Growing up, Press Your Luck was my all-time favorite game show. It had everything, and I mean everything, including:
Questions so easy even my seven year old self could reasonably answer them.
An affable host in the late, great Peter Tomarken, whose pastel seersucker suit alone is worth watching this special for.
Announcer Rod Roddy, transitioning from his relatively low key delivery from SOAP to his The Price Is Right-style flamboyance.
An animated imp, known as “The Whammy”, who not only screwed you out of your money but did it in the most 80’s ways possible.
A garish, enormous set, one of the masterworks of the Jeopardy! and Wheel Of Fortune set designer, Ed Flesh.
The big-ass board that took up most of the set and half of the screen time.
The flaw, that two of the big board’s eighteen panels never had a Whammy.
The moment in 1984, when Michael Larson, an unemployed ice cream truck driver from Ohio, exploited said weakness and won $110,237, which in those days was a hell of a lot of money.
Almost twenty years later, Tomarken, producer Bill Carruthers, and those associated with Press Your Luck and Larson revisited this infamous moment in television history, on the Game Show Network special Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal.
As a big fan of Press Your Luck, I was surprised when this show came on in 2003, and legitimately shocked to hear of the Michael Larson story. Most kids who only grew up watching it in reruns on the USA network were also ignorant of this chapter in history because Carruthers, CBS, and later syndicators USA and GSN acted as if this event never took place. USA went so far as to not air two months worth of programming, as a home contestant promo ended the same episode Larson was on.
Calling what took place a “scandal”, or even “cheating” is a bit much. The producers and CBS’s Standards and Practices department combed over the rules, and could not find anything that would allow them to not pay Michael Larson.
At one point in the special, Peter Tomarken brings surviving contestants Janie Litras-Dakin and Ned Flanders look-a-like Ed Long to a rudimentary mock up of the set. Tomarken teaches them one of the sequences Larson memorized, and they mostly succeed in getting the right spot. Anyone could have spotted the flaw on the board and exploited it, but only Michael Larson had the determination and narrow minded drive to make easy money to pull it off.
In the 1980’s there were more daytime game shows on air, but the prizes on the shows usually topped out at $20,000. Compared to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? or Ken Jennings’ run on Jeopardy!, winning over $100,000 on a game show (even in 1984) does not sound like much. In 2011 dollars, Larson’s take in cash in prizes would be worth $236,320.64. That being said, it’s not bad for someone who tried to avoid hard work all his life.
Larson tried to parlay his earnings into even more, by getting most of his prize money changed into dollar bills, and listened for a winning serial number for a local radio contest. Although he returned half of his money to the bank, over $40,000 of it was stolen six months after Larson won it. Larson became suspicious of his common law wife, Teresa Dinwitty, who took her kids and left him. He would die before the age of fifty, on the lam after being part of an actual scam involving a national lottery system.
While Michael Larson was obviously unavailable for the special, his oldest brother, Dinwitty, and the surviving contestants and personnel joined Peter Tomarken in recounting their experience with him. Everyone was still in awe, almost twenty years later, of how Larson gained so much money, and yet they also acknowledged the semi-tragic figure behind the achievement.
For one afternoon in 1984, Michael Larson made all the right moves. It is unfortunate that for the rest of his forty-nine years, he constantly landed on Whammy.
References And Further Reading