(September 23rd will be the 32nd anniversary of my mom’s big debut on national television. After this story, which was originally called, “Da Holy Hour.” I have an accompanying YouTube video of my mom in action. Watch it after you read the story. If you ever thought I was making any of this stuff up, this video will prove I’m not.)
Some women love athletes, others love actors, but only the truly discerning woman, has her passions inflamed by a game show host. That was my mom.
Some time in the late 70’s my Italian mom became obsessed with Bob Barker. She always said, “Give a me Bob a Barker any time a now, dare’s a guy I like. He always a treats a da ladies wid a respect, he’s a real a gendleman.”
Each morning at eleven-o-clock the household came to a standstill as she watched “The Price is Right,” with more passion than she exhibited for even a really good salami.
My mother’s love affair with show business began when she was young and beautiful and everyone said she resembled silent film actress, Pola Negri. She never mustered the nerve to pursue acting. Instead she worked behind the beer stained counter of her parents’ Western Pennsylvania tavern, dreaming of stardom. She eventually married, had a family and discovered all she ever lacked was confidence.
Years passed and she saw there weren’t many roles for Italian women carrying a few extra pounds. So Bob Barker became important to her. Maybe she felt “The Price is Right,” offered her a last grasp at diluted Hollywood fame, or maybe she just thought Bob was cute. Whatever the reason, it didn’t sit well with my father.
She talked constantly about how she wanted to be on the show, which made people in our small town chuckle. They thought her big dreams were absurd. Martha from her card club even said, “What makes you think you’re gonna win?” Her stinging words only strengthened Mom’s will and her finely honed revenge gene.
So my decision to move west came at the perfect time. My mother was inconsolable that Francy, her youngest, was leaving. She sobbed until I said, “But Ma, if I move to Los Angeles, you can finally see ‘The Price is Right!’” Her tears stopped midstream, she turned to me beaming and said, “Really Frenzy, you ting I have a chenze?”
Such was the power of Bob Barker over my mother. My father maintained his dislike of all things Hollywood, but eight months after I left, my parents made their first visit, which included a trip to “The Price is Right.”
At CBS Studios Mom was like a little kid. Grabbing my arm, she said “Frenzy, you ting a dey call onna me?” Then looking up she said, “Jesus, pleece, eef a dey call onna me, tella me whatta to say.” Then she threw it back to me, “Frenzy, what eef I getta tongue a tied?” Then back to Jesus, “Jesus pleece, a you putta da words inna my mout…OKAY?”
My dad lumbered along, muttering, “What are you so excited for? It’s just a stupid TV show.”
We stood in line, name tags on, nervously waiting to be interviewed by the show’s producer. My mother was interviewed first. If she’d been any more excited she would have experienced lift-off.
Producer: “Hello Mary, tell me about yourself”
Mom: “Well, a every day atta elevena clock, I go to da TV and a put onna Bob a Barker anna da “Price Iza Right” a. My husband calls itta da holy hour. I justa love a his a show. He’s a vevry niza man.”
She flashed her biggest smile and was happier and peppier than I’d ever seen her. This was as close as she would come to her dream of stardom. I was terrified they wouldn’t pick her.
The producer then interviewed my dad, then me, both dull as nasal spray compared to Mom. They seated us in the studio in one of the last rows in the back. The corners of my mother’s smile drooped and she murmured, “I don’da a ting a dey gonna peek us iffa dey put us alla da way inna da back.”
Bob’s announcer, Johnny Olson, breezed through the audience… flirting with the women, and kissed me. Mom thought this meant I was a contestant.
“You’re a youngga gal a — whadda do dey wandda wit an oldda baddle axe liga me? Dey gonna peek a you, honey.” she said smiling weakly. I didn’t want to get her hopes up, but I also didn’t want to have to live with her if she wasn’t picked for the show of her dreams, so I borrowed one of my parent’s favorite phrases in times of stress, “Well, we’ll see.”
The crowd was excited by all the loud, upbeat music playing. My mother was clapping her hands to the music, off beat as usual. No matter what the song, she always clapped the same beat. And on this day she didn’t care, she just wanted to make sure she looked excited so the producers and directors on stage could see she was the right person to pick. This further embarrassed my father who had the same look on his face he has while waiting for a doctor’s appointment. “Keep quiet, he kept saying, “You always gotta make a show, don’t you?”
“I don’d a care, I’mma a here to have a gooda time and I’mma gonna have a gooda time a,” she said defiantly with a firm nod of her head.
I sat between the two of them wondering how I was going to get through the afternoon, let alone deal with her if she wasn’t picked. It was too much to consider, so I decided to clap my hands and look excited too, thinking maybe if they didn’t pick her, they might, at least, pick me. That, she could handle.
The audience lights went down and Bob Barker strolled out in a smart, dark suit. The first four contestants were called and my mother wasn’t one of them. “Please let her make it,” I prayed and began wondering what I’d have to promise God to swing a deal.
I’d forgotten the heavy hitter was right beside me.
If you’re not familiar with the mysteries of Catholicism, there’s a prayer Catholics save for things like the World Series and childbirth, called a novena. You say the prayer for nine straight days and at the end, you miraculously get what you prayed for.
My mother, who never went a day without seven holy medals pinned to her bra, had made about nine billion novenas in her lifetime. Finally someone heard because Johnny Olson announced the next contestant, “Mary Tunno, come on down! (He actually pronounced her name wrong and said Ton-oh, but she never noticed.)
“Meeeeee! Dey peeked a me! ” she squealed as she jumped from her seat. She trotted down the aisle in her bright blue dress, waving her fists, radiant, ready to meet her idol.
“I’ll be damned,” my father mumbled, “she got picked!”
In my head, I could hear everyone in our small town, including Martha, saying the same thing.
She took her place on contestant’s row and tearfully told Bob, “I been a wanding a to see you for a long a time a.” Then she very emphatically told Bob the reason I moved to California was so she could be on his show. How this percolated down from our original conversation, I’ll never know. Just when I didn’t think she could embarrass me more than usual, she did, by making sure it was nationally televised.
She then nervously lost the first two rounds, but guessed the price of luggage and moved onstage. I happily envisioned Martha’s plate of crow as Mom placed a loving kiss on Bob’s cheek.
She lost another round of price guessing and I thought she was finished, but she got to roll the wheel in the Showcase Showdown and scored a 95, which was the highest number. So, my Mom miraculously ended up as one of the two final contestants, pitted against a sweetheart of a woman, Darlene Allerd of Fort Dodge, Iowa.
The two of them made their final bids and my “college education” told me Mom’s was off the mark. She looked for me in the crowd expectantly and I couldn’t look happy because I was convinced she’d lost.
Here’s the part that further bolsters my belief in the novena theory. Darlene made her first bid, then looked out at the screaming crowd, got scared and nervously changed her bid. The only thing that disqualifies you in this part of the show is overbidding, which is what Arlene did by changing her bid.
So, my Mom, with her second grade education and Italian accent not only got to kiss Bob Barker, but ended up the big winner. I heard my incredulous father say, “I can’t believe it, she said she’d win and she won! That moment taught me everything about the power of a dream.
Here’s what she brought home:
An elegant dining room set by Broyhill
A handsome set of luggage on wheels by Skyway
A set of Queen Anne Dinnerware by Wilton Armetale
A complete service for twelve of gold plated flatware, with chest
A tasteful and elegant walnut bar with three barstools — and
Thirty square yards of carpeting from West Point Pepperell.
Best of all, when she got back to New Brighton, my mom was an instant celebrity with her “Price is Right” story in the Beaver County Times. No doubt Martha was forced to re-think her words when she read it. Mom was thoroughly delighted.
In the coming years my mother remained devoted to Bob Barker. She was convinced she’d won because Bob wanted her to, even if the prizes didn’t fit in her house. Each year at Christmas, she sent Bob gift packages of cheese and nuts from The Swiss Colony in appreciation.
One year she received no acknowledgement and called to see if he’d gotten her gift. She was told it must have been lost or stolen, but Bob thanked her anyway. A few days later two of her most prized possessions arrived; a signed letter from Bob Barker and an 8×10 glossy. The game-show host shared a picture frame with my brothers and together they nestled on a doily in my parents home until my mother passed away in 1992.
Within days of her passing, my dad tore up Bob’s photo and tossed it in the trash. Mom always suspected he was jealous. But apparently death did not weaken her finely honed revenge gene because until he passed away last year, my dad was stuck with two dining room sets, a bar in his living room, tarnished, gold plated flatware, dated luggage, and unused pewter plates. She told him she’d haunt him if he ever got rid of it. (He also never knew that hidden in a manilla envelope at the bottom of her dining room hutch — the one she won from the Price is Right — was the photo of Bob in this blog post. I found it in 2012 as I searched for a platter.)
It’s been 32 years since my mother’s TV debut, but each September, the month her episode aired; I view the grainy videotape and smile. I do it to honor her and all big dreamers.
(A condensed version of this story ran in The Los Angeles Times Magazine in 2003 and I told the story for the NPR show; Snap Judgment in 2011.) Below is the link to the YouTube video of Mom on The Price is Right. Clearly, I never get tired of sharing this story of a dream come true.)