’s” show, my name had not been called and I took the subway home with my tail between my legs. I no sooner got into the apartment when the phone rang. It was the contestant coordinator, who had liked me, and told me to come back next week and he’d make certain that I got on. Huzzah! And this time I decided that I would bring a change of clothes so it wouldn’t look like I owned only one sport coat should I be lucky enough to be on for more than one “day.”
The catastrophic “Blizzard of 1978” began forming on Sunday, February 5th and would dump record-breaking snow on the City. Yes, this was the day before I would be returning to the Ed Sullivan Theater. I awoke on Monday morning at 4 a.m.to discover that all public transportation had been suspended, that there were no cabs running nor, in fact, any autos at all on the streets, snow drifts having reached heights of 15 feet. I called the coordinator who confirmed that the show would go on and said he would understand if I couldn’t get there. Say what?! I’d get there if I had to hire a dogsled!
I packed up my snazzy Harris Tweed sport coat (I would not be hauling extensive wardrobe to the theater after all) and set off on my trek from 85th Street to Broadway and 54th. People were skiing down Broadway as the snow continued to fall. That was a blessing as I was able to walk in their tracks instead of trudging through snow up to my hips. I arrived at the theater exhausted and the producers were kind enough to have coffee, juice, donuts and so on awaiting us. They announced that the celebrities this week would be Geoff Edwards, a minor television actor and game show host, and Jo Anne Worley, a proven great player of the game. I’d been a fan of Jo Anne’s ever since seeing her star in Once Upon a Mattress at Melody Top in Milwaukee in 1974, years before she became a star on Laugh-In. Due to flights having been canceled, Geoff had taken Amtrak in from Washington, DC, barely arriving in time and terribly rattled. He also sported a cast on one leg from a recent accident of some sort.
Again Dick, as he asked to be called, came back to wish us luck, and mine was the first name they called to set. I was matched with Jo Anne for the first round, which we handily won. That meant that I would be playing with Geoff for the second round. I was doomed. Poor Geoff was a hot mess, barely able to keep his mind on the game. I couldn’t have gotten him to say “Alexander Hamilton” if I’d held up a $10 bill. Luckily the woman playing with Jo Anne got stage fright and, despite our miserable showing, Geoff and I won the round. I was on to the “Tuesday” show.
And so it went until I’d made it to the second round on “Wednesday.” The balcony was jammed with kids, schools having been closed because of the blizzard, and among them was my one pal who had made it to the theater. How they’d all gotten there was anybody’s guess. (The pal was the only person I knew who would be privy to my outcome on the show before it aired in March and he was sworn to secrecy.) The kids seemed to like me and were cheering me on. Maybe because I was the only contestant who waved to the crowd at the end of each show, as did the celebrities. I was also the only contestant to call Dick by his first name. When one of the categories was “Better Luck Next Time,” I was cheeky enough to say, when selecting the category, “Well, Dick, Geoff and I are hoping for “Better Luck Next Time.” A ham? You bet!
When I won “Wednesday’s” second round, I went to the Big Board. This was where you had the opportunity to win the big money at the end of each game and, mercifully, I’d be going with Jo Anne. During the commercial break, Dick stood behind me, massaging my shoulders.
“Tom, you’re a great player,” he said. “You can do this. Just stay calm and focused. You and Jo Anne have a great connection. Let’s go.”
When we came back on air, Dick said, “Well Tom, this is your sixth trip to the big board.” To which I replied, “Dick, does the word “spinoff” mean anything to you?” The kids roared and Dick had a good laugh as well. Yes, I was shameless, and probably just nervous enough that my habit of deflecting with humor kicked in. Dick said his customary, “60 seconds on the clock, please.” I looked into Jo Anne’s big, brown, confident eyes and she winked at me. I knew at that moment that we were home free. Not only did I win the whole enchilada, but I set a new record for having done it in 27 seconds. When the show aired, my friends and family were flabbergasted that I’d been able to keep my big yap shut about the win. Every so often my mom would call to tell me that I’d been mentioned on the show when someone got within a few seconds of my record.
Many years later I ran into Jo Anne at the Broadway watering hole, Sam’s, reintroduced myself and thanked her. I could tell she’d had such encounters numerous times before. “So what did you do with the money?” she inquired as if by rote. “I studied at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.” “Oh, you’re an actor?” “Not for a long time. I’m the director of the licensing division at The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. I represent the R&H musicals and those by Irving Berlin and…” Jo Anne nearly spit her Chardonnay onto the tablecloth as she pulled out a chair. “I know who you represent, honey. Just sit down right here!”