GSNN EXTRA: Hollywood to H2 - The Final Chapter
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From the days where no one would buy it, to the current era, "Hollywood Squares" has undergone many evolutions, the latest of which some pundits called a "desperation makeover." In this Extra, we take a look back at what was said before and gauge the validity of those statements now that the show has run its course.

Chico Alexander
daytime editor

We all remember what happened in the penultimate weekend of taping on "Hollywood Squares". The two contestants - Karen DeThomas and Aaron Spears - played the final game to ever be completed by two civilian players. The next game would never be completed past the first round.

That next week, with Staff Appreciation Week, the stage felt the overwhelming support from the audience and everyone who made "Hollywood Squares" a reality.

And then the stage fell silent. Never again would we hear such phrases and "Circle gets the Square!" or the always loved "Bullfunky!". Faced with declining ratings and the result of a pending deal between KingWorld and CBS for the upcoming news series, "The Insider", "Hollywood Squares" was cancelled earlier this year.

The history of the game can be traced into three eras, heralded by three different hosts (Peter Marshall, John Davidson, and Tom Bergeron) and three different eras. The common bond tying those eras has always been the main game of tic-tac-toe, which, though static, has undergone several aesthetic changes for any number of reasons.

Laying the Groundwork

To trace the chart of changes that the show has made, there has to be a foundation. For Hollywood Squares, it was the mid 1960s. After the failures of "People Will Talk" and "The Celebrity Game", Merrill Heatter of Heatter-Quigley Productions (which packaged the two shows) was captivated with the idea of a game similar to the right-or-wrong format of "Celebrity Game" but with a slightly different angle. His idea of putting celebrities in a giant tic-tac-toe board brought him and partner Bob Quigley into the office of then CBS chief Fred Silverman. During his tenure at CBS, the network saw much successes, including "Sonny and Cher" and the "New Price is Right," both in the 1970s. Silverman commissioned the pilot in 1966 with nine celebrities and longtime Miss America emcee Bert Parks as host. "Silverman had a slot to fill and a choice to make between Squares and [Bill Cullen's] 'The Face is Familiar.' He chose Face," says Dixon Hayes, webmaster of the Classic Hollywood Squares website.

Selling Squares was not going to be easy. "When the option expired Heatter and Quigley shopped the show to ABC and NBC and were turned down cold. But NBC at least agreed to take a second look, and bought it," notes Hayes. One thing they didn't like was Parks as host. Hayes notes in his analysis of the original pilot that Parks was quite overdramatic, and in the comic atmosphere of Squares, it was dramatically out of place. "It might have worked on a more dramatic game show like 'Stop the Music' but here, Parks just sounds obnoxious, like each contestant was on the verge of being crowned Miss America."

The network began searching for a new host. The search ended, of course, with Peter Marshall, who, in comparison, was simple and more amicable. "Marshall also simply said 'Right or wrong?' to prompt the contestants, and even that was gone by 1970. His emphasis was to keep the game moving, smoothly." The first change was in place, with not an average viewer wise to it. But, the change would prove in NBC's favor, as both daytime and nighttime editions score high marks since its inception in 1966. The daytime edition, which ran until 1980 on NBC, would keep its daytime slot of 10:30 for the first ten years of its run.

Despite the successes, there were still problems with the stars limiting the game with their ongoing antics. Jefferson Graham, writer of "Come On Down! The Game Show Book," said that Heatter noticed the show moved too slowly, because the celebrities just wouldn't shut up. Heatter enacted a gag order, limiting a game to a minimum of 22 questions. With later versions, the 22-question minimum turned out to be a non-issue, as play just sped up in the later times of the 30-minute sessions.

Hollywood High Rise and Fast Fall

By 1970, Hollywood Squares had reached the top of their game, with the game becoming number one in daytime games, several bits of merchandise (two records of Zingers, four home games, and a tic-tac-toe patterned pendant). Its stars were also stars of the show. Some panelists on the primetime version migrated to the daytime version, and in 1975, the show was temporarily expanded to an hour.

Ten years following the premiere, the show was plagued with several factors against it. First of all, ratings were dropping, prompting NBC to move it to opposite growing "Price is Right", a move which would prompt yet another change, this time to afternoons. Second, the show's main attraction, center Square Paul Lynde, left in a dispute around this time. In 1980, getting beaten by ABC affiliates with local shows, NBC finally pulled the plug on Squares in June 1980, although the nightly syndicated shows would move to Las Vegas for another year before low station clearances forced the show to go into stasis until 1983, where it was part of an arranged marriage between it and Match Game in 1983. Several rule flaws and a lack of participation on the show's part led to an early demise.

The Next Chapter

1986 brought in a new era for the show. The Squares were back, as "The New Hollywood Squares". Some of the stars from the earlier two runs, namely Dom DeLuise and Joan Rivers among others. John Davidson, who sat in the upper left later in the original run, was brought back as host. Century Towers Productions produced the show with Orion Television distributing. Aside from escalating money values, this version had three notable changes. The first was that this version went on the road for several weeks, doing remote shots in New York and Florida. The second was the lifting of the gag order that had been in place since the 1970s. Third was the change of the end game in which a player could win one of five cars. The original had a bonus won outright by a player. While it did well in its day, Merrill Heatter, who did not have anything to do with this version, called it "a circus." It graciously bowed out in 1989.

The current version would borrow a variant of the bonus game used here. Aside from cars, players would either agree or disagree on statements about the stars for a chance at winning trips and cash.

"I Love Hollywood"

KingWorld and Sony, the distributor and producer of longtime staples "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune", decided to make a new version, teaming up with Whoopi Goldberg's production company, One Ho Productions and recruiting Tom Bergeron as host. Looking for a new venture in TV, Whoopi was tapped as the Center Square.

That version launched in September of 1998 and took off quickly afterwards, having greater successes than the 1983 and 1986 in the second season. The main game rules did not change for the first season, but as the second season progressed, a final question for a bonus and returning champions were added. However, the show started to wane as year three went on, notably during the fourth year. Changes were made to try and recapture the popular interest, among them, a radically new bonus round totally unlike the main game. Critically panned and not really well-received, it was dropped in 2002, along with several other changes.

No more making Whoopi

However, In a case of history repeating itself, Whoopi, the center attraction of the show, left in a contract dispute in 2002. The effect snowballed, as Bruce Vilanch, the show's head writer, Caroline Rhea, whose own TV series fell flat in 2003, and the production team of John Moffitt and Pat Tourk Lee also left. Enter the production team of Henry Winkler and Michael Levitt, who oversaw a major overhaul in set, end game, and onscreen talent and execution.

During the two-year reign of Winkler and LEavitt, viewers were treated to several theme weeks, of which one stood out - the first Game Show Week. It is a well-known fact that the original Squaremaster Peter Marshall was never a fan of the recent incarnation, but at the same time, he was a fan of the franchise, and wrote a book to that effect - "Backstage with the Original Hollywood Square". He admittedly went to the show just to publicize that book.

But it seems that the greatest admiration for a joining together of the past and the present came when Tom and Peter traded spaces. Again, the 22-question limit was a non-issue. But for one shining moment, Peter was in true form, even delivering a zinger about inflation in giving his class spiel on how the game is played.

Other theme weeks spotlighted crimefighters, couples, and blondes.

The Final Verdict

Chatter at the Annual Critics Tour earlier this year delivered the show's final death blow. According to a report on Chris Lambert's Original Game Show Page, Squares had shown a second straight year of marked ratings decline, and the CBS owned-and-operated stations that form the core of the show's market have all but committed the timeslot to Entertainment Tonight's upcoming spinoff series, The Insider, for this fall.

The question posed at the origin of this particular edition of the extra was of how these changes would play in the show's best interest. Mike Klauss, former webmaster of TV-Gameshows.com and current analyst of the genre, told GSNN that "it was either modernization of the show, a last ditch effort to save the show, or a total revamping of the show." In the end, it was just that, as producers tried to prolong what could easily be seen as the inevitable cancellation. For the most part, they succeeded for two years, even going so far as to take steps to cut costs, reducing the take on games won and offering cheaper prizes to start in the bonus round.

There were some methods to the madness, but history portends a different take, as television writer Tom Heald offered in his initial statement to GSNN. "It's a sustainable show at the moment," Heald said. "It's about the quality of the JM J. Bullock, Joan Rivers years. The writing's pretty decent, a little bit less guest specific, as in 'this is a Wally Cox' question. Whether H2 will be able to play the piano, of course, depends on if it could before the accident."

It seemed, at that focal point, that the damage was already done.

On the web: Dixon Hayes' ClassicSquares.com

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