If you’ve ever heard a game show host say, “Bob, tell ‘em what they’ve won,” then you’ve heard my husband. He’s that Bob. For most of his life, Bob’s been a game show guy. He hosted a couple of national network shows (“Truth or Consequences” and “Let’s Make a Deal”) and has announced more game shows than anyone else. He also created a few shows with various partners, including Dick Clark, who I might add is a heckuva guy, a real gentleman.
In fact, when Bob was announcing Dick’s “Wednesday Night Live” TV show on CBS, the kids and I were there to see it, and afterwards our 10-year-old son had compiled a ball of masking tape which had marked off reserved seats. Bob called us down to the stage for the kids to meet Dick, and I told our son to throw away the ball of tape. Well, he did. He lobbed it high into the air and—like a horrible, slow motion car wreck– it hit Dick square on the head. But Dick, being the consummate nice guy, was unfazed and took it in great humor.
It’s interesting to be somewhere with Bob and see the glint of recognition in someone’s eyes as they realize they’re hearing his familiar tones. “Wait—I know that voice,” they’ll say. Some of our kids’s friends have even borrowed him to create cell phone ring tones that say, “Jake, COME ON DOWN!” or, “Sean, you’ve won a BRAND NEW CAR!”
Our kids have had mixed reactions to this quasi-fame situation. First, they can’t believe anyone would consider their dad anything but the guy who loves to barbecue monster hamburgers (“He’s just Dad,” one of them once said). Sound stages and studios lose their glamour pretty quickly when that’s where Dad goes to work. On the other hand, they’ve been proud to volunteer him as the emcee for their school and scouting events, since Bob is also a hilarious warm-up guy.
But what they’ll probably remember most is that the fun of game shows even extended into Bob’s parenting style, popping up as offers for them to trade in their chore for whatever’s in the box or envelope. “OR you can keep what you have,” he will say.
The kids have agonized like real contestants as they’ve made their choices and had to live with the consequences. Even doling out allowance became a moment of suspense and daring. “Pick a number from one to ten,” is an almost expected offer at any moment of the day.
Family trips were replete with options to eat at the visible place or the unseen one around the corner, and their grinning father was always careening before their eyes, reminding them that the clock is ticking and they must make a choice.
“Now, you can clean your room and win whatever’s in this envelope,” he would say, holding the unopened package aloft. “Or, you can clean your room and your bathroom and trade for whatever’s in the box. And I’ll give you a hint: One of them contains movie tickets.” It was hugely entertaining, at least for those of us not on the hot seat.
But no one is born a game show host. So how does a boy reared in Lake Charles, Louisiana, get to Hollywood? In Bob’s case it started with his older brother, who worked as a cameraman for a local TV station. When his brother left to join the Air Force, Bob (who was only 14, but tall) decided to apply for the job. And the boss figured that if the brother knew how to run a TV camera, Bob must have inherited that same ability.
Wrong. When Bob was told to truck, he panned. Nevermind what those terms mean; it was a disaster. The guy threatened to fire him, but Bob worked so hard that within six months he was head cameraman. By now everyone had noticed Bob was also a showman, and the station manager hired him to dress up as an Emmett Kelly-style clown to introduce cartoons on a kiddie show that was suddenly starring a boy in junior high who used an old man’s voice so no one would realize he was still a kid himself.
Bob wanted to stay in broadcasting, but was told he’d have to lose his Southern accent. “Wut Suthern ak-sent?” he drawled. It took a lot of work, but today the only traces left of it are his “yes, ma’am- no,sir” manners.
From the gulf coast Bob landed radio and TV news gigs in Hawaii (“Hello, Hilo” seriously?), and eventually his own TV talk show in Houston, where he was attacked while covering a race riot. It made national news but, thankfully, Bob wasn’t seriously injured.
I have to interject here, that Bob has come dangerously close to death on many occasions, but has been spared through miraculous means. I once commented to a friend of ours that I’m glad he has a guardian angel but I do question why he’s allowed to get into so many dangerous situations in the first place. Our friend said, “Maybe his guardian angel has a drinking problem.”
From Houston Bob was offered his own TV talk show in Boston. Peabody and Emmy nominations followed. One day his guest was to be actress Lee Meriwether and the limo driver called in sick. Bob donned a chauffeur’s cap and jacket, and went to pick her up himself.
Unfortunately, Bob kept his wallet in his own jacket back at the station, and when they got to the toll booth Bob had to ask Ms. Meriwether if he could borrow some money. Well, it wasn’t hard for Ms. Meriwether to figure out that her charming and entertaining driver was actually the host of the show. She invited him to Los Angeles to meet her agent, and Bob was promptly offered an interview with Ralph Edwards.
Bob still remembers walking down the long, plushly carpeted corridor to a huge office where this broadcasting icon sat at an imposing desk. He tried to be funny and ask if Ralph were going to surprise him with a “This is Your Life” moment, but Ralph (who had probably been asked this a zillion times before) was ready and said, “Well, Bob, we were going to do that, but we couldn’t find anyone who would admit to knowing you.”
Soon Bob had replaced Bob Barker as host of “Truth or Consequences” and was busy doing voice work and commercials. He and Ralph became the best of friends.
Bob has the uncanny ability to look into a huge audience and instantly identify the five or six people who would be perfect contestants. He looks for innocence and enthusiasm, but there’s that extra something he can sense, as well. He simply knows whom to pick.
A Los Angeles TV talk show followed, then more game show announcing, creating, and hosting. Bob joined the Church and became known among insiders as “the guy who turned down hosting the lottery show that would have paid him millions.”
But, just as BYU garnered respect from surprising sources when they recently upheld the moral code of their basketball team, Bob gained the respect of colleagues for putting his standards ahead of career advancement.
In an industry replete with sellouts, materialism and expediency, Bob stood out as a guy who knew better and did better.
His old home town, Lake Charles, proclaimed a Bob Hilton Day and gave him a key to the city. Signing autographs became commonplace, and I learned to answer, “What’s it like to be married to him?” with lines such as, “Absolutely dreamy,” and “Just as you’d imagine.” Bob would squirm at such fawning, but it was what the fans wanted to hear. Besides, it was true.
I’m also responsible for his most uncomfortable show biz moment. Bob, unlike a lot of people in show business, doesn’t like a lot of attention focused upon him. Despite being on camera for most of his life, he is basically shy. Above all, he does not like any fuss or hoopla for his birthday. I, on the other hand, cannot have too many parades, gifts, or confetti clouds when my big day rolls around, so I simply couldn’t believe him. When he was hosting “Let’s Make a Deal” for NBC at Disney World in Florida, I not only told the entire staff, but asked for video clips I could edit together in order to surprise him. I included Dick Clark, Monty Hall, and a bunch of other folks in my video as well.
We were staying at a friend’s house when I mentioned that I might have made a call or two to some of his pals, regarding his birthday. Bob and I were alone, sitting on the floor in a guest bedroom, leaning back against the bed. “Not Dick Clark,” he said. I blushed. Bob was mortified. “Did you ask for a gift?” he whispered. “Tell me you didn’t ask him to spend anything.”
“No, no,” I assured him. “Only some of his time.”
Now he fell over and rolled under the bed. “That’s worse,” he muttered.
I, of course, found this hilarious and laughed until I cried.
Then, to make matters worse, the show’s director had Mickey and Minnie come out on the stage to present a gigantic cake as the entire audience sang “Happy Birthday” to him, nationwide. Bob wanted to crawl under the flooring.
Yes, we later had a chat. (But I still think he secretly wants to celebrate. How could he not?)
Bob was always surprised when celebrities told him they watched his talk show every day and were big fans of his. He never felt comfortable with flattery and was never impressed by his own achievements. To him, he was just ol’ Bob from Lake Charles.
And maybe that humility and lack of phoniness is what most impressed the movie stars, athletes, astronauts and politicians who took a liking to him. When Bob was to interview Mohammed Ali, the man arrived in a foul mood, uninterested in an interview by someone other than a nationally-known sports broadcaster. He was the antithesis of the charming Mohammed Ali you see in TV clips.
However, Bob had read Ali’s book. And as the interview progressed, Ali could see that Bob’s research was thorough, and his interest sincere. By the end of the segment they were teasing with each other and Ali stood up so Bob could throw a left hook to his chin. Bob interviewed him twice again. That “left hook” photo is one of only two celebrity pictures hanging in our home. The other is of Bob with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, his childhood heroes.
When he interviewed Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arnold jotted his phone number inside the cover of his book, so he and Bob could get together. Jane Goodall asked him to emcee her fundraiser at the Beverly Hilton, Ansel Adams gave him some photography, and Henry Fonda presented him with a signed pencil sketch and some home-grown honey. Bob was horribly sick the day he interviewed Kirk Douglas, and prayed not to throw up on him. But all went well and another friend was made. When he interviewed former President Jimmy Carter, Carter’s mother, Miss Lillian, wrote and thanked him for being so nice to her son.
Bob found that kindness breaks down walls and that most people are just people, after all. One time a young man stopped him in the hallway at NBC, where Bob was doing both a talk show and game shows. The fellow went on and on, raving about how much he loved Bob’s shows and what a huge fan he was. After he left, Bob asked someone who the guy was and discovered it was Cory Carson, son of Johnny Carson, probably the biggest star in the world at that time.
It just goes to show you that your kids will never be as impressed by your job as the general public is. And, as Bob says, that’s a good, constant reminder that you’re not such a fancy pants after all.
As game shows dwindled, Bob returned to news anchoring, which brought us to Sacramento, where he finally retired from show biz. Or did he? Seems he’s still dipping into voice work from time to time, talking about show ideas with various partners, and has several ideas “on the shopping block” in L.A. He’s also delved into other businesses and written a couple of books.
I asked Bob which, of all the shows and voice work he’s done, is his favorite. Was it giving away cars and trips to overjoyed contestants? Was it meeting celebrities? Was it covering breaking news? You might find his answer surprising. I didn’t. To him, the greatest honor was being asked to be the voice you hear thanking people for calling the Sacramento Temple.
Bob says it’s like someone finally telling him that’s what he’s won.
Cruise with Joni and her husband, Bob, to Spain, Italy, and France May 12-19, 2012. Double occupancy starting at only $659.00 per person! See jonihilton.com for more information
Joni Hilton has written 17 books, three award-winning plays, and is a frequent public speaker and a former TV talk show host. Her latest book, “Funeral Potatoes– The Novel,” has just been scheduled for publication by Covenant Communications. She is also the author of the “As the Ward Turns” series, “The Ten-Cow Wives’ Club,” and “The Power of Prayer.” Hilton is a frequent writer for “Music & The Spoken Word,” many national magazines, and can be reached at her website, jonihilton.com. She is married to TV personality Bob Hilton, is the mother of four, and currently serves as Relief Society President in her ward in northern California