Circus Act: When 'The Price Is Right' Offered Elephants as Prizes

"Come on down!"
"Come on down!" / Bow: jsmith/iStock via Getty Images; Elephant: Anup Shah/iStock via Getty Images; Cullen: Hulton Archive/GettyImages

It was perhaps the first time anyone or anything had ever pooped on live television.

The Price Is Right host Bill Cullen and contestants stifled laughter as a massive elephant—which had been trotted out on stage to be facetiously awarded as a prize—could not hold its bowels any longer. The animal evacuated, forcing the camera operators on the episode, which aired in the 1950s, to quickly divert away from the scene.

Cullen made an observation with his typical wit. “All I can say is, the Democrats are asking for equal time,” he quipped.

Despite the flub, The Price Is Right would go on to feature a second prize elephant in another episode—and again, producers considered it to be a joke. But one contestant insisted that if the show was going to promise an elephant, it had better deliver an elephant.

A Pachyderm Pact

Most contemporary television viewers are familiar with The Price Is Right in its current incarnation, which has had an uninterrupted run since 1972—first with Bob Barker and then his successor, Drew Carey. But the series initially aired from 1956 to 1965 and was hosted by Cullen, an affable radio and TV personality who was so in demand that he was on the airways five days a week. In addition to heading up The Price Is Right and appearing as a panelist on I’ve Got a Secret, Cullen also broadcast a popular New York radio program, Pulse, every weekday morning."

At first, Cullen wasn’t sure that a game show focused on contestants guessing the prices of retail items would be all that exciting, either for himself or for viewers. But producers Mark Goodson, Bill Todman, and creator Bob Stewart convinced him it was a game most people played in their daily lives, when friends or relatives would ask them to guess the price of a new car or item of clothing.

Cullen’s doubts faded when The Price Is Right debuted to near-immediate success in 1956. (The pilot, in which Cullen fell off a turntable-style set and into a wall, was left unseen.) Airing every weekday live at 10:30 a.m., the show had both in-studio contestants and at-home participants: Viewers were invited to guess the price of a Showcase assortment by mailing in postcards. Millions came in weekly, and those who guessed closest to the retail price without going over won the items.

If The Price Is Right had one problem, it was that there was a finite number of consumer goods to feature on the show. Producers believed that the audience would eventually get bored of cars, kitchen appliances, and vacations, so sought to get creative with the prizes—specifically, with the “bonus” prizes.

Win a restored 1901 Oldsmobile, for example, and the show gifted you with a brand-new 1958 Olds; win a European vacation and you’d get some stacks of foreign currency to go along with it. If you won a French poodle, you might get tickets to Paris. At one point, the show even awarded someone an island in the St. Lawrence Seaway, which is now known as Price Is Right Island, and gave them a fire truck since they’d be the only fire department on the island.

That irreverence is what led Stewart and producers to rope in a circus elephant—not once, but twice. The first time, according to Adam Nedeff’s book Quizmaster, the defecating attraction was mistreated to some degree: In an effort to avoid having the creature poop on camera, a plug was inserted into its anus, which was reportedly a common practice in television at the time. (For animals, anyway.) Obviously, it failed to work.

“We did have an unfortunate elephant, I guess,” Stewart later told the Television Academy Foundation. “This was early in the show. We still had 20 minutes to go. The elephant got frightened. He did what elephants do when they get frightened ... We had stuff to bring on stage. We’re shooting everything from the waist up. The models are tiptoeing around, trying not to step in the wrong place.”

A stage covered in animal feces didn’t deter the show from bringing out another elephant, this time as a “bonus” prize and as a bad pun referring to a piano a contestant had won. (Its purpose was to provide "extra ivory.") It was meant as a joke, but producers quickly found out that the contestant wasn’t laughing.

Bigger in Texas

Stewart figured anyone winning an elephant was going to reject it, so he had an alternative at the ready—a cash prize of $4000. But the winning bidder preferred the animal for what was to him a sensible reason: He owned a farm in Texas and believed the elephant could produce enough natural fertilizer to make caring for it worth his trouble.

The show couldn’t give away the elephant that appeared on stage—it had been rented as a live prop. So Stewart went through the trouble and expense of shipping in an elephant from Kenya.

Obtaining the animal from Kenya was certainly feasible, as selling elephants in Texas and other states had been done before. One Abilene zoo obtained a baby elephant after a club raised $4750 for one. Finding out the fate of The Price is Right winner and his elephant, however, is difficult, as no media outlets seemed to have followed up on it. Previous contestants who won non-domesticated animals were known to sell them—like the guest who went home with a live steer as a “bonus” for winning a barbecue grill. It's possible this second elephant was given to the man, then re-sold—or that the man changed his mind.

However Stewart's elephant story ended, it only added to the appeal of The Price Is Right, which was a ratings hit for years. After the inaugural run of the show wrapped up in 1965, Goodson-Toman mounted a syndicated revival in 1972 hosted by Dennis James. (Cullen, who was based in New York, didn’t want to relocate to Los Angeles for the new iteration.) Bob Barker began a daytime version that same year. In 2013, Barker—a noted animal rights activist—paid $1 million to help relocate three African elephants from Canada to a sanctuary in California.

Although Cullen may have been usurped by Barker as the face of The Price Is Right, his history with the show and its elephants may prove to be more enduring. A 1994 episode of The Simpsons titled “Bart Gets an Elephant” sees Bart opt for a pachyderm instead of $10,000 in cash during a radio call-in contest, and “Stampy” proceeds to wreak havoc in suburban Springfield. It’s believed the show was inspired by one or both of the The Price Is Right incidents. (That episode’s writer, John Swartzwelder, was born in 1949, making it at least plausible he had seen the elephant stunts on live television.)

Cullen himself seemed unbothered by the elephant episodes, particularly the first one. Remembering the animal that used the stage as a toilet, he told a journalist in 1963 that the show featured a donkey the following week and “nothing untoward happened.”

Additional Sources: Quizmaster: The Life & Times & Fun & Games of Bill Cullen