When it began in 1973, it was "The $10,000 Pyramid." In 1976 it became "The $20,000 Pyramid." A syndicated nighttime version was called "The $25,000 Pyramid." And today when it returns as a syndicated daytime series on WRC-TV (Channel 4) at 9 a.m., it will be "The $50,000 Pyramid."
But a pyramid by any other price is still a pyramid. Not just "a" pyramid in fact but The Pyramid, a program that stands out in the annals of Game Show Americana and in a league apart from the flashing lights, the brzzzt brzzzt of the sleazy buzzers, the ga-ga, wow, and flutter of your typical refrigerator-winning arrested-adolescent contestant.
To climb to the top of the Pyramid you pretty well had to know something.
Naturally a game show that tests any portion of the human brain, other than the greed and grin centers, is on shaky ground (the typical network game show today says to the viewer, "Any Dumbo with a photogenic smile can win at this"). After 1,808 shows on daytime TV -- first CBS, then ABC -- and after handing out more than $8 million to sharp-witted contestants, "Pyramid" sank from sight last year. It was still doing fairly well in the daytime ratings, but, says producer and "Pyramid" inventor Bob Stewart, ABC had a contractual commitment to air "Love Boat" reruns in daytime.
Thus was The Mighty Pyramid torpedoed by a garbage scow.
When it returns today in 64 markets across the country (via syndication) Dick Clark, personable to beat the band, will again be the host, and the only major change will be the upped ante. Otherwise it promises to remain a fast-moving, engrossing game that tests if not knowledge at lease vocabulary, verbal dexterity and a certain awareness that there's a world outside the studio.
"I can say unashamedly and without a doubt that 'Pyramid' is the best game show ever devised," says Clark from Hollywood, where he recently produced "All Kindsa Stuff," a late-night pilot, for NBC. "I'm not a big game show fan, but I was on every one of those shows for over seven years and I never lost interest in that game. And that's saying something for a guy with a short attention span."
In the qualifying round of the game, two contestants, each teamed with a celebrity partner, try to blurt out words from a given category ("Things you see at the seashore") on the basis of clues supplied by the partner. The winner of this round goes on to the Pyramid itself, a group of six categories arranged in pyramid formation. The object this time is to guess which category a list of things belongs to ("Things that come in pairs," "Crispy things") before the bell rings.
Sample clues: A football, the cat, a bad habit. Category: "Things you kick."
What a great game.
"People of all different ages and intelligences could play it with equal exhilaration," says Clark. Of course, not every celebrity has an IQ in three figures. Some proved at best semi-literate, and no matter how poorly they played the game, they'd be there for a whole week of shows.
"We had a list of tragedies who'd never be asked back," Clark recalls, diplomatically declining to name names. "One rather well-known actor came out looking very smart in a three-piece suit with a watch-and-chain, the whole bit. Well, that son of a gun couldn't pour salt down a rat hole. He was the stupidest lunk I ever did see."
However, others -- Tony Randall, Soupy Sales and Patty Duke Astin among them -- proved exceptional and extremely passionate players. Clark says actor William Shatner -- whom he considers "a very macho dude" -- was indeed so passionate that on one show, when he realized he'd made a mistake that cost him the game, he became so angry with himself that "he picked up a chair and threw it across the stage."
"Fortunately," Clark says, "he didn't hit anybody."
Since the clue-giver in the final round is not allowed to make helpful hand gestures of any kind, wrist straps were put on one of the chairs for those who lacked the necessary self-restraint. And of all the celebrities who used the straps, the one who finally broke them during a heated encounter was not a macho dude but Sandy Duncan, the human Wheat Thin.
Among the many contestants Clark remembers is the woman who won 20,000 smackers and then found she didn't have a dime with which to telephone her family and tell them.
Edythe Chan, who was contestant coordinator for the show, says that among the hundreds of competitors who made it past the initial testing and onto the show, "We got a lot of nurses for some reason, and college professors." In addition, for years The Pyramid helped keep alive the New York theater, because it became a haven for out-of-work actors who needed to supplement their paltry incomes. Actors are by nature demonstrative and verbal and therefore usually made good contestants.
Chan denies the show used an unduly high proportion of actors. "I kept a limit on the number; I was very careful about it," she says. But struggling actor Timothy Healey, once a contestant, says he heard about the show from other actors who'd gone on and won (he didn't, partnered with sloppy player Robert Walden) and that there was a veritable underground of actors who spent long hours practicing to be on the show.
There were even Pyramid coaches -- actors who'd been contestants -- who would conduct tutoring sessions for prospective Pyramid climbers.
Chan says it was important that the show be done from New York and not, like almost everything in television, from Los Angeles. "It would be very difficult to do 'Pyramid' on the West Coast," she says. "People aren't as quick out there. New Yorkers have to be sharp. They have to know how to be able to get out of the way in a hurry in order to survive."
Some people speak the term "game show" with automatic derision. But a game like "Pyramid" is certainly more of a mind-engager than the daily string of smarmy soaps or prime-time "entertainment" along the lummoxxy lines of "Lobo," "Dukes of Hazzard" and "Harper Valley PTA."
Also, there's a charge, particularly appreciated at the start of a day, in seeing someone win a big pot of money in a game that doesn't look easy and that requires at least a smattering of human intelligence.
On what looked to be the last "Pyramid" show, last summer, Bill Cullen and Lois Nettleton were the celebrity contestants and one of the categories on the Pyramid was "Things That Come to an End." Cullen's clues were "this program" and "the world some day."
And when the game was over, Clark introduced a gag Pyramid board filled with categories that would never have worked because there was nothing to list under them: "Hit Shows on NBC TV," "Oil Companies in Bankruptcy," "Famous Japanese Rabbis," "Things Kissinger Did Not Foul Up" and "Famous Italian TV Directors" -- the last a friendly poke at Mike Gargiulo, who directed "Pyramid" from the beginning.
Now "Pyramid" belongs to a privileged category itself: Superior TV Shows That Were Canceled But By Some Miracle Managed To Come Back. There are few things to match the Pyramidal pleasure of seeing someone come into scads of money in a big hurry; in fact, actually being the one who comes into the money is about the only comparable pleasure that comes to mind.