Use of the isolation booth in television game shows swelled during the medium’s Golden Age of the late 1950’s. One notable instance was on the now infamous Twenty-One which premiered in 1956. The two contestants were ushered into a pair of booths that flanked the host’s podium. A glass pane ran head-to-toe in front with tasteful faux-wood paneling making up the other three sides. Ostensibly, the purpose of the booths was to keep the contestants from hearing the questions and answers of their opponent. Of course, the irony was that both questions and answers were often pre-feed to players depending on who the sponsor, Geritol, liked best to come back next week. This scandal was dramatized in the 1994 film Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford and starring Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren, the clean-cut blue-blood English professor ultimately preferred by Geritol, to Herbert Stempel, the nervous New York schmo, played by John Tuturro, who the network ultimately hung out to dry.
Twenty One’s direct competition, The $64,000 Question, introduced its isolation booth over a year earlier when it premiered in June of 1955. The Question's booth had a slightly more machined feel to it, looking something like a cross between a luxury elevator and a carnival ride. Just beneath its gaily striped roof the sponsor's name “Revlon” was boldly scripted, and the window was flanked on either side with oversized lipsticks. Contestants only entered the isolation booth at the $8,000 level, and every week thereafter the prize money doubled with each correct answer. If the contestant blew it after reaching the $8K/isolation booth stage, but before reaching the grand prize, they were given a new Cadillac as a consolation prize. (A bit of trivia: Dr. Joyce Brothers was the second person to ever win the $64,000 jackpot.)
Other game shows employing the isolation booth were:
High Low, premiere 1957
Family Feud, premiere 1976 (though it stayed mostly off stage “isolating” the second player during the first “Fast Money” round)
Hot Seat, premiere 1976
Win Ben Stein's Money, premiere 1997
I welcome any suggestions for additions to this list.
I found the isolation booth irresistible when I began fooling around with various ideas and conventions for my play An American Book of the Dead - The Game Show. The notion is rife with so many subconscious and unconscious imagistic possibilities and echoes of possibilities that I’d have been an idiot not to play with as many of them as I could. The beauty of theatre is that an object can be more than one, two, or even infinity things at once. (I often use the example of an actress putting a Coke bottle to her breast. She could be nursing a baby, or playing some strange sexual game, or outright insane, or... any combination of the above all at once. The rules of theatre are much, much roomier than the literalist conventions of film.)
So I started brainstorming on what it meant to put someone in a box, separating them from the rest of the world. We do this when people die, so my isolation booths could be coffins. We do this to punish people, so they could be solitary confinement cells, or gas chambers. On the other hand, people often put themselves in boxes for various reasons: phone booths, elevators, confessionals, showers, and even sensory deprivation chambers.
In the end I found that leaving the booths as vague and open to interpretation as possible in the stage directions was the best way to go. It’s a playwright’s prerogative to be lazy and let the designer come up with solutions.
Thankfully, I had one of the best and most imaginative designer
s currently working in new theatre
to tackle the job, Gary Smoot
. The show’s tour de force
was Gary’s idea to use three identical white refrigerators
as the isolation booths, using those plastic magnet letters
to spell out each enclosed contestant’s name. When lit with various intense gell
s the white surface easily transformed into whatever color the lighting designer
chose. Gary triumphed by simultaneously evoking a refrigerated morgue drawer
alongside the banality of existence
within the American consumer culture
; and nothing could have been more absurdly sweet
than watching the befuddled contestants bend over to squeeze themselves into a circa 1970’s Frigidaire
Sometimes the best thing you can do as a playwright is catch the whiff of a good idea and then leave it to more creative artists to hunt it down and bag it.