Gods and Goddesses at Play

On the popular television show "American Gladiators," shapely superheroes compete against mere mortals
December 02, 1991

It is a glorious southern California afternoon—that is the word, at least, from people who have been outdoors in the last seven hours. I am in a grimy corner of Studio City, in a hangar-sized studio that has been tricked out to resemble a cross between the 1988 Republican national convention and the bridge of the starship Enterprise. Around me, shrill children have taken up the chant, "Ice, Ice, baby." It is June 23, my third and final day on the set of the television show American Gladiators. I fear for the future of the republic.

The children chant not for the mousse-abusing, formerly renowned rapper Vanilla Ice, but for Lori Fetrick, a.k.a. Ice, the show's most physically formidable female Gladiator. Fetrick has washboard abdominals, 24-inch thighs on which you could crack walnuts, and the purest tackling form I have seen since the NFL season ended five months ago. Earlier, I had sat riveted as she savaged contestants in Powerball. With continued fascination, I looked on as referee Larry Thompson stopped the action to eject Ice's teammate Blaze—the sculpted, fearsome Sha-ri Pendleton, a former All-America triple jumper at the University of Nebraska—for planting a forearm in a contender's neck.

These women make Thelma and Louise look like Ginger and Mary Ann. I wonder if Pentagon mossbacks opposed to women in ground combat have seen this show. Would they care to explain to Ice or Blaze, to their faces, precisely in what ways they aren't up to the job?

Everyone, it seems, has at least heard of Gladiators, the syndicated, hour-long weekly show featuring folks from all walks of life competing against handsome, maximally muscled, minimally clad men and women in contests with oddball names like The Maze, Hang Tough and Atlasphere. The show, which started its third season in September, runs on 175 stations, and its producers hope to build on its regular viewership of 6.5 million.

That shouldn't be a problem. Gladiators is approaching a kind of cultural critical mass: David Letterman can be counted on to make occasional snide references to the show. Arsenio Hall announced his intention of quitting his talk show job to pursue his true vocation—American Gladiating. Mattel, the toy company, is spending nearly $15 million to produce a line of Gladiator action figures. Sports agent David Fishof reports that several of his clients—including Cincinnati Reds pitcher Randy Myers and former New York Giants special-teams player Phil McConkey—have begged him to get them on the show.

Exactly who is tuning in? The show is most popular among males between the ages of 18 and 34, due largely to the fact that the female Gladiators are extremely fit and clad in excruciatingly tight uniforms. The show, which airs on Saturday afternoons in many markets, has also attracted a growing audience of children, who see the Gladiators as flesh-and-blood superheroes.

Cash prizes are at stake, but the contenders aren't in it just for the money. This season's 24 male and 24 female contenders were selected through tryouts in four cities from a pool of more than 10,000. "We're not looking for good athletes," says Dan Goldberg, the show's event producer. "We're looking for great athletes." Once selected, the 48 finalists are flown to Los Angeles for the tapings, which take place in June and July.

Who are these Gladiators, these vascular, hair-sprayed human caricatures? Many were good college athletes who couldn't make it as pros or, in the case of the women, had no professional sports options. All are serious bodybuilders. Jim Starr, the congenial but hard-nosed Laser, was a Montana State linebacker and Mr. Montana who played on the L.A. Rams' 1987 strike team. Dan Clark, a.k.a. Nitro, started two seasons at defensive tackle for San Jose State. Galen Tomlinson—Turbo—was a concrete-company vice-president in Fallbrook, Calif., before auditioning for a Gladiator slot two years ago.

Much is at stake. Not only do they have what Michael Horton, the aging but still menacing Gemini, calls "that superhero Gladiator image to uphold," but they also are graded. The show's producers keep meticulous records on the Gladiators' performances. Those who threaten to become pushovers won't be back the following season. No one takes dives; outcomes are not rigged. "It's fiction," Horton says of pro wrestling. "We're fact."

The competition may be authentic, but little else about the Gladiators is as it seems. A few of their physiques—not just the guys'—shout: pharmaceutically enhanced! The Gladiators aren't tested for steroids, but the show's producers comfort themselves with the knowledge that most of the Gladiators are bodybuilders who must submit to testing at competitions. Their tans, so handsomely cocoa on television, turn out to be a weird off-orange in real life. "They come out of a bottle," confides a public relations person. The show's blonds all seem to have had their hair bleached at the same salon—it has a frosty metallic glint found nowhere in nature. Faux, also, I am told by the same catty publicist, are the curves of one particularly well-rounded female Gladiator.

Remote-control-wielding channel-grazers who stumble upon Gladiators are at first arrested by red-white-and-blue-clad beef-and cheesecake. Then they get sucked in by the games. I did, anyway. To me, the games are the essence of the show. For example:

•The Wall, in which contenders get a 10-second start on Gladiators who want to pull them off a sheer 30-foot concrete face. (Everyone is tethered, for safety.)

•Atlasphere, in which contenders enter a spherical cage and run around in it, gerbillike, trying to score points by depressing four strategically placed "pods" as Gladiators try to ram them off course.

•The Maze, which is new this year and is roughly comparable to Pac-Man on a human scale.

•Swingshot, which entails aspects of bungee-jumping and looks like five basketball players going up for a rebound on the moon.

•Assault, in which contenders storm a "fortress," racing from shelter to shelter, firing weapons at a Gladiator who is firing tennis balls at 100 mph at them.

•The Eliminator, which begins with contestants sprinting up a treadmill, a skill many honed in their youth by ascending the down escalators at department stores.

Much of the show's success, I am convinced, is based on the games, which makes one think: I couldn't hit a curve, couldn't break 50 seconds in the quarter, couldn't play Division I football—but I think I could do that.

How sobering, then, to learn upon arriving at a New York City contenders' tryout held last April that 3,000 people had apparently had the same thought. Tryouts were to begin at 8 a.m. I arrived at the New York Coliseum, on Columbus Circle, at 6:40, by which time the line, six or so across, snaked around the block.

Men outnumbered women three to one. Most of the guys seemed to be bodybuilders. The mob would be pared to a more manageable number after the first stage of the tryouts: Men must do 25 chin-ups in 30 seconds; women, eight. A little farther back in line, a tanned fellow with a steam-shovel jaw and a power forward's build was unfazed. "Twenty-five chins? Why don't I throw in a couple of giant swings to really get their attention," he said.

The blusterer was Frank Ryan, an ex-Syracuse decathlete who drove three hours from Binghamton, N.Y., with his buddy Steve Fabian. To help pass the time on the drive down, they thought up Gladiator-like nicknames for themselves.

"Today, I am Tiberius," said Ryan.

"Please call me Lithium," said Fabian.

I had learned about the chin-up requirement in early February, at which time I could do 10 in 30 seconds. I phoned my brother Mark, the person I know who's closest to being a biceps specialist—he's the kind of guy who does 10 sets of curls on Friday if he knows he'll be on a beach Saturday—and explained my situation: I had six weeks to increase my chin-up capacity by 150%.

"You need to go to the gun shop," said Mark, using weight-room slang for biceps. He designed an accelerated chin-up course for me, and so four times a 5 week at my Brooklyn health club, I had been chinning myself to exhaustion. By tryout time I was up to 16 chin-ups. My "guns" were still Derringer-sized. The crash course had failed.

Salvation dawned the day before the tryouts during a breakfast interview with Fetrick, who was in New York to promote the show. "Cheat," she said. "Don't go all the way down."

Cheat I did. I knocked out about 14 tainted chins before I started struggling, at which point my official counter, an affable young man named Craig, began counting by threes. Despite Craig's best efforts, I officially washed out in the very next phase, the 40-yard dash. Men had to run it in under five seconds. In high school and college, I had run 4.8's. That morning, a decade or so since my last 4.8, I assumed a three-point stance and spun my wheels on the slick concrete like a cartoon character trying to "scram." Some moments later, I commenced making forward progress.

"You didn't make it," said a stern young woman with a stopwatch. I asked how close I had come. "Not very," she said. Could she be more specific? "Five-six," she bellowed.

"Sssshh!" I hissed, mortified. Five-point-six seconds to run the 40? Self-loathing welled up in me.

By the time I recovered, the field was being further whittled down in a modified version of Powerball. Only 100 of the original 3,000 hopefuls made it to this event, wherein producers determine which candidates have the necessary appetite for collisions. Two candidates stand facing each other on a swatch of indoor/ outdoor rug. The offensive player tries to get three inflatable balls into a cylinder; the defender's job is to prevent his opponent from doing so. The rules say no tackling or body slamming, but no one was bothering to enforce them.

One of the finalists, I was delighted to note, was my old friend Tiberius. (Having flunked the chin-ups, Lithium was chronicling his buddy's experience with a camcorder.) Tiberius was up against a malevolent-looking Steven Seagal clone who smothered him with violent attention. Tiberius took a thumb in the eye and finished the event squinting. During the 15-second intermission, as they switched positions, Tiberius told Lithium, "I'm gonna hurt him."

Their collisions were titanic, but Seagal—who was limping and holding his right knee when they finished—scored twice. "He's a nice guy," said "Seagal," whose real name was James Aronson, a "musician and actor" from Melville, N.Y. "But I could see, when he first saw me, he was a little bit intimidated by my size. Then I just pretended that he was the only thing between me and my girlfriend. My mind-set was everything. I'm not...stable."

That trait must have been evident during Aronson's interview with producer Brian Gadinsky, because Aronson didn't make the cut. Gadinsky is partial to articulate contenders. This year's crop of recruits included a high school history teacher, a baker, a fire fighter, a cop, a playwright, a chiropractor, a private investigator, a dancer and a world champion bull rider who is also a member of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Weeks later I fly to Los Angeles to sit in on the taping of a few shows. One of the first people I run into is Dan Goldberg. Normally Goldberg would allow himself seven to 10 seconds for chatting. Not now. There has been a scare on the set. Raye Hollitt, the immensely popular Zap, has been knocked silly in Hang Tough. After Hollitt yanked a contender from the gymnastics rings, she and her quarry plunged to the mat. The contender landed on Hollitt. Still woozy, Hollitt is helped into the dressing room.

Hollitt had the makings of the ideal American Gladiator—good looks and physical prowess—as early as her high school years in Dallas, Pa., where she was prom queen and state champion in the javelin. She moved to LA. in 1983, became a paralegal and won the Miss Los Angeles bodybuilding competition. In '89, the same year she became a Gladiator, Hollitt got a part in the movie Skin Deep. She was cast as a rippling temptress who nearly induces cardiac arrest in John Ritter.

An hour after her scare in Hang Tough, Hollitt (who had given birth to a daughter eight months earlier) is scheduled to compete in The Joust. She could plead wooziness and get another Gladiator to sub for her, but Hollitt is anxious to prove that maternity has not diminished her ferocity. She swats her first opponent off the pedestal in five seconds.

Turning her back on the victim, Hollitt brought the pugel stick—an enormous Q-tip—up from her ankles in a murderous backhanded roundhouse. She uses the identical move on her second victim, who takes the butt end of the stick flush in the face, hits the mat scapulae-first and stays down. It's someone else's turn to be helped to the dressing room.

The contenders are having a bad day at The Joust until Robert Bender competes. Bender, of Bartow, Fla., who attended the Florida School of Preaching, knocks Horton's stick out of his hands for an automatic win. Later, I catch Horton alone in the corridor, castigating himself. "Just a damn poor job of jousting," he is saying.

Before he landed this gig three years ago, Horton was another sort of gladiator, an offensive lineman for nine years, first at UCLA, then in the CFL and the USFL. Losing your stick, he knows, is a rookie mistake, like forgetting the snap count on third-and-goal. "Ya gotta hold on to the stick—it's your livelihood," he says.

The Gladiators know they are expendable. Says Fetrick, "They let you know, in subtle ways."

And not-so-subtle ways. While backstage, I notice a tanned, imposing fellow hanging out in the training room, chatting up the Gladiators and, it appears, making them vaguely ill at ease. He turns out to be alternate Gladiator Steve Henneberry, a 6'4" former Mr. America whose nom de Glad is Tower of Power. The day after I left, Tower was pressed into service when Tomlinson blew out his left knee in Powerball.

To make himself a fixture on the show, Horton has assumed the role of elder statesman and player rep. Horton argues calls with referee Larry Thompson. Between games he takes the microphone from the warmup comic and leads the studio audience—composed mostly of adoring seven-to 12-year-olds—in cheers and chants.

"AAAY-oh!" he bays, pointing at a section of the crowd. "AAAY-oh," it obediently bays back at him.

"AAAY-AAAY-AAAY-oh!" he sings.

"AAAY-AAAY-AAAY-oh!" the fans repeat.

This goes on for 10 excruciating minutes. At length, a disgusted adult voice behind me says, "What is this, sing along with Gemini? The guy thinks he's Harry Belafonte!"

I turn and discover that the malcontent is...Elvis? No, Johnny Ferraro, an Elvis impersonator from Erie, Pa., and the man to whom the Gladiators owe at least small parts of their careers. Since the mid-'60s, Ferraro's friend Dann Carr had organized competitions at ironworkers' picnics around Erie. For example, Carr would rope a couple of guys together by their legs, put them under a tree with a $50 bill in it and wish them luck.

In 1980 he and Ferraro held the first American Gladiators competition, in the gym at Erie's Tech Memorial Junior High. "That was the birth of it," says Ferraro. "We had 10 of the toughest guys in northwest Pennsylvania competing for $500. Five thousand people showed up."

Ferraro began work on a movie script based on these Hardhat Olympics. He spent eight years and, by his estimate, half a million dollars trying to get the script developed. Finally, his idea was purchased for $2,500 by Ron Ziskin, owner of Four Point Entertainment, who told Ferraro to forget the movie; the concept had more promise as a game show. Eventually a pilot was made. At the 1989 National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) convention—an annual dog and pony show for syndicated program buyers—Gladiators was one of 344 shows introduced. It was given little chance of survival. The hot "crash TV" show debuting that year was called Roller Games.

"They were good," recalls Ferraro. "They had alligators. But it was too much like the pro wrestling. I think people were ready for something new." After 13 weeks, Roller Games was canceled.

Gladiators lasted the season and was renewed for the next, somehow. That first season, the show looked as if it had been filmed in someone's basement. Sets were crude, and the Gladiators' uniforms appeared to have been purchased at a Vegas thrift shop. Contestants had no uniforms—they competed in whatever gym clothes they showed up with. The referee was a preposterous, misbegotten Grim Reaper figure. Host Joe Theismann tended to run on.

But the producers have constantly tweaked the show to improve it. Contenders are now flown out a week early, to practice the events and undergo several days of boot camp. Throughout the show's first season the Gladiators were instructed to stay in character. They've since been told to be themselves. Says Mike Adamle, the former Northwestern and NFL running back who replaced Theismann as host after one season, "They're obstacles with personalities."

"The focus was too much on the Gladiators," says Samuel Goldwyn Jr., scion of the legendary mogul and CEO of the show's distribution company. "We realized it wasn't how ferocious the Gladiators were that interested people as much as the Everyman aspect of the show." Goldwyn is convinced that the possibility of seeing the Gladiators bested is one of the show's most attractive ingredients. "Even in the days of the real gladiators," he says, "there must have been some people rooting for the Christians."

He's right. My sympathies, I come to discover, are unwaveringly aligned with the challengers. I find myself hanging out more and more in the company of contestants like Angela Shepard, a cop from Chino, Calif., who lost in the preliminaries after spraining an ankle during The Eliminator. Afterward, as Shepard sat in the trainers' room, her already-ballooning ankle immersed in a tub of ice, cohost Larry Csonka draped a consoling arm around her. "I had 10 bucks on you to come back," he says. "If you hadn't hurt yourself, I would have collected."

United States Immigration Officer Craig Charles, from Duluth, tries to explain why the contenders do so much swaggering and celebrating after they win. "It's a total adrenaline rush," he says, "like winning a fight." Looking across the table at this 160-pounder in the lavender Lycra aerobics outfit, I can't suppress a smile. "You get in a lot of fights?" I ask.

"My share," says Charles, not smiling. Turns out he's a former Kansas Golden Gloves champion whose fistic facility has come in handy on the job. "I've had a few scrapes on the Mexican border," he says.

Chris Parisi, a 6'1", 210-pound inverted pyramid from Fairfield, Conn., came to the tryouts wearing a muscle shirt, leaving little doubt as to why his football teammates at Williams College called him Rock. Having picked up his master's degree in sports management from the University of Massachusetts, Parisi will soon proceed from L.A. to Foxboro, Mass., where the New England Patriots have offered him work—in their media relations office. He trained for this competition by pushing a car around a parking lot.

As I see it, Parisi has a bye to the second round. His opponent in the prelims is George Blasius, an orange-haired bagel store manager with the build of a Cabbage Patch Kid. Blasius, who goes 5'8", 188, advanced from the Tampa tryouts, which makes me think I should have tried out in Tampa. I feel a twinge of pity for Blasius, remembering his cruelly abrupt elimination from Assault earlier in the day. Dodging between shelters, he was nailed square in the forehead by a tennis ball. The ball ricocheted into the catwalks, 50 or so feet in the air.

"The head's fine," he says, fingering an angry welt on his noggin. "It's this ankle that's got me worried." During Powerball someone had rolled over his left ankle—"either Laser or Turbo," says Blasius. "It's killing me." He is afraid he might have torn something, and afraid to seek treatment. If the producers find out how much pain he's in, he fears they'll yank him and send in an alternate. "Right now I'll just eat the pain," he says. He is worried about the treadmill that is the first leg of The Eliminator. "If I can get up that treadmill, I'll win," he says. "If I lose, I'll go to the hospital."

"Don't worry, honey, you can do it," says Shannon McClusky, Blasius's fiancèe. Mindful that cameramen often zero in on contestants' loved ones, McClusky has selected her ensemble with care. In her silver lamè slippers and billowy white dress with its uneven, "gypsy" hem, her look can best be described as Stevie Nicks Goes to Miami Beach. The cameras have no trouble finding her.

This figures to be her only day in the spotlight. Blasius begins The Eliminator, the last event, 12 seconds behind Parisi, the former Purple Cows linebacker and future Patriot. On the dreaded treadmill, Blasius stumbles immediately—but rights himself and slowly plows up the incline. He passes Parisi with an astonishing flurry on the hand-bike, then puts him away on the cargo rope. Blasius, an ex-marine, has had lots of practice on cargo ropes. Parisi labors down the homestretch and finishes 20 seconds behind.

After catching up with Blasius in the training room, where he's soaking his bad ankle and absorbing kudos, I am temporarily confused. Has he won a preliminary round of Gladiators or single-handedly saved mankind from the Invasion of the Body Snatchers? From the hero's welcome he is getting from McClusky, it's impossible to tell.

"Oh, honey" she gushes, throwing both arms around him, "I knew you could do it."

"Gutsy call, playing with that ankle," says Horton, patting Blasius on the back.

Dan Clark swaggers into the room, pretending not to notice Blasius. "Hey, how'd that little dude win?" Everyone laughs.

"Seriously," says Clark, now addressing Blasius, "how's the ankle?"

Blasius beams like a cherub, even as he answers, "It sucks, man."

The next day, my last in L.A., a contender is injured, the second male contender in as many days. "They've gotta be running out of alternates," Blasius tells me. "You should ask them if you can compete." I catch Goldberg between events and offer my services. It has been a rough day for him. In addition to the injuries, Horton has picked two fights with him over rules interpretations. Goldberg does not even deign to answer me, fixing me instead with a baleful stare.

"Tough luck," says Blasius. "Don't feel sorry for me," I tell him. "I may get on this show yet."

First things first, though. Somehow I'll have to shave a half-second off my 40 time. And it looks like I'll be heading back to the gun shop.

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONDuring the show's taping, Gold, a.k.a. Tonya Knight, barrels toward contender Jill Schenk in the Atlasphere event. PHOTOMANNY MILLANThe author didn't make the cut in New York City but did get to try his hand at Powerball. PHOTOMANNY MILLANIn the tryouts' first round, contenders must do 25 chin-ups in 30 seconds. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONThe fearsome Fetrick, a.k.a. Ice (right), swings her pugel stick at Schenk in The Joust. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONKnight (bottom right) tries to grab Kimberly Lentz and pull her off the 30-foot Wall. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONAfter tackling The Eliminator's treadmill, contender Tony Curella works the hand-bike. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONIn Powerball, Gladiators and contenders frequently meet each other in titanic collisions. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONErika Andersch, "Diamond" (left), fights Lentz in The Maze. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONAndersch (right) struggles to pry the ring out of Lentz's fingers in Hang Tough. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONAdamle (left) and Csonka are among several former athletes who have cohosted "Gladiators."