Before I tell you about my big play, the one that had them howling in the control room, I ought to explain how I came to be sitting at a bridge table with one television camera staring over my shoulder, another pointed at a mirror directly overhead and so many bright lights beaming down that the room felt like Saudi Arabia. My friend Edwin Kantar, a bridge teacher, writer and a member of the U.S. team that won the 1977 World Championship, had been signed to host a series of half-hour television shows, each one a lesson involving a hand to be bid and played by four guests. To help sell the show to potential sponsors, the producers had lined up a smattering of celebrities—Jim Backus, Carol Lawrence and Lee Meriwether were three—few of whom, as it developed, knew bridge from crazy eights.
It was left to Kantar to recruit a small army of players to fill the other three seats at the table for each show. He began by asking fellow experts, then the wives of fellow experts, his girl friend, a few ex-girl friends and finally the guy he goes to Laker basketball games with. When he still didn't have enough, he asked me.
The shows were being filmed in Los Angeles, and I showed up a few days before my scheduled appearance so I could observe what I was getting into. The studio was inside a rather dingy one-story building that looked more like a World War II barracks than MGM. There seemed to be a variety of businesses inside, but at the rear of the building was a door with a red light bulb above it and a written warning not to enter when the bulb was lit.
Inside was the television studio, a large room in the corner of which was a living room set-up—two couches at right angles, a coffee table and some artificial flowers. Several yards away was a card table with an elegant brown cloth top and four high-backed chairs. The rest of the room was a clutter of cables, cameras, lights and milling technicians.
The format of the show was simple enough. Kantar and his four guests were assembled on the couches for introductions. Eddie would stare into a camera with a cue card just off to one side and say, "Welcome to Master Bridge. I'm here to help you with your game. Today's lesson deals with setting up a side suit. We'll be back in a moment to meet our guests and guest celebrity."
Simple enough, but, as we were all to learn, nothing in television is easy. Kantar, for instance, is a bridge pro, not Alistair Cooke, and sometimes he managed to botch even those four sentences. And sometimes when he did get it perfectly, it would develop that the audio was too loud (or soft) or that some cable had become detached.
Returning after the hoped-for commercial, Kantar introduced his guests. Eddie would feed each a more or less prearranged question and the guest was expected to answer for about a minute. I learned a curious thing about television from one of these sessions. Three of the guests had spoken briefly about themselves, and then Kantar introduced Carol Lawrence, his guest celebrity. Lawrence came on as if she were putting on a show—excessive arm waving, dramatic intonations of the voice. I was embarrassed for her. And yet later, when I saw the tape, she seemed perfectly normal—lively but not unnatural—while the other three were like zombies.
When all the Johnny Carson guest business was finally over, the four players adjourned to the nearby bridge table while Kantar disappeared into a soundproof room with a monitor to do a voice-over, commenting on the bidding and play. He had arranged the hand in advance, of course, but everything else—as I was to prove—was totally unrehearsed.
Certain television rules had to be observed during the bidding and play that made it difficult for the players to function normally. Besides the hot lights, the cameras and the mirror overhead to distract you, you were required to wait 10 seconds after the last bid before making your own. Even if you held a bummer of a hand, nothing to think about by normal standards, you had to count to 10 in your head before passing. But again, as it was with Carol Lawrence's emoting, it looked perfectly natural on tape. What you saw was a close-up of the player studying his hand. In the corner of the screen was a diagram of the cards he was holding, and the viewer needed the 10 seconds to focus in on the hand and to listen to Kantar explain the possible bids.
The play of the hand also seemed artificial. Each card to a trick had to be placed ceremoniously at the precise middle of the table so the camera focusing on the mirror above could pick up all four. Whoever won the trick had to count three seconds before removing the cards, again so the viewer could focus in on what had been played.