Wheaton’s Way

Now that the spring season of US television shows is done, with the Great Cull cancelling many a fledgling series (I have to say, I kept waiting for ‘Debris’ to go somewhere), we are now into the heady days of a summer schedule.

I think it was a few years ago when some bright spark with a say-so in programming decided to bring back old game shows with celebrity hosts. ‘Match Game’, ‘Press Your Luck’ and ‘Card Sharks’ have all been dusted off and made shiny and new again, playing in prime time with no less than Alec Baldwin, Elizabeth Banks (may the odds be ever in your favour), and Joel McHale holding the microphones. Baldwin is actually fabulous on ‘Match Game’, with TV stars and comedians on the panel drinking their way through the filming, just like the good old days. His facial expressions and clear disdain for some of the contestants’ answers are well worth tuning in for.

Banks is charming through ‘Press Your Luck’, which nicely counteracts the perpetual screaming from contestants and those appalling whammies, which all sound like they’ve been sucking on a helium balloon.

McHale, on the other hand, looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. I don’t know if he owes a great deal of money to someone or pressure was brought to bear for him to take this gig, but he and ‘Card Sharks’ go together like sardines and chocolate.

Now, another old favourite – ‘The Dating Game’ – has been exhumed, only this time, it’s called ‘Celebrity Dating Game’, hosted by Zooey Deschanel and Michael Bolton. Michael. Bolton. Wot?

Maybe it makes sense to have one of the world’s top crooners involved in a show revolving around romance, but I’m not entirely convinced. Apparently, he sings the clues. I love the man’s voice, and am proud to admit it publicly, but not to the level that I’d swoon over him, say, taking the ingredients on a cereal box through an octave or two.

Anyway, as soon as I saw the first ad for that addition to the summer lineup, I was transported to a time about 25 years ago when my best friend Lynne and I ran a version of ‘The Dating Game’ at Hard Rock Cafe in George Town, when it fully covered two floors of its present location. Thinking back, I don’t know how we survived.

We had nothing to do with it in the beginning. One of the radio stations had come up with the notion to host it live on a stage at Hard Rock every Wednesday night (I think). The first round would have a lady on one side of a partition with three eligible bachelors on the other side, and the second round had a man asking the questions to three single women that he also couldn’t see.

The stage was situated on the ground floor in such a way that the audience members could see both sides of the partition and the contestants’ reactions, just like the TV game show. It seemed like the organisers were onto a winner.

The radio rep would go to the bar throughout the week, trying to get volunteers to sign up. They had to get four men and four women for every Wednesday, which didn’t appear to be an issue, based on how quickly people agreed to participate. Unfortunately, that eagerness quickly dissipated in the cold, sober light of day. When the radio rep started calling everyone on the sign-up sheet to confirm the time they needed to be at Hard Rock for the show, they began backing out in record numbers. Asking customers when they were tipsy if they would be happy to be part of a dating game a few days down the line, turned out to be the fatal flaw in the plan.

On any given Wednesday, the co-host would be either running or driving out an hour before showtime, scanning the roads and bars for people they could cajole into stepping in at the last minute. Whenever that failed, they’d try to pull someone from the audience. It wasn’t ideal, which is why I was asked to take over as host and, of course, I roped Lynne into assisting.

The first thing I had to do was find reliable sources of fun, single people. I knew a female dive instructor at one of the shops and a couple of restaurant workers. All had lots of unattached contacts and friends who were up for a laugh. By the Friday before the first Wednesday we were taking over proceedings, we had our eight participants.

Next, I wrote out the questions in advance, gave them to Lynne, and she met the volunteers upstairs before the show so they could prepare their answers. Yeah, I hate to burst your bubbles, but this is how it is done on TV, otherwise there would be a lot of deer-in-the-headlights moments.

We both had walkie-talkies (before the days of mobile phones, kids), so no need to run up and down the stairs. Lynne’s handle was Leprechaun1 and I was Big Mama.

We could communicate easily, with her letting me know when the answers had all been written, and me letting her know when I was ready for everyone to make their way to the stage.

A typical exchange on such a night went something like this:

“Leprechaun1, Leprechaun1, this is Big Mama. Do you read?”
“I read you Big Mama, what’s the word?”
“Bring down the bachelors. Lady is in wings, ready to move once they are in place.”
“Copy that.”

Jason Statham, you can eat yer heart out.

Speaking of hearts, I cut a large one out of red card to which I could affix the list of questions, just so the person asking them wasn’t holding a tatty piece of paper. Genius. Could a call from Merv Griffin be far behind?

The first few weeks went swimmingly. The contestants showed up on time and the audiences were good. We were killing it.

Unfortunately, like all good things, it had to come to an end. Turned out that there weren’t as many single people on the island as you might think. And then, only a small percentage of that pool was willing to sit on stage and announce it to the world.

We had one guy who would have done it every week if we’d given him the chance, but he was a rare breed.

We started running into the issues that the original organisers had, with volunteers dropping out 24 hours before start time on a Wednesday, even though they had committed when sober. I got irritated with them, as now I had to stop everything else I was doing to try and get last-minute stand-ins. To me, a promise was a promise, even if you were getting nothing out of it but a bar tab. Kind of like how I approach dating.

After about two months or so, with audiences dwindling, a few repeat/drunk contestants, and bridges burned with those contacts I’d berated when one of their friends didn’t show up for no good reason, ‘The Dating Game’ died a natural death.

Leprechaun1 and Big Mama retired their walkie-talkies, and got on with their lives.

When it had all worked smoothly, it was great fun, but by the end, I felt like Joel McHale. Maybe if I had just sung the clues…

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