My "Tuesday Night with Todd Newton"
I couldn't exactly call it "my Tuesday with Todd Newton." However, my recent visit to Minneapolis brought me face-to-face with the man I have no question is the next breakthrough emcee in our favorite genre.
I arrived an evening before the annual gathering of the Radio-Television News Directors Association international conference in the Twin Cities. My hotel was only two blocks from the Mall of America, so I proceeded to explore this monument to credit cards after supper.
I knew Todd Newton had been traveling to seven cities for contestant tryouts for his Hollywood Showdown on Game Show Network (and which is also still in reruns on PAX in late-night). Somehow, post-surgery and post-Survivor hoopla, I had clean forgotten the auditions would end in Minneapolis at the Mall.
As I rounded the corner past the Eddie Bauer store, I heard this loud commotion. Looking up, I saw a familiar logo and a familiar face. A guy who looks a shade more mature than the young television visage, yet with the enthusiasm of a kid who just scored a touchdown in a pickup football game.
This was the kind of activity which usually would be conducted by a production staff, prepping potential contestants to eventually meet their host in Los Angeles. Not this time. Whether the idea of GSN, Sande Stewart Productions or Newton himself, the emcee was not only supervising the eliminations, he was pressing the flesh with those triviameisters he hopes will be watching when the new season begins.
Not long ago, I wrote in this space Todd Newton had the potential to be a successor to Bob Barker on The Price Is Right, if a scenario developed where Barker was willing to engage at the point of his retirement in a slow, subtle pass-the-baton anointing over a period of months. After seeing Newton in action in Minneapolis, I am more convinced than ever.
Watching him take the contesants through their paces, you could see the skills of a young Barker in action. He even is on his way toward mastering the act of the bluff-and-feint after a player has a correct answer in much the same fashion as Barker's classic "isn't this exciting?"
What I more keenly observed is the way he worked with people during the breaks in the eliminations. Over the years, I've interviewed celebrities in similar situations who appeared to do everything short of put on a mask to avoid associating with the Joes and Mabels in the crowd. Not Newton. I never once saw him rebuff or even plead weariness with the fans. An autograph for a 10-year-old was offered with a smile. A hug for one of the seniors in the congregation was no trouble at all. In fact, Todd with the hundreds thronging around the tryouts was like watching Wink Martindale hobnobbing with the home folks when he came back to Jackson for a booksigning in January. That day, Wink made every soul who trudged back to the signing table feel as if he had known them all of their lives. Newton had that same touch in Minneapolis. I'm sure people went home from the Mall telling others Todd was the equivalent of their closest friends. That's as it should be.
I made my way through the crowd to engage in a short conversation with Todd and once he heard my name, he knew who I was. He'd been introduced to my column and our site after the Price piece. "I really appreciate what you wrote," said Newton. "I honestly do enjoy doing this better than anything I've ever done." Earlier that evening, in an interview with a Minneapolis TV station, Newton said, "If someone offered me a 20-year contract to host game shows tomorrow, I wouldn't think twice about signing it. This is really what I want to do."
Which is why I think he'll be around a long, long time. Too many young guys who have been tapped for this role have either been too enamored with going for the laugh or using game shows as a stepping stone. I honestly believe Newton is serious about this as a career (and when he sees the size of Barker's or Regis Philbin's paycheck, why not?). The only thing which could hold him back, barring another collapse of the genre, is Todd Newton. "Right now, you're at about the same spot where Pat Sajak was in 1982. By the time I'm ready for my Medicare card," I told him, "You'll be the top guy doing this, whether it's on television or games move to the Web." Newton said he was excited about the increasingly interactive possibilities. "It's all still pretty traditional right now," he told me, "but we're adding more and more ways for people to play along online and that's when it's really going to be fun for the viewers."
What a lot of the audience did not know in Minneapolis was Newton had to be back in Los Angeles the next day to begin rehearsals for the next round of Hollywood Showdown and start taping two days later. Yet, his energy level appeared just as high at the end as it did four hours earlier, when he asked the first trivia questions. Even in the last half-hour, he was still listening to what the contestants had to say and had the ability of making them funny, even though he had to be dog-tired. The greatest emcees of all time have been the best listeners and Newton has that gift.
The people also were taken with Newton's wife, who accompanied him. "She's as cute as he is," said one fiftyish woman who was a regular viewer but didn't have the courage to try out for the game.
"We're going to do 65 more this time around," he said. "We'll have options to do more. But Sande Stewart is one of the greatest people in the world to work for. He's really done this one right." The refreshing part of Newton is he was constantly giving credit to his producer, the cable systems, the audiences, for the show's success. You detected very little if any I in any of Newton's conversations.
Around 10 o'clock, after a grueling evening with more than 200 people filing through the platform, the one player who would win a trip to Los Angeles to play on the show for a week was selected (along with people from six other cities) and the night was over. Surely ready to collapse, Newton still managed a congenial smile and handshakes to his followers from the upper Midwest. They'd all go home and tomorrow tell everyone they not only tried out for the show, they met the host as well.
Two days later, I did a live radio show in the Mall with veteran Minneapolis-St. Paul radio conversationalist Ruth Koscielak---who's a big fan of game shows. Ruth had tried out for Showdown but did not go far. "I'm so good at the game at home," she told me on the air, "but at home, I'm not having to compete against somebody else. I forgot about that." When we turned the conversation to Todd Newton, Ruth made a prediction similar to my own. "Hollywood Showdown is a fun game because it's about entertainment trivia," she told me. "I don't know how long it will be around but I'll predict one thing: Todd Newton will be around a long, long time." Dittos from this corner.
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