Bob Stewart and the Gift of Game Shows

Bob Stewart

I’m a big fan of television game shows, so if you are not as passionate about the subject, you should probably surf somewhere else.  But I’d stick around.  You might like this.

Two icons in the world of television game shows passed away in the past few weeks.  By now, I’m sure you have heard about the death of Richard Dawson who hosted the original Family Feud in the 1970s and 1980s. 

You likely did not hear about the passing of another legend in the business who, while not famous as a celebrity host or game player, was instrumental in coming up with the ideas that made for some outstanding quiz shows in television’s golden age.

Bob Stewart died at the age of ninety-one last month.  In the 1950s, he was an advertising agency worker who was fascinated with the relatively new medium of television and the particular genre of quiz programs.  He worked his way to the offices of Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, who were producing panel games such as What’s My Line and I’ve Got a Secret. 

Bob convinced the pair to give his idea a shot: put three contestants in front of a four-person panel, all three claim to be a person who achieved something unique, two are lying, and one is telling the truth. 

That premise made the show To Tell the Truth another long-lasting hit from the Goodson/Todman game factory.  And it made Bob Stewart a valuable commodity to the production company. 

His next effort came about after watching shoppers in front of a New York City department store guessing the price of some item in the window.  He turned that natural compulsion to guess the price of something into the original The Price is Right in the late 1950s.  

That show ran into the 1960s before leaving the airwaves and returning a few years later in the form of the show many viewers know and love today.  

Bob also was the mastermind behind the game where a contestant tries to guess a word using only one-word clues provided by his partner (Password), the game where a contestant tries to guess items in a specific category from his partner (The $25,000 Pyramid), and about a dozen others over his thirty-plus years in the game show business.

I am connected to Bob in a couple of ways.  As a young man working in local television, I wrote him a letter in the 1980s asking for advice on breaking into the game show business. 

He wrote back in an encouraging note that ended with an offer to look him up if I ever landed in Hollywood.  Several years, and a couple of careers later, I met him as he was honored by the Game Show Congress with the Bill Cullen Award for career achievement. 

The late Bill Cullen was the long time game show host and close friend of Bob.

Prior to the award ceremony, I approached Bob and asked if I could talk for a few minutes.  He graciously agreed and I told him about the letter he responded to some twenty-plus years prior. 

“What advice did I give you,” he asked me.

I answered, “To look you up if I ever got serious about it.”

I explained as a new father of two children, a three thousand mile move for a possibility of a job in the game show business wasn’t in the cards.  He then asked, “What do you do now?”

“I work for a utility company,” I answered.

“Well, you probably help more people doing that than you might have helped producing game shows.”

I thanked him for his time and his kind words. 

His acceptance speech at the Game Show Congress was a clinic in giving the audience what it wants.  He explained to the receptive crowd why his shows were successful (“once you start talking back to the TV, you know you’ve got a good show”), how seemingly small details came about in his shows such as the announcer whispering the Password as it was being shown to the home audience (“My mother always said that you could get someone’s attention by whispering.”), and why he left the Goodson/Todman group to form his own game show production company in the early 1960s (“I spent the night as a guest at Mark Goodson’s lush apartment in New York City and was convinced the real money in the business was in owning the company.”)

In addition to the honors from the Game Show Congress, Bob earned Emmy awards including a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the field of game shows.  But his proudest honor should be the fact that many of the shows he conceptualized back in the early days of television are still with us. 

Whenever you hear the catch phrases Come on down! , or Will the real John Smith please stand up?, think about Bob Stewart and the creative mind that first brought those shows to television.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced