When he arrived on the scene, I was already a game show fanatic, so much so that it was my dream to someday have a show, a sidekick, a stylish microphone, a well-lit, overdesigned set and a live studio audience of my own.
(If I’m honest I still have that dream, though I fear the ship has long since sailed on such a lofty career change.)
Starting around age seven, I’d spend my summer mornings and holiday breaks taking in all the game shows I could, getting to know (in a strange series of one-way relationships) all the hosts of the day: Bill Cullen, Gene Rayburn, Peter Marshall, Dick Clark, Tom Kennedy, Allen Ludden, Wink Martindale, Jim Perry, Bob Eubanks, Gary Moore, Bob Barker, Dennis James … I could go on, but you get the picture.
I loved to watch them get to know the contestants, banter with the celebrity guests (mostly B- and C-listers) and pander to the audience. And, I loved the games themselves: guessing games, matching games, games that involved oversized playing cards, games of speed and chance. And the sets, so contrived and corny.
In short, I loved everything about game shows. Things is, I never ran across a host I wanted to emulate, the person whom if I had the opportunity (and I never did), I’d want to mentor me, to take under his wing.
Not until I saw High Rollers for the first time, and the guy at the helm of that show, Alex Trebek. Back then, he looked more like the star of a weeknight detective drama than a game show host. And, if memory serves, he wasn’t smarmy or snarky like so many of his counterparts. He brought a level of sophistication – class – to the profession, even to a show where people rolled two huge dice for fun and prizes.
(For those of you who aren’t familiar with High Rollers, it’s based on the game Shutbox. If you’re not familiar with Shutbox, I won’t bore you with the details; just look it up.)
I remember seeing Trebek and High Rollers for the first time soon after summer vacation started in 1974, thinking, “There’s something different about this guy, something special that the others don’t have.”* And soon, the game became one of my favorites simply because Trebek was the host.
* (OK, as a nine-year-old, my thoughts likely weren’t quite that adult and educated; let’s just say I was impressed.)
The interesting thing was that, at the time, I was also a fan of Jeopardy, then hosted by Art Fleming who took that TV game from its black-and-white infancy into the age of living color. Fleming was a standard bearer of his time, a throwback to the early days. He was Jeopardy. And, back then, Trebek was simply a young, handsome, well-spoken TV host with a long list of credits in his home country of Canada before trying his hand at the rough-and-tumble sport that is the American game show.
Who would have thought that one day Trebek would not only assume the Jeopardy reins, but become arguably the biggest name ever in game show history; the standard bearer, the one who transcended the game itself, even more than his predecessor?
Yet, he did. After shuffling around Burbank studios (or wherever they filmed these things back then), hosting American game shows like Wizard of Odds, High Rollers and Double Dare (not to be confused with the Nickelodeon kids show), in 1984 Trebek’s hard work paid off when he finally landed the big fish … Jeopardy.
And not only did he land it, he transformed it into a staple of American culture, and a venue where he could show everyone who and what he was.
I don’t get too worked up when celebrities die. In the scheme of things (and please don’t think I’m being insensitive here), their deaths are no more or less sad or tragic than anyone else’s. But there have been a few entertainer deaths that have affected me because of the impact and influence their work or artistry have had on me: Frank Sinatra, Warren Zevon, Paul Newman, John Prine and Tom Petty, to name a few.
And last weekend, I added another name to that list, Alex Trebek, because back in 1974, he caught the attention of a nine-year-old kid, and put a dream in that kid’s head that maybe someday he too could be a game show host.
And while that day never came, it certainly created a ton of great memories for me. And, after all is said and done, isn’t that all we have to leave to those who remain after we’re gone … a ton of great memories?
RIP Alex, and thank you. You’ll always be a High Roller in my book.
© 2020 David R. Haznaw