“A good game show literally makes the person at home speak aloud to the TV,” says Bob Stewart. He should know. Stewart has made audiences talk back to the screen since 1956, the year To Tell The Truth and The Price Is Right first aired. Since then, the impresario has created seventeen more shows, including Password, Jackpot! and The $10,000 Pyramid.
The logical assumption might be that Stewart became a whiz at game shows because he had propensity for games and quizzes as a child. The suggestion makes him laugh. “I didn’t show a propensity for anything!” Even if he had, he would never have thought of making a career of it. Born in Brooklyn in 1920, and entering the workforce as a teenager during the Depression, “the thought of choosing what you wanted to do was absolutely unimaginable.”
And yet, armed with an vigorous imagination and an energy that people still talk about, Stewart made the world of game shows that much richer. “My first impression of him was just this bullet of energy that kind of shot through the studio,” says actress Barbara Feldon, who often appeared on his game shows. Another longtime friend, actress Jo Anne Worley, concurs. “He’s a dynamo. [On the set] he was all over the place doing everything. And he always wore tennis shoes.”
It may be surprising to note that initially Stewart had no desire to work in television — he turned down several television jobs, in fact.
After his discharge from the Air Force in 1946, he took a job selling ladies undergarments. “I was very unsuccessful at it,” he recalls dryly. “What the hell was I doing selling ladies undergarments?”
Fortunately for foundation garments as well as game shows, he came across a small notice in the newspaper that changed his life. Under the GI Bill, he was eligible to take a free radio-writing course. The teacher was Jeff Selden, who worked at radio station WNEW in Manhattan. A few weeks after starting class, Stewart received a telegram from Selden, telling him to report for work the next day.
That fateful morning, December 31, 1946, Stewart donned his one shirt and tie and showed up to an empty studio. People had apparently started celebrating the New Year early. Eventually a programmer named Billy Reilly appeared, handed him a sample script, and told him he had an hour and a half to write his first assignment, a variety program. So he did. And at noon that day, the show Stewart had just banged out was on the air. “I was thrilled to hear these people. Nobody even changed a word,” says Stewart, the delight still evident. “I tell you, to this day it was maybe the high moment of my career.”
He worked at the station for several years, turning down opportunities to work in television because he thought TV was a passing fad. But when an offer from television station WRCA came in, he relented when they said he would be allowed to direct. “There was no such thing as having a program of your own,” he points out. “So I did comedy shows, variety shows. I wrote commercials. It was good experience.” He worked on Songs For Sale, featuring two young singers, Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney. He wrote, produced and directed Morey Amsterdam’s variety program. And he worked on The Sky’s The Limit, a game show with host Gene Rayburn. When Rayburn broke his leg, a young man named Monty Hall filled in.
A few years later, Stewart bumped into Hall on the street. Hall said he knew the lawyer for Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions, and asked him if he had any ideas for shows. Stewart, bluffing, said he had plenty. He came up with the idea for To Tell The Truth, and was soon put to work.
On Truth, three contestants claim to be the same person of renown or expertise, and the panelists ask them questions to determine the truth-teller. Stewart says the concept probably came from a stunt he had written for a local variety show, where three men claimed to be barbers and the audience had to guess the real one.
The inspiration for The Price is Right was found during Stewart’s lunch hour. While walking past an auction block on a Manhattan street, “it became very clear to me that if the auctioneer could sell you something for a nickel more than the retail price, you were being taken,” he says. “If you could get it for a nickel below the retail price, you got a bargain. So the idea was, the prize goes to the person who makes the highest bid without going over the retail price.” Goodson immediately green-lit the idea.
The game show was sold to NBC for a thirteen-week run. “We made the most disastrous pilot in the history of television,” Stewart recalls. At one point, Price is Right host Bill Cullen was almost strangled by his own microphone cord. NBC offered to pay for seven weeks and shelve the whole thing. Stewart, facing unemployment if the show didn’t succeed, persuaded Goodson to keep NBC to their contract. “They put us against the most popular show in daytime [Arthur Godfrey and His Friends on CBS], which is no place you want to be,” Stewart says. “But within thirteen weeks we were beating Godfrey.” With a few breaks and in various incarnations, the show has continued to air to this day.
His third big hit for the company was 1961’s Password.
The show was comprised of two teams with two players each. The first player on each team was given a word, and had to communicate it to the second player using only one-word clues. The teams would take turns until someone guessed the answer. Password marked the first time that celebrities played alongside civilian contestants. “I included celebrities just to identify that part of the stage,” Stewart recollects. “Turned out to be a tremendous hit.”
On one particularly memorable program, Jack Benny had to come up with a clue for the password “miser.” (As Benny fans well remember, his persona was legendarily frugal.) “I still remember his face,” says Stewart, chuckling. “He squeezed that moment out. You thought he was never going to give the clue.” Finally the funnyman piped up: “Me?”
Benny wasn’t the only one with the reputation of being thrifty. Son Sande Stewart remembers working as a child model on the Price Is Right with his brother Barry. They were paid ten dollars, but the elder Stewart deducted for costs — transportation, lunch, agent’s fee. “At one point we were down to almost nothing so I went crying to my mother, who got the money back,” he says. “Let’s just say he was a good producer.”
When he went to work for his father years later, Sande saw just how good Bob was. Unstintingly fair across the board, he treated crew and celebrities with equal respect.
“Stagehands were very fond of him,” Sande notes. “Bob was a very hands-on producer, he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. If something needed to be moved, we all did it.”
In 1964, Stewart struck out on his own, and the shows continued apace: Eye Guess, The Face is Familiar, Personality, You’re Putting Me On, Three on a Match, Jackpot! and his biggest hit, The $10,000 Pyramid. (It has gone through a few dollar-figure adjustments over the years — $20,000, $25,000, and up.) Again pairing celebrities with non-famous folk, the players on Pyramid had to give each other clues that all belonged in a given category.
Feldon competed on many of Stewart’s shows over the years, but Pyramid was her favorite. “During that show, the world doesn’t exist, it’s just you and that contestant and the clock ticking.”
Notes Worley, “Sometimes people would be there to plug their movie, but I was there to play the game.” To this day, she’s still stopped in the streets by people thanking her for winning the grand prize as their teammate. Says White, “What I love about watching celebrities play those games is that the good players get so involved, you see the real person.”
Stewart finally moved Pyramid to Los Angeles in 1982 because CBS refused to pay to fly celebrities to New York anymore. A few more titles ensued until his retirement in 1991. While Sande Stewart carried on in his father’s game show footsteps, he still sees his dad as the master: “To this day, I still run everything by Bob.”
The celebrities who agreed to appear on his shows didn’t just love the games; they loved Stewart. Some of his most enduring friendships began on the sets. “He’s a remarkable example of how to be most alive in the world,” says Feldon. “I think we love people who bring out the best in us, and that may be one of the reasons for the number of people who love Bob.”
“You can’t be around Bob and be bored about anything,” says Betty White, who often performed on Stewart’s shows, and to this day plays poker with him regularly. “He’s so up-to-the-minute on everything. Bob is interested in everything and knowledgeable about everything.”
White adds that even now Stewart still makes up games in the car as they ride to and from their poker matches. “He is the most prolific man,” she declares. “That mind of his just keeps going.”