When Enrico Bellomo wasn’t studying materials engineering in college, he was busy going to school on The Price Is Right. For years, he and his undergrad buddies at Penn State gathered in the dining hall for a little Bob Barker 101: Just how pricey is Preparation H? Oh, where to drop that Plinko chip? All that cramming is finally coming in very handy, as Bellomo — now a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara — has actually scored a rare chance to spin the big wheel. ”You can win money and prizes, and we have no money and no prizes,” says Bellomo, 26. ”What college kids want is what they don’t have.”
And their passion for The Price Is Right is never more relevant than over spring break, when thousands of students decide to forgo the annual sojourn to Fort Lauderdale for a road trip to Price’s Hollywood studio. ”One day I just happened to mention a group from a university, and it just caught on,” says Barker. ”There’s nothing shy about them. They’re outgoing kids, and they give me a kiss just like the others, particularly when they win a car.”
The students join peers from all over the country, like Louis Shamel — a 22-year-old biochemistry/cell biology major from California who recently shared Contestants’ Row with collegians from Texas A&M and Illinois’ Millikin University. A good bid for a sled/snowboard package got him on stage, but he grossly overestimated the cost of his showcase. Still, Shamel will take Rod Roddy’s call to ”Come on down!” over a beer bong on the beach any day.
”It’s a tradition at UC San Diego,” Shamel explains. ”I’m a resident adviser, and RAs will often bring up their residents during spring break. It’s just a lot of fun.” And a lot of noise. ”Normally, when the audience starts [applauding], the walls vibrate,” says Price producer Phillip Rossi. ”With college kids, the walls vibrate and the earth moves. They bring so much energy with them.”
CBS doesn’t mind accommodating the rowdy crowds, considering what the young fans give the network in return all year round: weekly time-slot wins in the adults 18-49 demographic (which makes up 28 percent of the show’s 5.8 million average viewers). Rossi attributes Price’s youth appeal to its 78-year-old host: ”Bob’s a constant in a world of change. They grew up with Bob, so he’s a friendly face and it’s a comfortable place to be. All we do is give stuff away, and Bob’s right there with them, ready to have a good time.”
Sometimes the stakes are a little higher: Rossi recalls now-legendary tales of students eager to win new cars because their clunkers won’t get them back to campus. ”I believe it because I’ve seen some of those cars,” says Rossi. ”They’re in the parking lot forever because they have to be towed away.”
Bellomo, meanwhile, won’t need to thumb it home: His winning bid for a telescope ($901) ultimately earned him a spot in the Showcase Showdown, where he won…a NEW CAR! There’s only one problem: Bellomo isn’t technically on spring break — he’s on a self-declared ”vacation” that involves skipping his proteins-and-nucleic-acids class right about now. ”If any of my teachers watch this show, they’ll recognize me,” he says after hopping behind the wheel of his new red Mustang. ”I’ll be so screwed.”