For a few weeks this summer, Universal Studios tour trams stopped at Stage 27, and tourists were treated to standard Hollywood thrills and wizardry--with one major difference: Unlike Jaws, King Kong and the rest of Universal's ersatz attractions, this one was real.
With the sound stage transformed into a futuristic arena, the "American Gladiators" syndicated TV show was taping all 26 episodes in five weeks. But unlike pro wrestling, the competition was genuine. So were the bad feelings between gladiators--Hulklike professional athletes in spandex tights--and contestants, mere mortals chosen from public tryouts.
"This girl went to my face, and it made me mad," a gladiator named Ice told host Mike Adamle in an on-air interview after a scuffle in Powerball, the most brutal of the five events that make up the 60-minute show.
Adamle told Ice to "let bygones be bygones" and then changed the subject, but after the interview, Ice and another gladiator, Lace, were still steaming over what they saw as a disregard for gladiator safety.
"The rules say no shots to the face," Lace said. But the contestant "was throwing them. All she got was a slap on the wrist, and that's not enough. We could get hurt. The producers should take care of the gladiators. If she broke my nose, what would I do? They better tighten up the rules."
Easy enough. This is "American Gladiators," remember, not the National Football League. With no tradition of the game to worry about, the producers--Samuel Goldwyn Television--are able to make it up as they go along.
Events, rules and equipment have evolved radically since the show made its debut a year ago. Old events such as the Eliminator have been overhauled and improved. Others have been replaced. Of the 10 gladiators, only two remain from the original cast. Overall, the look of the show has become more high-tech--a video game with sweat--to entice the 18-to-34 male audience.
But the biggest change is philosophical: Though the first shows emphasized the personalities of the gladiators, who were expected to act like cartoon characters, the focus now is on competition, not shtick. The realism has elevated "Gladiators" above other so-called "Crash TV" shows, including the now-canceled "RollerGames," which was marketed as roller derby for the MTV crowd.
"Originally, the producers were looking for actors who were athletes to play gladiators," said Lace, a former Canadian gymnast whose real name is Marisa Pare. "We had definite characters, but our characters eventually just became caricatures, which detracted from the physical competition."
The changes were made by Eytan Keller, a two-time Emmy winner hired in February to replace Barry Frank as producer. "One element that separated the show, even in the early stages, from 'RollerGames' and pro wrestling was that it was legitimate competition," Keller said. "Nothing was fixed."
TV audiences responded, making "Gladiators" the highest-rated new hourlong show in syndication. Aired locally by KCAL, Channel 9, on Saturday nights and repeated on Sunday nights, "Gladiators" had a combined weekend Nielsen rating of 4.9 last May, before reruns. It makes its season debut on KCAL this Saturday at 7 p.m. and airs at the same time Sunday.
TV fans may have paid attention to "Gladiators," but the sports media virtually ignored it. Last season, results went unreported, and stories about the show were usually relegated to the TV pages. It isn't being taken seriously as a sport, partly because it hasn't been around long enough and partly for a more fundamental reason: The sports media has long regarded made-for-TV sports shows with skepticism because they lack the spontaneity of a true sporting event.
With "Gladiators," the competition may be authentic, but almost everything else is an illusion, pure Hollywood magic. At the recent taping sessions, the live audience was merely atmosphere, background noise put there for effect, like the fake smoke that filled the arena. A quarter of the 400 studio seats were filled courtesy of the Universal Tour, but at least the tourists were real: Last season, the prop department painted cartoon faces in the stands.
Cued by the PA system, audiences were commanded to cheer like crazed Raiders fans, even though they often didn't have a clue what they were cheering for. "The rules are pretty confusing, and I never know who's winning," said John Golfano, 36, a tourist from South Bend, Ind.
The show also lacks credibility with the sports media because it is edited. The need to change the massive sets requires taping to be done in bits and pieces instead of continuously from the opening gun. This creates suspicion: If mistakes by announcers Adamle and Hall of Fame football player Larry Csonka are edited out, could the results be altered too?
"What we call in the truck is what you see in your living room," Keller insisted.
From a production standpoint, covering "Gladiators" is not much different from covering "Monday Night Football." In the control truck, it's just as frantic. Sitting at the console during an event named the Wall, Director Bob Levy wore a beanie and a glazed look as he scanned the action on four monitors above his head. With the propeller on his beanie whirling, he called the master shot.
"Ready one, take one!" he shouted. "Ready three, take three!
Levy's stomach stopped churning during a break in the action, but his mind was still working. He noticed that Lace was going to chase Johnnie Hill-Hudgins up the 30-foot wall. Hill-Hudgins, a 38-year-old singer-actress-nurse from Princeton, N.J., had been in the altercation with Lace and Ice during Powerball.
"We should play this up," Levy told his crew over the intercom. The cameras zeroed in on the competitors, who scrambled up the wall like frenetic rock climbers. A grim-faced Lace caught up to her opponent and tried to pull her off the wall by her ankle (a legal and safe tactic--competitors are tied to a safety device.) But Hill-Hudgins shook free and reached the top. Afterward, both athletes were conciliatory in an interview with Csonka. Hill-Hudgins conceded, "Lace is a tough cookie."
While crew members rolled the giant wall out of the arena, others were busy using acetylene torches to finish a seven-foot-diameter steel cage for a new event, the Atlasphere. The set changes and last-minute snags caused constant delays in the action, sometimes up to an hour, making audiences squirm and competitors edgy.
"I hate this waiting around," said Lance Duke, 31, nervously shifting his weight as the crew fine-tuned the Eliminator, the last and most complex of all the events.
Duke's wife, Dayna, 25, was also a competitor. "We have double the stress," she said. The Scottsdale, Ariz., couple were among the reported 10,000 who attended public tryouts at four locations in April. The 21 men and 21 women who became contestants were competing for $200,000 in cash and prizes, including $35,000 for Grand Championship winners.
"Before we were selected, nobody we knew acted like they'd ever heard of the show," said Dayna, a dentist. "Now it's everybody's favorite."
Dayna watched her husband compete against another male contestant in the Eliminator, a grueling obstacle course that looks like a gigantic Tinker Toy. It begins with a treadmill at a 40-degree incline and a speed of 10 m.p.h. As with most of the events, training for the treadmill is almost impossible. Duke and the others had only one trial run a few days earlier.
"It ate my lunch in practice," said Duke, who played football at East Central Oklahoma. "I just didn't realize the treadmill was that fast."
When the cameras rolled, Duke overcame the treadmill and the other obstacles--including a 30-foot balance beam guarded by gladiators swinging heavy bags--and crossed the finish line aheadof his opponent. It had been a stirring, true feat of athletic ability. This time, nobody had to tell the audience to cheer.