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.