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4:24 p.m. - 2014-02-28
Dream Dates and Fabulous Prizes

Jim Lange died. What with recent high profile deaths like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Sid Caesar and Shirley Temple the death of a long-retired game show host barely made a single news cycle. I'm sad though. Jim Lange was part of what was the happiest thing I remember about my childhood. Namely- TV. TV with a high premium on game shows.

This is not as pathetic as it sounds. I did a lot of the usual childhood stuff, even in my warty horror of a childhood I got to swim and build forts and ride bikes and go to carnivals and make shoebox dioramas for social studies class. Skates- both ice and roller loom large in my memories. There's even a spectacular and wicked dangerous skateboard stunt I still can't believe I got away with. I climbed trees and played Barbies and spent many, many hot summer afternoons in the dim cool recesses of the library. There were birthday parties and treats from the ice cream truck. I hung out in the stables of the local race track and shot hoops in the school playground. My friends and I had feasts of stolen corn-on-the-cob and ate our ill-gotten loot with butter running down our chins and arms and felt like brigands. And books. Always there were books.

But TV? Television was a thing unto itself and I thought it was wonderful.

Like Forrest Gump and his shoes I can remember our first TV. It was a Zenith. B&W, of course, color TV was still a few years away. The screen was pretty large for an olden TV and when we still lived in Nanuet (I was about 2) I used to run away into the kitchen when 'Gigantor' came on. He was really scary and on that big screen it looked like he was going to fly right out and get me.

You watch and tell me this wouldn't be scary to a toddler with a really vivid imagination.

And yes, youngins, that's what anime looked like in the 1960s.

The coolest thing about the Zenith? It had a remote control! I shit you not. The remote only changed the channels (I think). It was a clunky grey plastic box with two push buttons. The left one made the channel go down and the right made the channel switch up. Weirdest of all? When you used the remote the actual handle of the channel selector on the TV turned. Spooky. Like a ghost was changing the channel. "Ka-thunk! Ka-thunk!" said the TV when the channel changed and dial moved on its own.

Sadly the remote didn't live as long as the TV. In the winter of 1968 my mother sustained a double compound fracture of the tibia and fibula while skiing down our backyard. (All the blood and the jagged ends of her bones poking through her trashed ski pants put me off eating spare ribs and bone-in chicken for years.) The ortho-doctor (a creepy eastern European guy who looked, no lie, just like Dracula) did some crazy experimental procedure on my mother's leg which caused the bones to heal so crookedly that the leg had to be re-broken and reset. End result my mother spent the better part of a year lying in a big hospital bed set up in the living room with her leg in a series of casts that went from foot to groin. There was an aide who came a few times a week to help my mother bathe and she tidied the house too, but she didn't do childcare. I was in school fulltime but my little sister Gidget was only 3. She'd been expelled from nursery school months before for being an unholy terror so she was home all day and on the loose. Mom was trapped in the hospital bed and Gidget made the most of it. She hated wearing clothes so was naked most of the time and she liked to visit the neighbors, who always kindly brought her home wrapped in a blanket or a sweater. I remember one time I got home from school and saw Gidget on our mother's beloved peacock blue satin sofa bounding back and forth along the cushions laughing manically while shaking out a can of baby powder. The blue sofa was white, a choking cloud of talcum fogged the room and all I could hear was Gidget's shrieking giggles and my bedbound mother's shouts of rage.

The remote control, along with several ashtrays, magazines, vases, and anything else my mother could reach, met an untimely death being thrown at my insane little sister.

I watched the moon landing on that Zenith. By that time Mom's leg was healed and the living room was just a living room again and the hospital bed was gone. My Da had rousted me out of bed to come watch history being made. I remember Neil Armstrong leaving the ladder and making those first bouncing strides and then going to the window and looking up at the moon to see if I could see him up there.

The next TV and those that came after (with the exception of the wee B&W model the ex and I had as newlyweds) were fancy-schmancy color TVs. Including the one in my bedroom. After my parents' divorce and we began our life in a string of divorcee apartments (single mothers always lived in apartments) Gidget and I had a TV in our room. Luxurious and somewhat spoiled? Maybe. Mostly the TV was a bribe to keep us out of the rest of the apartment while Mommie Dearest entertained her many, many, many men friends and campaigned for Husband #2 (and #3 and #4). Our bedroom TV was a cranky Quasar that required constant adjustments to the horizontal and vertical holds and the best I could coax from the color knobs was getting Keith Partridge's face a soft pinkish grey. But it was a TV for all of that.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were the heyday of game shows. I could list pages of names and still not catch all of them. What reality TV is today, game shows were in yesteryear. Inexpensive filler. And I watched them all. Sick days home from school were great. I got to catch so many favorites. Curled up on my bed with a glass of OJ and a box of tissues nearby I shouted answers and smacked my forehead in frustration when the contestants were stupid. I guffawed and felt grown-up when I 'got' the innuendos on 'Match Game' and 'Password' and Paul Lynde's bitchy snark on 'Hollywood Squares'. Oddly I preferred 'The Newlywed Game' to 'The Dating Game'. I think it's because I had a mad pash for Bob Eubanks. Jim Lange was cool and oh so hip with his tinted aviator glasses and flashy double-breasted suits, but Bob Eubanks had a widow's peak and dimples and he seemed nicer than all the other hosts. Even Monte Hall. (Did you know that Carol Merrill only spoke once during the entire 14 year run on 'Let's Make a Deal'? She said, "Happy Birthday, Monte!" during season 9.)

So Jim Lange's passing has stirred up a lot of memories. And for a wonder most of them are pleasant. Happy, even.

I know it's a hallmark of aging decrepitude when you mourn for things the youngins of today won't know and am marking myself with oldness here, but I truly do feel sorry for those who came too late for the best and funniest of game shows. Game shows with their arrays of fabulous prizes and the chance to feel smart. To groan with disappointment when someone turned up a '4' on 'Card Sharks' or flubbed a stunt on 'Beat The Clock'. To vicariously enjoy being in synch with your celebrity partner on 'Pyramid'. When you could name that tune in 5 notes.

It was fun. And looking back even the snorting innuendoes were more humor than voyeuristic wallowing in filth. Unlike today's reality TV the only screams were from excitement and pleasure. Nobody got slapped or had their marriages implode.

Not everything about that time was wonderful. Viet Nam was in full-cry. The clothes were hideous. Nixon was in the White House. Just to name a few things. But game shows? Game shows were awesome.


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