In the late Fall of 2007, the higher ups at NBC decided to resurrect American Gladiators, a show that hit its popularity peak in the early 90's, when big muscles were king and nobody asked questions about steroids. The show was brought back to appeal to the reality television fans, to focus more on the contender’s hard luck stories than the Gladiators themselves. I was able to score an invite to a taping through a kickball league I played in. The idea was simple: invite players from local kickball divisions to a happy hour event at a nearby bar and then go to the studio to watch a Saturday taping. The players would fit the key demographics sought after by the producers - just old enough to be nostalgic about the Gladiators of their childhood and show host Hulk Hogan, yet young enough to be excited about the potential modernizations. To top it off, the group would be liquored up, thus enjoying it all the more.
That was the plan. The execution went a little different.
I brought along my two friends, Jay and Krysta, who were just as excited as I was. Krysta’s boyfriend Parker had to work and was upset to be missing the outing. We pulled up to the Venice area bar before noon, which is as good a time as any to start having beer on a Saturday. It was a very similar crowd that I had grown used to over the past year. From past experiences I knew that this group was capable of putting away mass quantities of alcohol and almost as many deep fried appetizers. The organizers of this event wisely provided buses from the bar to the studio, which were boarded by the masses. Our stomachs full of midday beer and seasoned fries, we were ready to be entertained. It was just before 2:00 when we arrived outside the lot and like drones, followed the production assistant to the audience line. The excitement level was high. Complete strangers in line forged bonds over their favorite Gladiators and events of yore. The taping of the show was to begin at 2:30 in the afternoon, the second taping of the day. Having just completed the morning filming, the old audience would exit, yielding their seats to several hundred fresh fans.
As time slowly passed, the line, which began at the bottom of a parking structure and formed along the wall and up the ramp did not move. Two things began to occur. The jovial buzz that most of the participants had achieved began to wear off and the brisk wind of a Los Angeles December began to pick up. Most people were wearing shorts and sandals because it was sunny outside - a place we had not seen in almost 90 minutes by this point.
At 3:30 the line moved. The group marched through the back lot like a bizarre school field trip. We moved in a single file line with a couple of production assistants at the head and rear. The route we were taken wove around soundstage after soundstage in a fashion that both threw off our sense of direction and bought more time for the production crew, I figure. Upon reaching the stage, the group was put into another line, this time for a metal detector. While in this line Jay was able to grab the attention of a man with a clipboard and ask a few questions, like which events we would see that day and what the names of these new and improved Gladiators were.
The names we were told varied from the typical "Titan," "Mayhem" and "Crush" to the unusual "Wolf" and "Hellga". Apparently it was spelled with two L's in order to make her appear more sinister. The man with the clipboard reassured us that Hellga was the biggest woman he'd ever seen - so she had that going for her. As far as the events went, we'd only be seeing one: Hang Tough. As a long time Gladiator fan, I respect Hang Tough as one of the classic events. Crossing a giant grid of rings while avoiding the Gladiator has a certain cat and mouse aspect to it - but it can also be undeniably boring. Someone in the creative department must have been notified of that when redesigning the games and decided it should be played over a giant swimming pool (as was the case with nearly every retooled event - someone must have paid for the pool and wanted to get their moneys worth). The other thing we learned was that we'd be seeing 16 consecutive games of the same event. Due to the largeness of the sets, instead of filming an episode straight through, they filmed one event for every different episode at one time. From a production standpoint this is logical, but from an audiences view, it's dreadfully uninteresting.
The line began moving again and we were finally shuffled on to the set. It looked small, with half of the stage occupied by the previously mentioned large pool and the other half having a large gym mat like surface, possibly a gym mat. Knowing already that our event was taking place over the water, it was unnerving to be seated at the complete opposite end of the arena, far away from the would-be action. With out group now completely sober and getting more agitated by the minute, the producers decided to unleash the audience warm up act.
I've seen my fair share of television tapings, all of which come with audience warm up performers. Comedians, magicians, even hypnotists are dispatched into the crowd to make sure the audience does not get bored or fall asleep during the painstakingly long process of making television. This man made a few jokes, mostly at the expense of audience members. He asked what people were excited to see, and our section yelled out "Hellga" to get his attention. The man asked how we knew about her, to which I said "J-Date," a notion that went completely over his head. After some dance competitions that were wildly inappropriate for the children in the audience, there was a spelling bee which I raised my hand for - and when I misspelled the word, this man screamed in my face to sit down. He repeated this action to several more people, making the already volatile crowd dislike him even more. It was 4:45 when Krysta overheard that the new scheduled end time was going to be 8:00 pm and the staff was trying to make people stay. Originally it was supposed to run from 2:30 until 5:00, which would have been fine. Aside from Krysta having dinner reservations at 7:30, the rest of us just decided that a 6 hour taping was more than we could endure. The afternoon outing had turned into a day long torture session. My two friends and I exchanged a couple of knowing glances. We knew exactly what had to be done. We had seen Hulk Hogan walk by the set once, but we had not seen one Gladiator or event. None of that seemed to matter at this point - one way or another, our time in the studio was coming to an end.
A group of audience members were being taken to the bathroom - after all, being held captive for over three hours with nothing but bottles of water really makes you have to go. The three of us joined the group exiting the stage. Fresh air and the last bits of daylight greeted us upon exiting the arena. There were fifteen people on the bathroom field trip. The production assistant saddled with the task of chaperoning us took a diligent count before turning his back to lead the line. We dropped to the back of the pack, and as the group turned a corner, the plan went into action. As if someone had shot off the starting gun, we made a run for it. We could see the lot exit ahead of us; salvation was only steps away. As we turned through the exit gates, a voice from the security booth yelled for us to stop. Our feet stopped, as did our hearts. Was this hourly waged security guard going to make us turn back and watch the rest of the taping?
“You can’t run in the street, please use the sidewalk,” he said.
“Sure, sorry about that,” I mumbled, realizing we were going to make it.
As we hit the street, another thought came to us – the car was still parked at the bar, about five miles away. Attempts to get a cab proved fruitless. Unlike New York, out in Los Angeles patrons usually had to call for their cabs in advance unless they were at the airport or a night club. What the city lacked in accessible cabs, it made up for in Starbucks across from every major studio. We hoofed it over to one on the corner, called for our cab and headed back to the bar. The drive home consisted of primarily two discussions. One about the adrenaline we all felt while running from the lot and the other was basically me repeatedly apologizing for dragging Krysta and Jay into this mess of a day.
Word traveled back to me from a friend who stayed until the end that the taping concluded around 9:00 pm. People began leaving as the studio could not hold them against their will. Yes, they made it out of there as well, but without feeling the wind on their faces as their feet carried them to freedom. I sometimes wonder about the production assistant making another count on the way back from the bathrooms and coming up three people short. Should I feel bad if he got fired?
We never laid eyes on Helga until the show debuted later that summer. The man with the clipboard wasn't just blowing smoke at us; she was about as big a woman as I had ever seen.