Thirty years ago Thursday, in a Philadelphia television studio, Nickelodeon launched one of its longest-running and -- for a certain generation -- most beloved programs: the wacky, slimy children’s quiz show called Double Dare.
For the next seven years, kids around the country would tune in as teams of siblings competed for money, prizes, and the Holy Grail of Nickelodeon quiz shows: a trip to Space Camp.
The show launched a few spin-offs, including a one-season run in 2000, and firmly cemented itself in the hearts and minds of the Generation X set. Next month, Nickelodeon will air an anniversary episode with the show’s original host and crew members.
“I didn’t get it,” said Marc Summers, who was an unknown comedian from Indianapolis when he beat out thousands of other auditioners to land the hosting gig in 1986. “I don’t think any of us got it. But Nickelodeon had done tremendous research and found that kids didn’t have their own game show.”
The format was straightforward on paper: Teams would answer trivia questions, and if they didn’t know the answer, they could dare the other team to answer it themselves, for more money. That team could, in turn, double-dare its opponents to answer the question for even more money or compete in a “physical challenge.”
That’s where things got messy. Teams would have to swim through pools of slime, hurl themselves over walls, reach into the nostrils of an enormous nose (with accompanying boogers), plop into vats of whipped cream. The mess, Summers said, was the real draw.
“It’s one of those things where if you start to analyze why a joke was funny, it's not funny anymore,” Summers said. The show just worked.
Filmed at the WHYY studios for three of its seven seasons, the show became a touchstone for Philly kids. Jessie Tettemer, a marketing consultant from Havertown, recalls cobbling together a Double Dare set at the local Jewish community center for her seventh birthday party. (Her mom played Summers.)
As a kid, Jesse Cute, a publicist from Philadelphia, walked past the set by chance on a visit to WHYY with his mother and was instantly hooked.
“I was fascinated by the fact that it was filmed in Philly,” he said. “And it was just a half-hour of pure glee.”
He attended every live show he could, to the point where the hosts began to recognize him.
Matt Skolnik, a lawyer, remembered trekking to the studio from Fairmount to test new dares. He was given a spoon and an egg and told to transfer the egg to another contestant’s spoon -- without using his hands.
“I could not do it,” he said, laughing, “and in fact, I don't remember anyone being able to do it.”
Auditions were held locally and across the country. For some, they led to heartbreak:
Brendon Shank, now 41, attended an audition when he was 10 at a mall on the north side of Indianapolis with his best friend.
“It was on every afternoon, there were millions of episodes, and we loved it. The physical challenge and the gallons of slime -- it was an awesome thing for a fifth grader to soak in,” he said.
He didn’t make the cut -- “I was not among the Double Dare elite,” he said -- but just being there was enough.
A few Philadelphia kids did manage to get on the show. “The best part of Double Dare is that there are no losers. Everyone has a great time and wins some prizes,” wrote Barri Rapport, an 11-year-old “kid reporter” for the Daily News in 1986, who appeared on the show that October. “I even made a lot of new friends on a day I'll always remember.”
In the years since the show was canceled, fans have kept its memory alive. Summers -- who broke into television hosting the show, and still lives part-time in Philadelphia -- has returned to host special live episodes in the last year.
“Nostalgia is bigger than heck,” he said. “Everybody wants to go back and relive.”
A raucous live episode was filmed at Comic Con this year, and in Philadelphia, the Frankford Hall beer garden hosts a decidedly more adult-oriented version of the show called "Dunkel Dare" during Beer Week, hosted by Summers and other former crew members.
“Everyone is 30 and up and they all have five beers in them, and they are jumping up and down with joy,” Cute said. He attributes his career to the show -- his fascination with TV production and his near-obsessive pursuit of every newspaper article ever written about Double Dare led him to a career in publicity. (He saved the articles in a scrapbook that he still keeps.)
Shank, who moved to Philadelphia 11 years ago for a job in public relations, said he had passed Frankford Hall a few years back while "Dunkel Dare" kicked off inside. A flood of memories came rushing back -- but he never went in.
“I don’t know if I can go back,” he said. “I want to hold the memory just like it is, at the Glendale mall in Indianapolis. And I’m not sure I can take the heartbreak of not getting to play again.”
The Double Dare 30th anniversary special will air at 9 p.m. Nov. 23 on Nick at Nite.
(Story Credit: Philly.com)