If ever I visit Hollywood, I want to take the Brett Somers-Charles Nelson Reilly Tour.
Not that there is one of those. I’m sure modern Hollywood has all but forgotten those two names. I certainly had, until I started catching – quite by accident – reruns of a game show called “Match Game 1977” on something called GSN (Game Show Network?). The very fact that a Brett Somers and a Charles Nelson Reilly ever existed is one of the more fascinating bits of trivia I have been able to mine from 1970s lore.
I am a child of the 1980s but I grew up, of course, in the 1970s. (I guess you could say I came of age in the 1990s. Or maybe I have all of that wrong. I grew up in the Seventies, came of age in the Eighties and – what? – saw “Pulp Fiction” in the Nineties. And what does it mean to “come of age,” anyway?) I remember very little about the Seventies except for the bad hairstyles and worse fashions. Those descriptors are in bountiful evidence today on networks like GSN, where you can watch “Match Game” while home on your lunch break, just like your parents and grandparents did when you were little. If you’re my age, that is.
I remember nothing at all about 1977 except for the fact that “Star Wars” came out that year and I was somehow allowed to see that movie four times in theaters. That was a record for me! I was seven years old. I have no idea what grade I would have been in. Lurking somewhere in the back of my memory is the idea that I also got to watch “Charlie’s Angels” on ABC Television in 1977, and maybe some Dallas Cowboys football on Sunday afternoons. As an only child, I had no siblings with whom I could mark time or otherwise establish benchposts of memory. (“Remember the time we took that trip to such-and-such with so-and-so?”) We would have lived on East Elm Street, in the yellow house, and owned a parakeet named Fred.
My mother was probably just getting her start as a social worker, though I seem to recall her working for the local parks and recreation, somewhere in there. Dad worked for the bank (the Bank of Prescott!) as a teller in one of the branches. He would eventually move up to “the big bank,” which was his downfall. Alcoholics and responsibility rarely go together and in his case that was certainly true.
My favorite place would have been my grandparents’ big old two-story house in Arkadelphia, which I visited on weekends. It was a real getaway for me, a place of mystery and imagination, full of dark nooks and crannies, ancient books, secret passages, cold spots, creepy staircases – even a ghost. I loved it! I had total freedom. I could paint, draw, write, explore the yard, read, stay up all night, nap all day … in other words, I could be a kid. They tore that house down in the early Nineties. How I wish it were still around.
Speaking of “Charlie’s Angels” … I remember falling for the biggest fad in the world back in those days, which wasn’t “Star Wars” (yet) but Farrah-Fawcett Majors! Yes, you know what I’m talking about – the famous Farrah Bathing Suit pinup, which Mom and Dad allowed me to put on my wall. I was too young to have any legitimate sexual reaction to it, so maybe my Dad secretly got off on it, but I was fascinated by her carefree smile and dazzling eyes. Why, I loved that image more than Princess Leia or Han Solo, more than any Dallas Cowboys football player (even you, Tony Dorsett) – she was my muse, my angel, my pre-pubescent fantasy. If my mother were still alive, I’d ask her how and where we got that poster, and what in the world ever happened to it.
Let me try and describe that image. Farrah is seated flat on her butt with her right leg stuck straight out. She’s wearing a red bathing suit, low-cut, and you can just barely make out the half-moon of her right nipple. Her left leg is raised in an inverted V, and her thighs are smooth and lightly tanned and somehow just exactly right – the finest examples of thighs you could ever hope to see (in 1977). Her left arm is cocked casually, flirtatiously, on her left kneecap, supporting – almost – her chin. I say almost because her head – famously, deliciously – is thrown back in something approximating a laugh. Her full, frosted-blonde locks cascade across her knife-edged shoulders like water falling from a high ridge. She’s grinning, or at least showing her teeth (which are perfect), though today it almost looks as though she’s grimacing. Farrah’s having a good old laugh at the objective male gaze! Behind her is draped a beach blanket of some kind, colorful racing stripes suggesting hot cars, fast food, the whiplash blur of American culture. Yeah, I owned this work of art at age 7, and I’d own it again, if I were single.
What is interesting about “Match Game” isn’t the game, which is lame and boring by even today’s standards. No, it’s the culture the show represents. “Match Game” is the 1970s, a microcosm of its mores. It is a showcase for celebrities who were apparently too lazy to get properly dressed for the taping. This was an age when sleazy, off-the-cuff, not-particularly-attractive people could get on TV and have a career. I mean, did you ever look at Norman Fell, for God’s sake?
You keep reminding yourself, over and over, that this show was popular and people actually dressed like this. Nobody thought anything of the wide, pointy shirt collars; the gold chains against the hairy chests; the plain gold wristwatches; the multi-toned shoes; the gaudy rings (on men!); the pipes and cigarettes; the Coke-bottle glasses; the colorful plaid jackets; the polyester; the turtlenecks … I could go on but I’m running out of Internet. My dad had a whole closet full of this shit! I used to stare at it in wonder. Did he really dress like Richard Dawson? (Yes, he did!)
I have described the celebrity panel but not the host. This was a walking, talking haircut by the name of GEEEEENE RAYBURN! (With special thanks to Johnny Olsen.) You remember Gene – or maybe not. I Googled his life history but found little of it memorable. I don’t mean to run the guy down but he was a born game show host. I’m sure the job required talent. I’ve still haven’t decided what that talent is but Gene had it in spades. He thought a lot of himself, prancing and preening and fawning over his panelists. That he was a sexist pig who could get away with physical assault “back in the day” did not make him any less charismatic. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.
I suppose I should not have been shocked when I saw Gene rather salaciously kiss a female contestant, since his line readings were all vaingloriously over the top, anyway. He’d paw Fannie Flagg, too, and roll his eyeballs and exercise his considerable eyebrows at the slightest provocation. He must have walked around with a constant erection. I have no doubt but that he considered himself a star of the highest magnitude.
Of the celebrities, Mr. Dawson seemed the most popular. You remember Dickie, I’m sure, from his days on “Family Feud.” He died just a few years ago, respectfully remembered by all who knew him. Dawson was the embodiment of the words “coy” and “dissolute.” His way of addressing the camera was to not address it, to hide his face or turn away or elsewise show contempt, however slight, for the viewing audience. He dawdled, he doodled, he smoked, he kept quiet. His fashion sense was 1977 with a subtle, masculine, sideways peek into 1978 – always fashion-forward. He spoke, he never shouted. Contestants loved him. Hell, Gene Rayburn loved him.
As to those pesky contestants, the life’s blood of any game show – they were typical Americans! Yes, they actually allowed those on television. Not particularly pretty, not even especially intelligent, they showed up, won money or lost and were rotated back out of the show (literally, on a revolving two-person desk platform, which was all the rage in the Seventies). I have no doubt there was a huge hair-and-makeup staff who dolled these people up to resemble 1970s-era mannequin-like representations of an idea of ordinary America – wide stiff collars on the gents, plain-jane blouses and shiny face paint for the ladies. Accents, personal tics, sob stories and desperate answers to vaguely sexual questions were the norm. These were a pathetic lot who gravitated naturally, almost aggressively, to Richard Dawson, who never seemed surprised to find himself singled out for a bonus-round question.
The show was, of course, exemplary for its time and place. The set was the color of caramel vomit, with plush carpet, cheap stadium seating for the stars, a live (often rowdy!) studio audience and those big calculator read-out boards that were popular until Apple came along with smooth typefaces. Hey, nobody watched this thing for its bells and whistles.
Now back to Somers and Reilly, regulars on the show. The Internet describes them as actors, writers, series guests and all-around great people. I think of them as professional celebrities – people famous for being famous, not unlike the Kardashians of today. I couldn’t tell you a single thing that either Somers or Reilly produced, which is a failure of my cultural knowledge, not their talent or luck. They both passed away in 2007 and merited not-entirely-insubstantial obituaries in the New York Times. They were Somebodies, if not SOMEBODIES. What is clear, as one article pointed out, is that they had a rapport on “Match Game,” one that gave the show its own gentle sweetness.
Reilly was a gay rake with a sly sideways grin. He incessantly gnawed on a pipe and made the most outrageous jokes sound like the snidest of observations. He was like Dawson in that he generally sat quietly and waited for the material to come to him, rather than flail and flounder and draw needless attention. He, like Dawson, was too smart for that. He might have been a comedian but he wasn’t Jim Carrey – he was part of the troupe, one of the gang. When you saw Reilly in the upper right hand corner, you stayed to watch.
Somers sat next to him, in the center upstairs position. They played off each other effortlessly – so much so that I was surprised and rather touched to hear Brett lament her friend’s absence from the show. “Well, what about Nipsy Russell?” asked Rayburn, goofing and gamboling his way over to her with his seven-inch needle-phone. “Nipsy’s pretty good!”
“Oh, Nipsy’s great, but I miss Charles!” cried Brett, and she really meant it. That was sweet. That was good television. It reminded us these celebrities were people too and had affinity for each other. Next day, fortunately, Charles was back, and life on “Match Game” continued as normal.
Hollywood has, no doubt, changed a lot in the days since. It is a different world. To watch “Match Game” is to get a glimpse into the living past. My wife and I still want to see who won the game, 40 years later. We laugh at jokes told by people who are long dead. I’m sure no monument, other than her own headstone, stands to Brett Somers, and I doubt anyone is working on a biographical film about Charles Nelson Reilly (if they are, I have the perfect suggestion for a title – “Chuck!”). It’s a shame to think there is no Somers-Reilly Bus Tour, showing all the significant places in their respective careers. There really should be. Decency demands it.
NOTE: I tried my best to recreate in words the Farrah poster but got some of the details wrong; that’s a blanket behind her, not a beach towel. Here is a fairly definitive article on the subject, for anyone as interested as I am: