Las Vegas Sun

October 16, 2021

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Going … Going … GONG!

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- More than seven hours before last Tuesday night's live, hourlong season finale of "Extreme Gong," the ribald game show's cast of carnival characters was assembled on a Hollywood National Studios stage to shoot a promotional commercial.

It's a platter of assorted nuts, sprinkled with goofballs, geeks and circus freaks.

There's an act called the Village Little People. Yes, ladies and gentleman, it's a tribute to the Village People played out by dwarfs, midgets, or whatever politically correct term applies. There are four of the little fellas (the sailor has been inexplicably omitted) performing the famed disco anthem "YMCA."

At the side of the stage is a woman in a kind of Wonder Woman costume brushing her teeth. With her feet. In front of her is a guy standing on a large red rubber ball, juggling (and occasionally dropping) machetes. In front of him is a cross-eyed guy in glasses breaking a board with his forehead.

A pair of whirling swing dancers fly by the Village Little People. Another twosome is bending and twisting inside large silver tubes, moving like a couple of rhythmic Slinkys. A guy dressed like Evel Knievel (with a propellor atop his helmet) is perched precariously on roller skates, another young man wears a Sonny and Cher costume (a sewed-together piece of clothing with a sequined Cher gown on the left and frilly Sonny outfit on the right). A self-described "geek rapper," done up like a Caucasian Urkel, cavorts about and a singer-guitarist wearing oversized glasses and a bright red wig is teamed with an equally goofy-lookin' performer pounding a miniature drum kit.

And an Elvis imitator in a hot pink jumpsuit is thrown in for, we guess, comic relief.

Positioned smack in the middle of these bizarre amateur acts -- from cities such as Boston, Atlanta, Detroit and San Francisco -- is a pretty and petite young lady, doing nothing but singing into a microphone. Her name is Icy Ilustre.

The only normal act on "Extreme Gong" is from, of all places, Las Vegas.

Ilustre has qualified with 10 other acts for this once-in-a-lifetime appearance on the "Extreme Gong" $10,000, winner-take-all season finale (which, unfortunately, will not be rerun). The sweet-voiced vocalist topped a field of 20 competitors on March 25 during a contest at the Fremont Street Experience. Ilustre and 10 other acts from across the country were awarded a chance at the $10,000 grand prize that capped the game show's second season on the Game Show Network (which airs "Extreme Gong" Monday through Saturday at 8 p.m. on Cox cable channel 68).

Until answering a newspaper ad for "Extreme Gong," the singing career of the 20-year-old Ilustre has consisted mostly of karaoke numbers and taking music classes at the Community College of Southern Nevada, where she's a music major.

"It's a great opportunity for me," Ilustre says during a break in rehearsal. "To be on TV gives me a chance to get recognized."

But right now, she's worried about avoiding the gong.

"I hope I can stand out, because I'm pretty normal and straight compared to the other (acts)," she says. "It is a pretty crazy show."

Icy's on the mark there.

The "Extreme" team

"Extreme Gong," as you've probably ascertained, is an updated manifestation of the original "Gong Show," created and hosted by ebullient master of ceremonies Chuck Barris. A noted producer, Barris sold off the rights to his vast game-show catalogue (which included "The Dating Game" and "Newlywed Game" ) years ago and is said to be sipping champagne on the French Riviera these days.

To fill the void left by Barris' absence, the Game Show Network pounced on a chance to create a new version of the madcap game-show classic.

For traditionalists, the network also airs reruns of the original "Gong Show" each night immediately after "Extreme Gong." The chief difference in the two productions is that "Extreme Gong" determines nightly champions via phone calls from home viewers, which are monitored and tabulated by show producers. Gone are mid-level celebrity judges such as Jaye P. Morgan, Nipsey Russell and Charles Nelson Reilly, whose semi-comatose careers survived because of programs such as "The Gong Show."

The "Extreme Gong" host is 32-year-old George Gray, a former stand-up comic who prides himself on his well-honed improvisational skills.

"It's a really cool vibe to do anything live," Gray says while drinking bottled water in his cramped dressing room. "It's truly live, not taped live, and you're dealing with people who aren't used to being on television. There's a lot of room for weird things to happen and you have to be ready."

Gray continues to be a fan of the old "Gong Show," praising Barris (not affiliated at all with the new show) while attempting to carve out his own independent image.

"I loved Chuck Barris, because he was the first game-show host who didn't have the blow-dried hair and perfect teeth," Gray says. "He'd look into the wrong camera and blow lines, probably because he was amped on cough syrup, but he didn't care. He had a lot of fun.

"That show depicted the zany side of the '70s. This one depicts the zany side of the '90s, which I think are zanier than the '70s."

That's particularly true on this night.

Practice makes imperfect

The concept of rehearsal, obviously, is to fine-tune the night's live show. Two such dry runs have been scheduled prior to the 8 p.m. airing, and it's immediately clear the production faces significant obstacles.

A couple involve "Babe of the Day" Jori Gilliam, who won a spokesmodel contest in her hometown of Tampa, Fla., for the right to appear on Tuesday's season finale. Gray introduces her as "Jori Gilligan," and is quickly corrected by the curvy co-host.

"It's Gilliam, not Gilligan. Can we have the cue card changed?" Gilliam asks, to which Gray replies, "That would take a three-hour tour."

Groan.

Gilliam has two responsibilities tonight: to conduct backstage "interviews" of contestants ("You say you're a rapper, but you don't look like a rapper. What's up with that?") and bang the gong on cue. Seems simple enough, but Gilliam has a difficult time remembering her lines and at one point, after repeated failed attempts at reciting a question, producer Scott Satin calls out, "I surrender!"

Gilliam's balance on stage needs a little work. At one point she nearly falls off her four-inch heels and into the gong. She suffers an unfortunate turn of fate when a cameraman bumps a wrought-iron chair prop hanging from a hook high above Gilliam's head, sending it falling into her blond curls.

"We've lost our babe!" Gray says, turning to a male stage hand. "Hey, how would you look in a bikini?"

"I have a bad bump," Gilliam says later, rubbing her head, "and I cracked a nail."

Speaking of nails, Boston's representative is John "The Hammer Head" Keith, whose talent is driving nails through slabs of wood with his head. Early in rehearsal Keith (certainly a Red Sox fan) is already showing signs of concern.

"If I keep breaking boards during rehearsal," he reasons, "I'm worried I'll run out."

"You won't run out, John," Satin says. "We promise."

"What about towels?" Keith says. "I might need towels."

The crew exchanges curious glances, then Keith announces, "There might be blood. I haven't done this for two months. Usually when I take that much time off, my head bleeds."

Satin's eyebrows narrow as he says, "There shouldn't be blood."

Gray interjects, "There shouldn't be a guy hammering nails with his head, either, but there he is!"

"We'll get some red towels," Satin says, gaining composure. "Then the audience won't see so much blood."

Keith later says he's been performing his act for 12 years. Sadly, he hasn't yet overcome the "bleeding phase."

Meanwhile, mounting miscues and false starts have Satin on edge.

One of the Village Little People -- the Indian -- is standing too far away from his microphone and cannot be heard; in fact, he seems more interested in perfecting his dance moves. The person dressed as Evel Knievel, portraying an audience member trying to ramrod his way onto the show, cannot remember his lines, prompting Gray to say, "You know, I'm at least trying to use most of the lines on the cue cards."

"I'm really worried," Satin says to no one in particular.

Edgy contestants

The introductions to each act are to be read by "remote" co-host Steve Saunders (ostensibly zig-zagging the country, filing his introductions from the performers' home cities) from a set at the side of the stage.

From San Francisco, Saunders is dressed as a drag queen; from Houston, he's riding a mechanical bull; from Baltimore, he's wearing an Oreo cookie outfit to recognize that city's major league baseball team (he's reminded that the team is called the Orioles, not the Oreos), and so on.

A couple of his gags draw sickened looks from contestants. The San Franciscan, Danny Correia, has concocted an innovative Sonny and Cher act, imitating both singers by switching his profile back and forth to match the voices. He spent two days creating his hilarious half-Sonny, half-Cher costume (he's even colored half of his hair jet-black and added extenders) and wrote a song especially for the performance. He beat out 36 other Bay Area performers to win his way onto the show.

And for his effort, Correia is met with Saunders' comment that, "Now we have a singer who's half-man, half-woman and half-assed."

"Oh, man. What's this?" Correia says. "My 15 minutes of fame, and that's what I get? ... That's OK, though. My family's Mafia."

Less jocular is Ilustre, a 20-year-old native of the Philippines who winces at Saunders (in an Elvis costume superimposed over the "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign) as he sings, "Up next is a girl named Icy. Her English sucks but her singing's spicy."

The crew give out a few nervous courtesy giggles.

"Does my English suck?" Ilustre asks. A stage hand tries to soothe her feelings by saying, "He's using it just because it rhymes. We could take it out if you want."

"Forget it," Ilustre says. "Maybe it's funny, but I don't get it."

As the rehearsals (which will last more than four hours) draw to a close, the now-bonded contestants begin whispering about who may or may not get the Big G.

Those who appear to be in peril include Norma Marr, the qualifier from St. Louis, Mo., who bills herself as "Norma Jean the Toe Machine." She performs various household tasks -- lighting candles, answering the phone, applying lipstick -- with her bare feet. She's good at it, but unless 80 percent of the viewing audience has a foot fetish, she's probably a goner.

So is "Geek Rapper" Norm Helsby from Detroit, whose nerdy (and somewhat sad) hip-hop performance fails to draw excitement or laughs; and Correia, whose imaginative Sonny-and-Cher costume can't mask his wavering, off-key voice.

Ilustre, whose rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," drew enthusiastic cheers from her competitors, is among the favorites.

"I just hope I don't get gonged," she says. "That would be terrible. I hope no one gets gonged. I feel like these people are my friends."

But as the 12 acts are herded into an off-stage holding room a few minutes before show time, there is an uneasy silence.

Someone is going to get gonged tonight.

Show time

The first act to perform is Ken and Sharon Williams of Philadelphia who bill themselves as "Giant Spring Performers," the type of act favored by Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson in previous generations.

In the holding room, uneasy contestants watch a video monitor as Ken and Sharon begin their act. A bar graph charts the viewing audience's response. When the response -- from phone calls and the Internet -- is favorable, the bar turns green and slinks down the screen. When it's negative, it shoots up toward a gold gong logo at the top of the screen.

Ken and Sharon start out strong, with the bar quickly turning green. But then it makes a sharp turn up, becoming red, and finally reaching the lethal gong logo. Gilliam, gleaming, wields her mighty mallet.

GONG!

"Man, I can't believe that," says Brian Rudo, a Baltimore street performer who juggles knives and flaming torches atop a big red ball. "They were good. I feel sorry for them."

To which swing dancer Angel Tidwell angrily responds: "Don't feel sorry for them. Feel sorry for all of the abused animals in the world!"

(Angel Tidwell: Swing dancer. PETA supporter.)

The next act, novelty singers Rob Marish and Paul Marturano, are also gonged. Two acts, two gongs.

Up next is Ilustre.

"If she gets it," Rudo says, "we're all (doomed)."

Her voice sounding more nervous than in rehearsal, Ilustre manages to stay a solid green throughout and is wildly cheered at the song's conclusion. She's in the running, but must wait more than 45 minutes for the official announcement of the winner.

Those who survive the gong include Tidwell and partner Jim Formelio of Tampa, Fla.; blues singer Larry Lobdell from Indianapolis; Rudo; comic Monica Reed from Atlanta; and "Hammer Head" Keith (who wound up bleeding, as promised, and likened the feeling to "a rug burn on my head.")

The studio audience of 100 waits through a commercial break while the show staff tallies up the total number of positive responses for each nongonged contestant to determine the winner.

Finally, 8 1/2 hours after the start of rehearsal, Gray announces the champion ... "It's Brian Rudo!"

The juggler -- who dropped knives and flaming torches during rehearsal but delivered a flawless performance when it counted -- has won the 10 grand. Everyone else receives a hand-held "Wheel of Fortune" game to go with their three days in Smog City.

Dejected, Ilustre says, "Maybe I should have done another song."

Ilustre is then told a story: In the '50s, on Ted Mack's "Original Amateur Hour," a precursor to the original "Gong Show," a talented singer lost a first-place prize to a guy who played the spoons.

The spoon player is long forgotten, maybe working in a kitchen someplace. The singer was Ann-Margret.

Holding her consolation prize, Ilustre smiles and says, "Maybe there's hope for me yet."

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