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A New Submarine! The Beginnings of the Price is Right had Ultra Surreal Prizes

Steve Palace
Getty Images
Getty Images

Hysterical audience reactions and the catchphrase “Come on down!” are cemented into people’s minds as part of The Price Is Right. This longest-running of game shows started broadcasting in 1956, and with the occasional break or tweak has survived well into the 21st century.

The core component of the winning format (created by Bob Stewart) is guesswork. It’s a simple but highly effective game of taking a leap in the dark. By guessing the value of random products as accurately as possible, contestants hope to win big.

The original “Price Is Right” sign used when Bob Barker was the host, now located at The Unusual Junction in Ohio. Photo by Trekkie 313 CC BY 2.0

The original “Price Is Right” sign used when Bob Barker was the host, now located at The Unusual Junction in Ohio. Photo by Trekkie 313 CC BY 2.0

And when it comes to random, producers haven’t fooled around over the years. A 2018 article for Nine.com highlighted a 1961 episode where “The first prize up for grabs… is nothing less than a submarine.” Alongside such mundane things as household goods were surprise elements such as a “live peacock” or “a private island” as prizes.

The kicker to this surreal streak is that it comes from The Price Is Right’s earlier incarnation. When it started in the Fifties it was a restrained affair in black and white, hosted by Bill Cullen.

The title “Dean of Game Show Hosts” had been bestowed upon him, but this was far from the modern era of colorful sets and screaming competitors. Back then the eye-opening prizes stood out and were the selling point over the staid presentation.

Photo of Bill Cullen as the host of The Price Is Right. Cullen was the host of the original version of the television program, which ran from 1956 to 1963.

Photo of Bill Cullen as the host of The Price Is Right. Cullen was the host of the original version of the television program, which ran from 1956 to 1963.

Beginning on NBC before moving to ABC, the early Price Is Right was axed by 1965. When CBS decided to relaunch it in 1972, the show took the form audiences know today. From there it just kept on going. Mark Goodson and Bill Todman joined Bob Stewart on the creator’s list and Bob Barker took on hosting duties. Barker became synonymous with the show (as every kid who stayed home sick from school knows) and finally stepped down in 2007. Drew Carey has been master of ceremonies ever since.

Bob Barker (host from September 1972 to June 2007). Photo by Iaksge CC BY-SA 3.0

Bob Barker (host from September 1972 to June 2007). Photo by Iaksge CC BY-SA 3.0

Stan Blits is the person responsible for vetting those who want to take part. “Just don’t be too aggressive, he cautions — and don’t try to bribe him with gifts,” a 2017 Mental Floss piece wrote.

Prospective players “come on down” to the famous Contestant’s Row, where a correct guess gets them into the Pricing Game round. Then the all-important Showcase delivers a sometimes-spectacular finish, as packages of goodies are revealed and put up for assessment by the hopefuls.

Price is Right parade float. Photo by Richie Diesterheft CC By 2.0

Price is Right parade float. Photo by Richie Diesterheft CC By 2.0

One of the secrets behind its longevity — as well as a vague sense of anarchy — is The Price Is Right’s status as a people-driven series. There isn’t much in the way of elaborate gameplay or gimmicks. Everything has remained largely the same across the decades. That straightforward approach meant that “In 2014, the show celebrated its 8,000th episode and 43 seasons, and in 2015 the show hit a milestone in becoming the longest-running game show of all time.”

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The Price Is Right has traveled around the world, and even goes on tour in a live version which saw Jerry Springer wielding the microphone. In 2000 budding actor Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) came on down in a bid to bag a fortune in prizes. He tried to guess the price of a sports car, but lost.

Drew Carey (host since October 2007). Photo by Cyan Banister CC BY 3.0

Drew Carey (host since October 2007). Photo by Cyan Banister CC BY 3.0

Not that victory onscreen always leads to triumph behind the scenes. Mental Floss noted that the situation can be taxing… quite literally! “When contestants win any prizes, they first must file a return in the state in which they won,” it writes. “The prizes are treated as income. Winners have to pay based on the full retail value of the prize, so a lot of winners decide not to accept the prizes.”

This information certainly takes the gild off the lily, yet the sense of fun remains undimmed. Though it hasn’t been all smiles and sunshine for the long-running TV favorite. Model and show regular Janice Pennington was seriously injured after being knocked over by a camera in 1988.

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And when contestant Terry Kniess shocked the crowd in 2008 by correctly guessing the value of the “Showcase Showdown”, it was assumed the entirely honest participant might be cheating. He was a super fan of The Price Is Right and reportedly memorized many of the prizes on offer. Thankfully for producers, and the show’s budget, while the public love the show, most wouldn’t go that far to win it.

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