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TELEVISION : Unlikely Heroes; Very Unlikely Hit : ‘American Gladiators’ has become a syndicated smash by recasting the arena games of ancient Rome into a sport for the ‘90s

<i> Daniel Cerone is a Times staff writer</i>

Jonnie Jonckowski sat anxiously in a sterile training room, surrounded by weight equipment and massage tables, waiting for her next event. The sturdy woman, a 36-year-old bull rider from Billings, Mont., had spent years inside raucous, rowdy arenas--but never one quite like the one she was about to enter. As a contender on the syndicated TV series “American Gladiators,” Jonckowski was preparing to lock horns with a raging 5-foot-7, 155-pound bodybuilder named Ice while dangling from steel rings 15 feet in the air.

“There are not many female sports that challenge you physically,” Jonckowski said, her voice quavering slightly. Beads of sweat lined her tanned brow, and matted blond hair clung to her forehead. “If you don’t do the triathlon right now, or play professional golf or tennis, then there’s really not a big challenge out there for women.”

Jonckowski was one of 48 male and female contenders from around the country who came together recently in Studio City to vie for the grand championship of “Gladiators,” which returned for a new season Saturday on KCAL Channel 9. In the hourlong “Gladiators,” the arena games of old Rome are refabricated into 20th-Century sporting events that rely heavily on plastic, rubber, nylon, Velcro, duct tape and lots of foam padding. The contenders, most of them regular blue-collar folks in exceptional physical shape, undergo rigorous tryouts for a chance to tussle on television with the gladiators, a wholesome force of muscle-bound titans dressed in red-white-and-blue spandex tights, with such names as Nitro, Lace, Lazer and Gemini.

“It’s a goofy thing,” said Samuel Goldwyn Jr. of the Samuel Goldwyn Co., which produces “Gladiators.” “You invent games, then you teach the games to people and they play them. But we found that right off the bat we developed a following, because we were different from anything else on TV.”

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Indeed, what the critics first drubbed “crash-and-trash” TV has become smash TV. In two brief seasons, “Gladiators” has amassed an army of loyal children and predominantly adult male viewers who have made the series one of the hottest in syndication. Licensees eager to exploit the star-spangled gladiators as modern-day super-heroes are preparing to inundate toy and department stores with a blitzkrieg of products that include vitamins and food supplements, flannel bedding, tennis shoes, workout clothing, sports bags, wallets, air fresheners, watches and trading cards.

There is now a hand-held “Gladiators” computer game on the market, and the entire first run of a new Nintendo game by Gametech quickly sold out to distributors. “Based on pre-orders, it should be one of the major hits of the season for Nintendo,” said Liz Curran, Gametech’s vice president for product development and acquisition.

Mattel Toys recently shot TV commercials for a new line of “Gladiators” toys for Christmas that are expected to net “hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Mark DiCamillo, product manager for Mattel. There will be action figures, costumes for kids for kids to dress up in and “Gladiators” games for them to play in their back yards.

“One of the great things about ‘American Gladiators’ is it’s a sport for the ‘90s, designed for the American mentality and television audiences,” DiCamillo said. “All the events on the show are 60 seconds or less. It’s perfectly planned for the kind of attention span Americans now have.”

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In October, to promote the new season, the “Gladiators” will take its act on the road in an eight-month national arena tour before live audiences at such venues as the Forum and Madison Square Garden. There is talk of a feature film deal with Universal Pictures. And are you ready for “World Gladiators”? A multinational version of the TV series (which airs in 25 countries) is being planned that would pit the gladiators against contenders from around the world.

“Our show appeals to the Walter Mitty instinct in people,” Goldwyn said. “These gladiators appear to be superhuman and larger than life, but you can outwit them. Many of the contests require brain over brawn, so that the little guy has a chance.”

In a way, “Gladiators” has become a wish-fulfillment series for weekend warriors who sit at home and say, “I can do that.” At the contender tryouts this season, which were held in Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis and Tampa, Fla., more than 10,000 people showed up.

“For the average weekend athlete, man or woman, who maybe did well in high school or college sports and wasn’t good enough to make it in the pros, well, here’s their chance to find out if they’ve still got it,” production executive Julie Resh said. “I think you can look at the gladiators as professional-level athletes. And here is people’s chance to test their ability against a pro. They can fantasize beating Nitro or Lazer in a way that’s much closer to home than fantasizing they can be Joe Montana.”

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In some markets, when up against pro baseball and basketball broadcasts, “Gladiators” draws more viewers. In Phoenix last season, Goldwyn President Dick Asinger said, “Gladiators” drew higher ratings than the National Football League. For this season, a special NFL “Gladiators” episode has been shot in which league players compete against the gladiators.

“I think we were initially regarded as a joke. People didn’t think real athletes would have any trouble with these games,” said Hall of Fame football player Larry Csonka, who announces “Gladiators” with sportscaster Mike Adamle. “But Mike leaned over to me during the NFL show and said, ‘Isn’t this great? We’re finally home. We’re finally a credible event.’ We had NFL athletes come in here, and they really didn’t do any better than the regular contenders.”

The idea behind the unlikely hit series was born a decade ago in the mind of a former Elvis impersonator from Erie, Pa. Johnny Ferraro was inspired by the spirited, hand-to-hand competition he witnessed between sweaty steelworkers at local company picnics; where two men would, for instance, take a $20 bill, nail it to a tree, tie their legs together and then fight to get the money.

“To me, ‘Gladiators’ is ‘Rocky,’ ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ and ‘Batman’ all rolled into one,” said Ferraro, 38, who still looks a lot like Elvis. “You have your hard-working guy from ‘Rocky’ (the contenders), your Ninja Turtle cartoon characters (the gladiators) and the ‘Batman’ ideal of fighting for what you believe in.

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“I call it the hard-hat Olympics.”

On “Gladiators,” held in a dramatically lit, smoke-filled arena, contenders score points based on how well they fare against the gladiators, who sometimes outweigh them by 100 pounds. In an event called “The Joust,” contender and gladiator bat each other with pugilist lances on small circular platforms seven feet off the ground, with the loser plunging to a padded mat. In the new event “Swing Shot,” derived from the movie “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome,” they bounce up and down on bungee cords attached to the ceiling, tangling 15 feet in midair. Other games find the opponents scaling a 30-foot-high wall and rolling around inside heavy, seven-foot steel spheres like human pinballs.

“These events test your upper body, lower body, endurance and mind,” Jonckowski said shortly after she outscored a customer-service representative from New York to win “Swing Shot,” despite the best efforts of three female gladiators--Storm, Blaze and Diamond--to stop her. “I mean, every one of us (contenders) out there by now has been beat up mentally and physically. It’s just whoever can get it together that’s going to win--and stay healthy too. Because it’s tough out there. It’s tough out there.”

When Jonckowski was called by the arena announcer to meet Ice in “Hang Tough,” she stood up anxiously and pulled on her protective helmet, then took a swig of water from a sports bottle. “This is not a game to me. This is the real thing. This ain’t a game,” she insisted, before turning down the hallway that led to a sound stage with several hundred screaming fans who came to watch the events.

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Five minutes later, Jonckowski was swinging like a monkey through trees, trying desperately to elude Ice on a playing field high overhead of dangling steel rings. When Ice finally caught up with her, the gladiator wrapped her thick, muscular legs around Jonckowski like a python and jerked her weight up and down until Jonckowski lost her grip and the two women fell hard to crash pads below.

Physical contests are nothing new to television. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, ABC drew strong ratings with the popular “Battle of the Network Stars,” pitting scantily clad celebrities against one another in tug of wars, running relays and swimming competitions. More recently, the colorful World Wrestling Federation has filled America’s lust for physical conquest. But, Mattel’s DiCamillo said, the public is getting tired of watching fixed fights.

“What we like about ‘American Gladiators,’ and what our research shows that the kids like, is that the competition is real,” he said. “A lot of fads today are fantasy based, like the Ninja Turtles, or humor based, like ‘Beetlejuice,’ which are both starting to fade. The pendulum is starting to swing back toward realism, and we are trying to stay ahead of it. ‘American Gladiators’ is real, the competition is real, and anybody can win.”

Unlike pro wrestling, the hard-hitting “Gladiators” contests, despite their wildly elaborate staging for the TV cameras, are indeed real. Enough contenders and gladiators have gone down with sports-related injuries to prove it. In fact, although they won’t say how much, the producers of “Gladiators” are forced to carry heavy insurance to cover the contender and gladiator injuries that regularly occur on the show.

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“The injury rate has been phenomenal,” said one female contender on the set of “Gladiators.” “There were originally 48 of us (contenders), and about 13 or 14 of us were forced out because of injuries--sprained wrists, popped knees, torn ligaments. They were replaced by alternates.”

Three of the gladiators, most of whom are former professional athletes, also went down to injuries during shooting. “The gladiators are human,” said Dan Clark, 27. Clark stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 225 pounds, and his longhaired, he-man Nitro is one of the most popular gladiators. “We’re all exceptional athletes, but we all get bruised and banged. I tore ligaments in my ankle. Gemini pulled his quad. Thunder damaged his wrist. Lazer has nerve damage in his right arm.”

Despite their human frailties, the pumped-up, buffed-out gladiators do appear to be superhuman, which has made them heroes to kids. In addition to being the No. 3-rated series in syndication last season for males ages 18 to 34, “Gladiators” was equally popular with children and teen-agers. Independent research conducted by the show’s producers found that adults root for the contenders, while the kids cheer on the gladiators.

“I think the kids love the hero stuff,” Clark said. “They love the combat. They love the violence without harm. You know what I’m saying? No one dies. There’s no bloodshed. It’s kind of like a Ninja Turtle movie, where there’s kicks and punches but you never see blood. People do get hurt, but kids don’t really sense it. They see the larger-than-life stuff.”

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During shoots, scores of children come to support their favorite gladiators and line up for autographs. Some of the gladiators receive hundreds of fan letters each week.

“I tell you, I’ve never had such a feeling (as) when I go out on that floor and the entire audience is screaming, ‘Ice, Ice, Baby!’ ” said Lori Fetrick, 28, a regular on the professional bodybuilder circuit before she became the gladiator Ice. “I mean, it’s kind of like, ‘Wow, is this for me?’ And it’s weird. You have to stay humble, because we’ve become role models.”

However, the gladiators are far from ideal role models, contends Dr. Thomas Radecki, research director of the National Coalition on Television Violence in Decatur, Ill. “From our perspective, we see crash television, as represented by ‘American Gladiators,’ as harmful,” he said. “They’re entertaining us with games of violence, even though it may be mild or symbolic violence. In one event, they use cannons to fire tennis balls, and the whole purpose is to blow up your opponent symbolically.”

For adult contenders, and presumably viewers, the aggressive nature of the games appears to be the appeal. “I saw this game on TV, and it was too good to be true,” said contender Kristi Kropp, 27, a construction worker who joined “Gladiators” when the series held tryouts in Minneapolis. “It’s like being a kid again. It’s just a blast. It’s reckless and it’s obscure.”

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Compared to the money on conventional game shows, the amounts that contenders can win on “Gladiators” are not much. Contenders who lose in the early preliminary rounds walk away with $500. The male and female winners of the grand championships receive $15,000. The contenders suggest that the cash is not what they’re after.

“I had a desire to be on TV, on national TV,” said Johnny Vineyard, a 24-year-old construction worker from Santa Ana. “I wanted to showcase my athletic abilities.”

Mark Ortega, 23, a chiropractic student from Fullerton, said he competed on the show for “personal achievement, really; I don’t care too much about the cash.” Ortega said that he never planned his evenings around “Gladiators” but that he would “watch it once in a while so I could pick up strategies and techniques, because I knew I wanted to be on it.”

Starting next month in Hershey, Pa., people around the country will get their closest look yet at the gladiators when the traveling road show gets under way. “The ‘Gladiators’ will be like a circus coming to town,” creator Ferraro said. For the national arena tour, which will stop in more than 100 cities and should reach the West Coast early next year, a “Gladiators” representative will move into each city several weeks ahead of time, conduct a contender search for four to six men and women and then throw the contenders into the ring with the gladiators to fight before their hometowns. A national finals will top off the tour in Las Vegas.

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“This thing is going to be around for a long time,” Ferraro predicted. “It’s been 2,000 years since the days of Rome. Now we have a different angle, a different look, but it’s still man against man inside an arena.”


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