Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Iconic Game Shows #2: Tic Tac Dough

TIC TAC DOUGH (NBC, CBS, Syndication)
July 30, 1956 - October 23, 1959
July 3, 1978 - September 1, 1978
September 18, 1978 - May 23, 1986 (?)
September 10, 1990 - March 8, 1991
Tic Tac Dough is something of a miracle in game show history.  It has its roots in the big-money quiz show heyday of the 1950s, joining the ranks of popularity of shows such as The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One.  The object of the game was simple: a player must complete tic-tac-toe before his or her opponent by answering a trivia question from the subject of their desired box.  If the player did so, their symbol was placed in the box and then their opponent had a turn.  The desired center box had harder questions, so each player was given a little extra time to think about their answers.  The champion, the X player, went first, and then the O player had a turn; after each player had a question, the categories were shuffled and the process began anew.
Each box was worth $100, placed into a jackpot for both players.  The center box was worth $200, as it was more important.  The first person to complete "tic tac dough" won all the money in the pot and, if he or she was the X player, retained their championship.  If the game was drawn, a new game was started with the jackpot carrying over to the new board.  A lot of matches seemed to go on forever, with contestants blatantly aiming for tie games to grow the pot to amounts in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Unfortunately, like Twenty-One, Tic Tac Dough couldn't do without producer Dan Enright rigging the results of the games to increase interest.  In October of 1959, the show was cancelled amidst public backlash and disappeared for nearly two decades.

Fast forward to 1978.
By then, game shows were now regulated to ensure an honest contest and were also a staple on daytime television.  Family Feud, The Price is Right, and Wheel of Fortune were the most popular game shows of the year.  Jack Barry had also made a successful comeback as a host and producer with The Joker's Wild and the show started a new syndicated run in 1977 with an honest Dan Enright back on board.

It was a good time to bring Tic Tac Dough back.

The show was reborn on CBS with Wink Martindale as the new host.  The set featured an inviting wooden panel motif and orange shag carpet.  The game board, now powered by 9 Apple II computer monitors and Altair 8000 system, was innovative for its time.  The gameplay was given a new wrinkle:  after the first turns and board shuffle, a few categories reappeared with black screens instead of blue.  These were now "jump-in" questions where either player could buzz in and earn the box.  When the show went into syndication, that feature was dropped.

The gameplay was the same: center boxes were now worth $300 and the outer boxes netting $200.  Players continued on the show until defeated and if the champion defeated five opponents, he or she won a brand new car.

The biggest change was the addition of a bonus game for a prize package usually valued between three thousand to five thousand dollars.  Behind each screen was an X, an O, or the dreaded Dragon.  The object of the game was to find the tic-tac-toe before the Dragon was uncovered.  For each X or O the player found, $150 was earned and he or she could stop at any time.

The show was dropped by CBS, but continued in syndication, where a new bonus round was created: behind each number now was an amount of money ($100, $150, $250, $300, $400, $500), a "Tic", a "Tac" and the Dragon.  There were two ways to win now: you either accumulated $1,000 or more, or got "Tic" and "Tac".

Gradually, special categories, now designated with red screens, returned to the board, starting with "Secret Category", which doubled the money in the pot if answered correctly.  By the end of the run, three special categories, such as "Auction", "Seesaw" and "Play or Pass",  were featured in every game.  These categories always appeared on the outer boxes and never in the center.

Early in syndication, Tic Tac Dough featured one of the greatest contestants in game show history,  Navy lieutenant Thom McKee.  With his new wife Jenny watching from the audience, he tied one game with champion Barbara Small and then defeated her in the second game to become champion.  McKee then went on an 88-game streak on 46 episodes of the show, winning $312,700 in cash and prizes.  He answered 353 of 385 questions correctly, a 91.69% success rate.  His dominance set records that remained untouched for two decades, making him a game show legend

Martindale continued to host Tic Tac Dough until 1985 when he decided to leave the show and host his own creation, Headline Chasers.  The set was given a dramatic face lift, with lots of gray, and pastels pink, green and blue.  The new host was relative unknown Jim Caldwell.

Unfortunately, both shows were cancelled by the end of the 1985-86 television season.

Tic Tac Dough returned to the airwaves in 1990 with Patrick Wayne, son of film legend John Wayne, as host, and Henry Mancini, composer of the "Pink Panther" theme, as creator of the show's music.  Wayne quickly gained a reputation as being overly enthusiastic to positive outcomes for the contestant.

Only two red categories were on the game board now, and players manually buzzed in to stop the board after each shuffle.  The boxes were now worth $500 for the outer boxes and $1,000 for the center.  The amount of the boxes doubled after each tie game, but the pot was reset to zero as well, which gave the show a slight air of cheapness.

The bonus round returned to the 1978 CBS version, with Xs and Os, and the Dragon.  .  The player first picked a symbol to find, and then earned $500 for each one of the symbol they found.  If the Dragon was found, all the money and prizes were lost.  If the new Dragon Slayer was found, he gave the contestant an automatic win and doubled the bonus money accumulated.  Sometimes he would be the only way for the contestant to win.  I don't mind this version of the bonus round: it's an attempt to jazz up the first bonus round, and there was nothing more nice to see than a Dragon Slayer win.

In an odd attempt to insert humor late in the run, the Dragon and Dragon Slayer performed rap-style poems before the bonus round began, like so:

Dragon: You'll lose your money, you'll lose your prize / Don't pick the Dragon square, 'cause that ain't wise!

Dragon Slayer: Tic Tac Dough is the show / Just find the Dragon Slayer and I'll double your dough!

It was things like this that made this version last only six months, thanks in part to the Great Game Show Purge of 1991.

Tic Tac Dough has a special place in my heart because the 1980s wooden set is one of my earliest game show memories.  I remember the beeps and blips of the "modern" game board and being scared by the Dragon's roar, hoping the contestant wouldn't pick the bonus square with the scary lizard hiding behind it. 

It may seem blasphemous to say this, but I have very fond memories of the 1990 version as well.  I watched it on USA Network reruns and I was too young to realize that Wayne was a poor presenter.  I only cared about the game, presentation and sound effects, and the show had much to offer in those regards.

I'm not sure if we'll see a revival of the show in the future, but anything is possible as long as the simple strategy game of tic-tac-toe exists.

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