When I was nineteen years old, I vacationed to Los Angeles and won a car on “The Price is Right.”
In the following years, if I really liked you and wanted to impress youâ€”or give you a small, wacky glimpse of my lifeâ€”then at some juncture I’d say “So hey, have you ever been to Los Angeles?” Or, “Did I ever tell you about the car?” I wouldn’t blurt it out to people I just met or anything; I wouldn’t give it a thought until they came over for dinner, for instance, and afterward we would talk about ourselves and I’d think of it and drop it into the conversation.
Maybe I’d be lucky enough to be at a party with friends when someone mentioned Bob Barkerâ€”you know, hanky panky with the models, neuter the dog, take your pickâ€”and I could say to the group “yeah, that’s funny. You know, I once won a car on ‘The Price is Right.’”
And everyone’s head would turn to see if I was serious. The fabulous part is, I did win the car, so I wasn’t lying or anything, and telling that story is so much darn fun. At least it used to be.
It was a long time ago. More than twenty years. Now, I don’t toss out the story as often; it no longer seems that important, and I got tired of telling everybody. Besides, I have a videotape of the entire episode and it gets trotted out and viewed from time to time. Maybe not as much anymore.
I have the whole show memorized. Me and Bob Barker Himself playing one of those games. Me looking young, so young and mugging deliberately but winningly for the cameras and for my buddy Bob. Year after year I’ve seen that video and find myself pulling farther away from the image on my television screenâ€”the oldest tape I have of myself on TV, although, make no mistake about it, I have many.
On the tape I’m impossibly cute, with a tall lean body and a freckled face straight out of Howdy Doody’s Peanut Gallery. There is bright orange hair on my head, blown dry to late-70′s perfection and parted in the middle between two feathered, astoundingly symmetrical sides. Never mind that it was 1981. A childhood scarred by acne had forced me to lay all my vanity on my hair, and the blaze of burnt orange and gold hues atop my head never disappointed. By the time I visited Bob Barker’s studio the acne was gone and I had mastered all hair products known to man.
Anyway, here’s the “Price is Right” story.
It’s Spring 1980. My lover Charley and I are visiting my old college friend Billy, who lives in Los Angeles. Billy takes us to CBS studios to take a tour, but once there we find out they don’t give them anymore. But we can go wait in line for “The Price is Right” if we want to, the lady says. Why not? A live game show taping. Cool.
We stand in line and this producer comes by with an assistant in tow, and he’s chatting with everybody in the line. One by one. And the assistant is taking careful notes. Get it? They’re picking contestants. So the producer gets to me and whereas everybody’s been kind of shy and polite and maybe a little perky, I grab his hand and shake as hard as I can and just about bust a gut beaming, saying “Hi there, I’m Mark King and I drove all the way from New Orleans Louisiana just to be on this show!”
I watch TV. Everybody knows what they’re looking for.
The poor guy hasn’t had a chance to say anything yet, and before he even gets that opportunity, I start in again.
“And I was just looking around at this crowd,” I said, sweeping my hands across the huge line of people, “and I notice you don’t have any redheads. I’m sure you want lots of different kinds of people, right?” I grinned enormously and some woman a few rows back says something and so I added “Well, not many natural redheads, anyway,” and grinned and people laughed.
Portions of The Price is Right Story are deeply ingrained, as frozen in my delivery as they are on that old Betamax video tape. Hearing Johnny Olsen shouting “Mark King! Come on down!” and galloping down the ramp to bidding stations in front of the stage, jumping up and down, my sprayed hair jolted above me in two feathered clumps, lazily floating back down to my head like snapping an orange sheet over a bed and watching it descend.
Or when I won the very first prize that came up for bidsâ€”an Amana Range. “And to the winner of that range goes,” I can hear Johnny Olsen saying, “Kentucky Fried Chicken in an insulated tote bag. It’s so nice to feel so good about a meal!”
“And the original retail price of that range is … six hundred and eighty nine dollars and Mark, you’ve won it! Come on up here!” Bob Barker declares, and I scramble up for a chat with Bob that holds no memory or recollection, just what I’ve seen on the tape, because I truly had no idea what the man was saying, such was my shock. But I nod and grin in the right places.
Bob asks me where I’m from and I tell him I’m a student at the University of New Orleans. Really? What year? he asks. I say I’m a seniorâ€”a lie, I was a sophomore, but couldn’t have told you my middle name at that pointâ€”and say that I’ll go “right on to graduate school to get a masters in Arts Management.”
Today when I see the tape, I want to wipe the idyllic grin off that skinny boy’s face and correct the error I made years ago. I had it all wrong. “Well Bob,” I would say instead, “I’ll finish college through the mail after I move here to Los Angeles and work for a heroin-addicted mail order sleaze bag. Then I hope to make it big as a sexual entrepreneur.” “That’s marvelous!” Bob would then reply, “A prostitute perhaps?” The cameras would turn to the audience, all of them glued to the monitors and nodding expectantly. “Aw, you flatter me, Bob. Seriously, I was thinking I’d be good at getting people off over the phone.” Bob’s most winning game show host smile would appear. “What a talented young man!” he would say with fatherly pride. The APPLAUSE light would flash again and again. The audience would react like stadium fans witnessing a touchdown. “There’s even more, Bob. I’ll go on to watch some friends die horribly of a disease we haven’t even heard of yet, fight my drug addiction, and then spend years searching for life’s greater meaning. You have anything up for bids that might help me with that?”
But back to realityâ€”or, at least, “The Price is Right.”
Bob stops talking for a second and Johnny Olsen announces what I just might winâ€”a shiny new Pontiac Coupe! The audience absolutely screeches, and the camera flashes to my lover Charley whistling with his fingers in his mouth, wearing exactly the same jeans and red t-shirt as myself. We were in that early, wearing- matching-outfits stage of our relationship. Every choice I pondered during the game would feature a shot of Charley squirming in his seat, fraught with excitement and looking every bit the handsome husband. No gay viewer in America missed the connection.
Beside Charley sat my stunned friend Billy, perhaps the only person in the room who knew that I could get myself in front of the nearest camera through sheer force of will. And I had done it again. He giggled through the proceedings, laughing at the enormous absurdity of it all but somehow not a bit surprised. On stage, Bob inspected the car with me before the game began. “Just look at these wire wheel covers here, Mark. Say tell me,” he questioned as he put the microphone to my lips, “do you have a girlfriend back home?” No, Bob. But your camera man must adore my homosexual lover because he’s given him every reaction shot since I stepped up here.
“Aw, several!” I offered with a laugh and an adorable but practiced shrug. “Well, you’ll have several more if you win this one!” Bob said. The game was something called “Lucky Seven” and Charley screamed out every last thing for me to say and do, which was a great help since I didn’t understand what the hell was going on. After going step by step through the game, with tension building and Bob reminding me how close I was to winning every three seconds, I get to the last question. After Charley’s prompting I give the winning answer, the audience goes nuts, and the camera man goes to Charley for even more shots as he explodes from his chair and waves his hands and dances about. “You’ve won that car!” Bob shouts. If I had won a fur coat Charley would’ve jumped to the stage and thrown it on, so help me.
I furiously shake Bob Barker’s hand and notice how much make-up he has on. Thick, like a paste. And his hair dye has left a brown stain across his hairline. He introduces the first sponsor while the camera returns to me, beaming, all shocked and happy. I pick my teeth with my tongue and they break to a commercial. The show went on to other contestants of course, but I’ve never watched the tape that far. The beginning of the show has been played ragged, however. About six minutes of my life, run countless times on the TV in my living room, after some dinner with friends and maybe coffee and dessert.
I sold the car to my sister Nancy for what the income taxes cost meâ€”I was in college and didn’t need one anyway. The Amana Range went to my brother David as a wedding present. I kept the insulated Kentucky Fried Chicken tote bagâ€”my lone trophy from the eventâ€”and store it in the laundry room. It’s nearby if there’s a showing of the video and it makes a great prop during the viewing.
“Mark at Nineteen” is what I should call it. Within a few years of Coming On Down, there would be enormous differences between that video boy and myself, shaped by life events that would throw a wet blanket on my aw shucks optimism. I’ve tried to recover from them, to regain the hopeful, expectant glimmer found in the eyes of the kid from “The Price is Right,” with mixed success.
He was fearless, I have reservations. He believed, I suspect. A few years in the life of a gay man living at the dusk of the sexual revolution and during the dawn of a terrible disease does manage to bring about some striking changes. I have a few stories about those times, too. You’re about to hear them. Some of them aren’t very attractive, and I definitely haven’t shared them at parties. I wonder if they have any value, if they define something more than myself, if they sound familiar. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide if that which came before actually has helped me, if it “made me a better person,” if it was, in fact, a gift. And wondering, of course, if the price was right.