For those of you who are under 40, ask your parents sometime to tell you about “The Gong Show.” Yes, you could look it up on Wikipedia and YouTube, but sometimes it is better to learn the truth about life from a compassionate older adult. Besides, I would hate for you to miss the look on mom or dad’s face when you say, “So I hear there used to be this thing called “The Gong Show.” Be sure to take a picture of the moment when it happens.
Long before viewers could rubberneck the auditions for “American Idol” and wince along with the judges, and long before some guy dressed up as an alien wearing lederhosen and tried to yodel on “America’s Got Talent,” there was “The Gong Show.” Back in the late 1970s, this East Coast daytime variety show featured the worst of the worst. Screeching singers, lousy poets, under-rehearsed jugglers and more competed for the grand prize check of $712.05. Three celebrity judges observed the daily train wreck, each armed with a mallet. When an act started to go badly (and it was usually “when,” not “if”), one or all of the judges would strike the gong. Meanwhile, the audience frequently hurled objects onto the stage.
It was unendurably bad entertainment, but somehow viewers couldn’t turn away. On one episode, each act came on in turn and started to sing the pop song “Feelings.” It got old after the first singer, but by the seventh singer, the place went berserk. On another episode, an actor brought a door onstage for his one-man production of the play “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” For five minutes, he kept knocking on the door saying, “Alice? . . . Alice?” A regular feature of the show was a comedian whose act was so lame that he wore a paper sack over his head and rattled off corny one-liners as The Unknown Comic: “Yesterday I took my dog to a flea circus, and he stole the show.” And yet millions tuned in.
Presiding over all the lunacy was Chuck Barris, an endearing goof who had far more enthusiasm than any of this deserved. He claimed to love every single act and would console each performer who got the gong, asking the judges how they could be so cold. And as guest stars like Jamie Farr (of “MASH” fame) or Arte Johnson (of “Laugh-in” fame) or Jaye P. Morgan (of “Gong Show” fame) piled on the insults, Chuck Barris offered a shoulder to cry on. He could see talent in a turnip. He would have made a wonderful middle school drama coach.
I thought about “The Gong Show” when I heard last week that one of its iconic regulars had died. Gene Patton was a stage hand at NBC who was in charge of sweeping debris off the stage after each show. One day Barris saw Gene dancing with his broom backstage, and he had an idea. “Gene Gene the Dancing Machine” was born. Now this guy was hardly Ben Vereen — he was a chubby, gap-toothed, middle-aged man who always wore a green windbreaker and bellbottoms. He came on nearly every episode, but his dance moves never varied. With a slow shuffle and a “chug chug” motion, he shimmied onstage to the sounds of big band music from Count Bassie. Imagine your uncle trying to dance. If it helps you, imagine me trying to dance.
But the audience went wild every time. As the backstage hands threw a veritable garage sale of objects onto the stage, and as Chuck Barris went into ecstatic spasms of alleged choreography, and as the judges joined in with moves of their own, “Gene Gene the Dancing Machine” did his thing. It required supreme generosity to call his act “dancing,” but he seemed blissfully unaware of the chaos around him, gleefully unconcerned that he looked ridiculous.
Gene was a true amateur — someone who expressed himself for the pure love of it, the simple “joie de vive” of being alive and having a floor to move on. Millions of us ungifted folks sing in the shower or play air guitar in the garage, but Gene got to boogie in front of millions of people each week. Never worried that he would be gonged, or voted off, or called “the weakest link,” he let viewers channel their inner rock stars. We lived through him, thinking it could be us out there tearing up the floor. It was our own personal Gene therapy.
Now as we get ready to let over a thousand singers and dancers loose on the Benson Stage next week — showing off their talents for the sheer fun and camaraderie of it all — let’s do a little shuffle for Gene.