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In 1982 an American ironworker named Dan Carr and an Elvis impersonator named John Ferraro took over a high school gym and put on a fundraiser production for the people of Erie, Pennsylvania.
Originally called ‘King of the County’, the show was inspired by the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Running Man in which strong men fought to the death for entertainment’s sake.
The locals who accepted the challenge were electricians, truck drivers, car dealers – anyone who would savage his neighbour for $500. The feats of strength in which they engaged were crude – arm wrestling, tug-of-war etc – and the whole thing was set to music. 5,000 people showed up.
Ferraro had the good sense to hire a camera crew, as he hoped to sell the idea as a movie. Carr bowed out and Samuel Goldwyn Jr. told Ferraro that what he had on his hands was a much smaller production, something that would work better on TV.
For seven seasons American Gladiators – revised to pit Average Joes in a highly-stylised physical competition against a team of superfit pros – enthralled a curious nation with its star-spangled spandex onesies, campy stage names, blow-dried personalities and punishing hits.
Four contenders began each week, each in a separate contest, two men facing male gladiators and two women battling female foes. Contenders found their strength, agility, endurance and strategy tested as the gladiators attempted to defeat them at every step.
The ever-changing games were bruising, tough and unusual. Among them were The Joust, Powerball, Assault, Breakthrough and Conquer, Human Cannonball, Altlasphere, Hang Tough, The Wall, Swingshot and The Maze.
The final event was The Eliminator, a taxing obstacle course during which gladiators attacked the contestants with mock weapons (everyone was well padded) or blocked their way, trying to slow them down.
Contenders earned points according to how well they fought their way through all this, and high scorers advanced to an elimination tournament.
Although the names of the gladiators were not generally revealed, Marisa Pare (Lace) revealed a lot more than her name when she was featured in the October 1990 issue of Playboy.
American Gladiators was broadcast in the UK by ITV and in 1992, ITV debuted their own version called simply Gladiators, becoming the first country to adapt the show.
Michael M. Horton
Lynn ‘Red’ Williams