BOOTLEG FILES 396: “Celebrity Sweepstakes” (1974-76 game show).
LAST SEEN: The final episode is available for viewing on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: One of the holy grails of lost television shows.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Highly unlikely, considering that nearly all of the episodes are considered lost.
One of the joys of being a kid in the 1970s was the surplus of great television programs. Or perhaps nostalgia is getting the better of me – I seem to remember the programs being better back then.
One program that I recall with positive feelings is “Celebrity Sweepstakes,” an oddball game show that ran as a daytime offering on NBC from 1974 to 1976. The program mixed light gambling, light humor and a star-studded line-up (albeit mostly B-listers and C-listers, though there were some surprises) into a game anchored in trivia knowledge testing. While the show never enjoyed the cult following of the other game shows of the period (most notably “Hollywood Squares” and “Match Game”), it was certainly a groovy distraction. And from a kid’s perspective, it was a lot of fun.
Alas, “Celebrity Sweepstakes” only exists in fond memories. Although the program ran for two years on network television and had two different year-long syndicated runs, almost all of the episodes of “Celebrity Sweepstakes” are considered lost, and only a few tantalizing fragments have survived. Private collectors managed to salvage three episodes that are now stored at the Paley Center for Media in New York. The series’ pilot has circulated for years among collectors (I’ve never seen it, sadly), and the very last episode of the NBC edition – broadcast on October 1, 1976 – can be seen on YouTube.
“Celebrity Sweepstakes” was hosted by Jim MacKrell, an actor and radio announcer who had his first national exposure with this production. Two contestants competed for the program’s prizes with the help of a panel of six celebrities. But unlike other game shows, the audience was part of the deal. MacKrell would read a question and the audience had to determine (via a push-button console at their seats) which celebrity would be able to correctly answer the question. An instant poll reminiscent of betting odds would be set against each celebrity. The contestants, in turn, would wager money according to a celebrity’s odds. A correct answer (especially on an audience-designated long-shot) could translate into a handsome payday; an incorrect wager, however, was simply a deduction.
To keep the game rolling along, the celebrity panel was mostly packed with comics who freely ad-libbed glib remarks relating to the questions. Old-time funnymen including Joey Bishop, Buddy Hackett, Jack Carter, Jan Murray, Shecky Greene, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin turned up the mirth level, while younger comics who were beginning to make a name for themselves – including Gabe Kaplan, Jimmie Walker and Freddie Prinze – also tested their humor on the show. To offer a degree of balance, some mildly famous screen and TV actors with good senses of humor were also cast: George Hamilton, Barbara Eden, James Farentino, James Darren and a pre-“Airplane!” Leslie Nielsen appeared on the show.
There were also several unlikely stars that added an extra level of prestige to the show. Cass Elliott was part of the fun during a week of episodes in 1974 – sadly, this would be her last TV appearance before her untimely death. Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz also stopped by, and (in something of a casting coup) Olivia Newton-John showed up on the panel in 1975.
In keeping with the game show protocol of the era, “Celebrity Sweepstakes” had its own “regular” who appeared in every episode: Carol Wayne, a blonde bombshell who was best known as the Matinee Lady in Johnny Carson’s “Tea Time Movie” skits, was a fixture in every episode. Wayne played the part of the dumb blonde and her curvaceous physique was often the butt of jokes, but she displayed a serious knack for getting correctly answering most of the questions. (She was also married to Burt Sugarman, the show’s producer.)
The sole surviving episode of “Celebrity Sweepstakes” features Wayne alongside comics Nipsey Russell and Pat Cooper, former “Laugh-In” star Alan Sues and two actors from the comedy show “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” Greg Mullavey and Debralee Scott. I had not seen “Celebrity Sweepstakes” since it went off the air in 1976 (right before my twelfth birthday), but this one surviving episode reconfirmed my fond memories of the show.
In the surviving episode, the Q&A challenge was entertaining and a bit more sophisticated than most quiz shows of the era. (One question sought the name of the holy text for the Islamic faith – not a typical inquiry for 1976 America!) And not unlike “Hollywood Squares” and “Match Game,” the real fun came in the give-and-take between the celebrities. Russell managed to sneak in some of his trademark smart-aleck poetry, while innuendo about Sues’ alleged lack of masculinity and Wayne’s obvious curvature added some sauce to the proceedings. Oddly, the usually boisterous Pat Cooper seemed uncharacteristically subdued, only coming to life if directly asked to contribute an answer.
Unlike Gene Rayburn on “Match Game,” MacKrell was not a part of the comedy give-and-take – he mostly waited for the cast to finish their wisecracks before he could proceed with the quiz. Yet MacKrell showed an unlikely bit of humanity in the final episode’s closing minutes, when he acknowledged the end of the series and gave personal thanks to a number of people involved in the production.
So what happened to “Celebrity Sweepstakes”? It is believed that NBC ordered the destruction of the “Celebrity Sweepstakes” videotapes after the program went off the air. Back in the 1970s, the network did not forecast that the franchise would have any further value, and the prevailing logic was that the videotapes were a waste of space. The fate of the syndicated episodes remains unknown – NBC had no control over those videotapes, but it is not certain if any were preserved.
The finale episode that is on YouTube was videotaped by some unknown game show fan who was prescient enough to buy a video cassette recorder in the mid-1970s. Ironically, many executives in the entertainment industry in the mid-1970s were afraid that this technology would lead to bootlegging – which it did (of course), but in this case it also helped save something that would have otherwise been lost forever.
There is a faint hope that the long-lost “Celebrity Sweepstakes” episodes may be found in a warehouse or basement somewhere – lost episodes of other TV programs have been known to turn up in unlikely places. Until then, all that’s left is a single bootleg copy of the show’s sign-off and a lot of memories.
And tell me, folks, am I the only one who happily recalls this long-lost entertaining program?
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!