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OT: Peter Tomarken (1943-2006)

Growing up, your fair blogger wasn't a sickly kid, but I did miss my share of school from when I was about seven to nine owing to recurring bronchitis and complications with childhood asthma. I was a good three to five years from discovering the joys of basic cable, so my daytime options were limited. Essentially, I found that I could keep myself entertained by watching the game shows and switching around to get commercials during the soap operas.

All things considered, the game shows were more entertaining. Some, including The Price is Right, were more legendary; some, including Family Feud, were more popular. But CBS daytime could really pack a punch, and for my money nothing was more entertaining than Press Your Luck.

Man, I loved that show. The Whammy---that sucker was like the cool version of the 'Noid, taunting and opera-singing and moonwalking right past a player's face in a crude, early 80s attempt at "CGI." The incantations the players used in superstitious attempts to avoid the Whammy, traditionally built around the phrase "Big bucks, no Whammies, big bucks, and . . . STOP!"---my favorite one, and I'm not making this up, went "Big bucks, Grandma wants a trip to Lake Erie." The complete and utter lack of sportsmanship---I could be trying to create an apocryphal account, but I have a recollection of a "big winner" for the day doing a dance on top of the desk at which the participants sat.

And then there was the board. Who could forget the board?

* * *

I promise not to make this overwrought, but I want to pay my respects for PYL's host, Peter Tomarken, who died today at the age of 63 (with wife Kathleen, 41) when the plane he was piloting crashed into Santa Monica Bay. Since his retirement from show business, Tomarken had served as a volunteer pilot for a non-profit organization that provides transportation for needy patients, and it was in this capacity that Tomarken lost his life.

Again, I seek not to be overwrought about this, but Tomarken was the source of some entertaining childhood memories, and I've always been fond of him. A few years back, I was wondering what happened to him, because I had not seen him in a long time. In that sense, I suppose his best baseball comp was Ruben Sierra; both were stars of some magnitude in the mid-80s and faded into the background for many years after that, only to make tepid comebacks some years later.

In Tomarken's case, his most high-profile game show revival was likely a two-hour quasi-documentary called "Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal," which Tomarken hosted. The program explored the legendary (or, alternatively, infamous) Michael Larsen episodes. The show, which aired both episodes in their entirety, tossed in some unaired footage, and broke down Larsen's eerily obsessive mastery of the game board, furthered the tie between Tomarken's legacy as a game show host with the Larsen affair. I recall Tomarken as a suave, quick-witted, and personable game show host, but perhaps for the sake of nostalgia it is better this way.

* * *

The site above (from where the pictures below originate) states that the Larsen episodes aired on a Friday and Monday in June 1984. I cannot recall if I was home sick from school or if school had let out by then; I suspect the latter, but whatever the case, I vividly remember watching both episodes. Specifically, I recollect telling my grandmother, with whom I would spend the days when I was not in school, that this was the coolest, most amazing thing I had ever seen in all my eight years on God's green earth. Well, maybe not in so many words, but you get the drift.

The internet descriptions do not do the Larsen's feat justice, but you really do not want to read me recounting this stuff in detail. A man armed with childhood memories and the power of teh internets can do some serious damage, you know.

Suffice it to say that Larsen---your proverbial Homer Simpsonesque "This time I'm really going to get rich . . . and quick!" kind of guy---completely gamed the system, memorizing rather simplistic patterns of light-jumping all over the board. Oh, it was quite the unique feat, but the 2003 documentary demonstrated how simply Larsen played the system: he was able to hook onto a particular pattern, recognize it routinely, and time his plunging appropriately.

Did Larsen ever rack up the cash! And did Tomarken ever play the genuinely stunned, quit-while-you're-ahead-pleading straight man:

Tomarken is exhausted as Larsen,
kooky-looking guy in the center, passes
$36,000. Larsen is just warming up;
although Larsen kept on spinning---and
spinning and spinning---this is about
the point where Friday's show ended.

Larsen was a machine, all business. He would forgo the nutty incantations; he merely devoted his complete concentration to the board and let the plunger be an extension of his body. Or something. The guy was in a Jordanesque zone.

Tomarken's performance, though quite more spontaneous, was also something to behold, as I found myself amused at his amazed reactions and dire warnings in the name of discretion when I watched the rebroadcast as a part of the 2003 documentary. During Larsen's first round of spinning, nothing of note happened. But during the second round, the round that took forever, the viewer could discern the precise progression going through Tomarken's baffled mind:

  • "Hey, he's pretty good."
  • "He's really on a roll."
  • "Hmmm. He better quit while he's ahead."
  • "What is he doing still spinning?! He's crazy!"
  • "Why isn't this guy getting a Whammy?!"
  • "Something strange is definitely going on."
  • "This is insane!"
  • "This is really, really insane!"
  • "Is he ever going to quit?"
  • "That's a lot of money; I better get the guy to stop."
Part showman and part concerned friend, Tomarken really began taking this advisory role seriously:

No, Tomarken hasn't just seen an Endy
Chavez home run. Still, you'll see he's
pretty daggone stunned. Actual quote:
"This game is called 'Press Your Luck,'

During the documentary, Tomarken confessed that Larsen won him over at some point, and I think this was part of Tomarken's charm. He seemed to enjoy hosting Press Your Luck, and that was certainly a good thing, because it was to his show business career what 1950 was to Phil Rizzuto's baseball career. If Tomarken isn't as fondly remembered as the Scotter, you can blame Bob Barker for hogging all the love.

And Bob Barker is fine; he's a legend. But he's still on television, and Tomarken hasn't been, in earnest, in about two decades. And now he never will be again.

Peter Tomarken deserves his day to be remembered, and I imagine he will be for a few moments. It's just too bad it has to be on this day.