by Adam Nedeff, Pantages Usher
On the second-to-last night of “The Color Purple,” a 73-year-old man in a sweatsuit & cap quietly walked out of the stage door and autographed Playbills and souvenirs for audience members. He came to one fan, signed a photo, and began to move on. Then he stopped, did a double-take, and took another look at what he had just signed. It was a photo of him, 35 years younger, in a butterfly collar and leisure suit, standing at a podium to host a TV game show. “Where did you get this?” he asked. “I collect game show memorabilia,” the fan answered. “I know all about you.” The old man looked at the photo one more time, smiled, and said, “I looked pretty good back then, didn’t I?”
The old man was Adam Wade, and he played Ol’ Mister for every performance of “The Color Purple” at the Pantages. Decades before he ever set foot onstage at the Pantages, he made history on the stage of another theater, and in another medium.
In 1975, CBS was THE network for game show fans. Their line-up included “The Price is Right” with Bob Barker, “Gambit” with Wink Martindale, “Tattletales” with Bert Convy, and the crown jewel of the lineup, “Match Game ‘75” starring Gene Rayburn. “Match Game” was averaging a historic 15 rating each weekday (a record still unbeaten), while “The Price is Right” would become the longest-running game show of all time, and “Gambit” & “Tattletales” would each enjoy respectable runs (five & six seasons, respectively). Riding that wave of success, CBS introduced a game show to the fold during the summer.
The show was “Musical Chairs.” It was produced by Don Kirchner, known in the music industry as “The Man with the Golden Ear” for his role in discovering The Archies, The Monkees, Kansas, Bobby Darin, and Neil Diamond. It would emanate from the spectacular Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, which had seen music history and broadcasting history made again and again since 1936. Its time slot: Immediately following “Match Game ’75,” in the hopes that the record-setting audience would stick around for the next half-hour. Its host was the one and only Adam Wade, and Wade gained a unique footnote in television history: he became the first black master of ceremonies on a game show. “Musical Chairs” sought to be something special and different in daytime games. Not content to just have a host who stood there reading questions for 30 minutes, “Chairs” cast Wade because Kirchner wanted an engaging host with a background in music who could sing & dance his way through each half-hour.
With three Billboard Top Ten hits on his resume, Wade was the right man for the job. “Musical Chairs” set sail on June 16, 1975. Each weekday at 4 p.m., Wade took to the stage for each program joined by four contestants and three musical guests. A formidable list of acts joined Wade on “Musical Chairs”; among them, Lou Rawls, Irene Cara, The Spinners, The Stylistics, and Sister Sledge.
Like any great game show, “Musical Chairs” was simple to explain. The four contestants would listen to the musical guests and Wade perform a hit song. The singing would abruptly stop at one point and Wade would show the contestants three choices (A, B, or C) for the next lyric. The contestants would press buttons on their chairs to register their answers. Anybody who was correct won $50, but if all four had been correct, only the first three to lock in would get the money, so speed was important. Wade and the singers would give the contestants three opportunities to score during each song in this way. After this, the low-scoring contestant would be eliminated from the game. How “Musical Chairs” did so was unique: The contestant’s chair would whisk backward through a splitting partition behind them, sending a loser crashing through a wall on their way out of the theater. The remaining three contestants would then listen to Wade and another guest. This time, the reward was $75 for a correct answer, with only the first two scoring if everybody was right. One more contestant would be sent hurdling through a wall, and the two remaining contestants would compete for $100 per correct answer, with only the first contestant getting the money. The last player, or last survivor, depending on how you looked at it, got their cash winnings doubled, as well as a chance to win $2,000 more in a bonus round by filling in ten blanks in a song lyric.
For all its creativity & star power, however, destiny was not on the side of “Musical Chairs.” After only 19 weeks, “Musical Chairs” quietly disappeared on Halloween, 1975. It faced reasonably stiff competition from NBC’s soap opera “Somerset,” and two game shows from ABC, “The Money Maze” and “You Don’t Say!” The hip-looking “Musical Chairs” was also thought to look inferior to a similar game airing in prime time, the glitzier, grander, more glamorous “Name That Tune.” Despite coming & going so quickly, “Chairs” seems to have succeeded in making a mark on television. Elements of the game reappeared in later years on MTV’s “Remote Control,” Fox’s “Don’t Forget the Lyrics,” and even an international game, “Keynotes,” seen in the UK and Australia. It seems to hold a special place in the heart of its host; with dozens of film, television, and stage credits under his belt, Wade chooses to list “Musical Chairs” first in his professional biography.
It would be easy to roll the eyes and dismiss being a game show host as no big deal. That may be true, but then one could argue that not being such a big deal was, in itself, a major achievement. There was an earlier time in television when game show producers were encouraged to keep the use of black contestants to a minimum. Too many would alienate sponsors. Showing them smiling & celebrating with whites would make viewers uncomfortable, it was argued. But in 1975, Adam Wade was quietly welcomed and accepted as the man in charge of his own game. Television and the country had evolved.
In addition to being an usher, Adam Nedeff previously worked for “Wheel of Fortune” and “The Price is Right.” He is the webmaster of Game Show Utopia (www.gameshowutopia.net), as well as the fan badgering Adam Wade at the beginning of this story.