The Magnificent Marble Machine

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The Magnificent Marble Machine
Created by
Presented by Art James
Narrated by Johnny Gilbert
Country of origin United States
Running time 30 minutes with commercials
Original network NBC
Original release July 7, 1975 (1975-07-07) – March 12, 1976 (1976-03-12)

The Magnificent Marble Machine is an American television game show that featured a giant pinball machine as its centerpiece. The program premiered on NBC on July 7, 1975, at 12:00 pm ET, replacing the short lived Blank Check whose timeslot was taken over by Jackpot.

Merrill Heatter and Bob Quigley packaged this program, with Robert Noah as executive producer. Art James served as host, and Johnny Gilbert was the announcer.


Two contestants, one a returning champion, competed, each paired with a celebrity partner.

In the first half of the game, the teams answered general knowledge questions, frequently involving puns or other wordplay, which were displayed on a huge electronic marquee, similar to one found on a pinball's backbox display. First, the players were shown blanks on the display's bottom line, denoting the number of words and letters in the answer; then a clue would crawl across the display's upper line. If no team buzzed in once the clue was revealed (or buzz in and get it wrong or took so long), letters of the answer then filled in at random as time progressed. (e.g., "He's center and he's square/#### #####", with the answer "Paul Lynde"; or "An athlete's supporter/###", with the answer "fan"). In the case of the latter example, the celebrity, David Brenner, buzzed in and blurted out, "Jock!"; when the laugher died down, James pointed out that the answer was only three letters, and asked if he was spelling it "JOQ." After the answer was finally revealed, Brenner made a remark about how he'd never worn a "fan" in a locker room. James occasionally gave an additional clue before the main clue scrolled across the marquee. For example, the blanked-out answer "### ### #####" would appear and James would say "What does this man pull out?" at which point, "A showy organist" scrolled across the marquee. (The answer is "all the stops".)

For any given question, only the contestant or the celebrity was eligible to buzz in. This alternated with each question, and was indicated by lighted panels in front of the eligible player.

Correct answers were worth one point. Five points won the game and the winning team played "The Magnificent Marble Machine" in the bonus round.

Bonus round[edit]

The winning team got the chance to play the show's centerpiece: a giant pinball machine — measuring 20 feet high and 12 feet long — that sat in the middle of the set.

Each team member manipulated one button, each of which controlled two flippers, and tried to keep the ball in play for as long as possible within a 60-second time limit. The team accumulated points by hitting bumpers, noisemakers, and lights, and hitting any of the seven large numbered bumpers won the contestant a prize, with 2 and 3 together worth a larger prize, such as a car or trip. Play ended if the ball fell into one of the two "out holes" (one located below the main flippers, the other in the middle of the playing field). The flippers were disabled when 60 seconds expired, with the ball (still in play) usually entering an out hole within a few seconds.

At some point during the series, a bonus prize was added for hitting all seven numbered bumpers at least once.

Originally, each bumper scored 500 points while any noisemaker scored 200 points. Producers audited the score by watching the tape to ensure that each scoring feature had registered, but scoring errors increased week by week as the machine aged. The rules were eventually altered so that only the seven "thumper bumpers" added 500 points for each hit, with nothing else scoring.

Money Ball[edit]

If a team reached a target score after playing two balls (15,000 for each new champion, minus 1,000 for each return visit), the team played a bonus "Gold Money Ball" where the player earned $200 for each noisemaker and bumper. Later, the goal started at 13,000 points with the Money Ball netting $500 for each bumper hit.

At some point in the run, this round was redesigned to be a multi-player "Money Ball Marathon" rather than a bonus round any player might be able to achieve in any one play of the machine. The contestant achieving the top point score over a two-week period would be awarded a Money Ball round. This format lasted for five marathons (ten weeks), after which the Money Ball was dropped from the game altogether.

After the Money Ball round was removed, the electronic point counters on the pinball machine were covered over. Contestants now only played for prizes obtained by hitting the seven bumpers.

Format change[edit]

In the fall of 1975, the series changed. There were now four celebrities (two per team), playing the front game. The winning team headed to the machine. One celebrity drew a name from the drum (filled out by the studio audience) and the lucky person played the bonus round with each celebrity.

Broadcast history[edit]

The Magnificent Marble Machine aired in its original timeslot until November 28, 1975. On December 1, 1975, the series replaced Three for the Money at 12:30 PM so Wheel of Fortune could expand to an hour. With the move, Marble was reduced in length to 25 minutes as a national newscast anchored by Edwin Newman aired at 12:55.

After the January 2, 1976 broadcast, the show was pulled from the schedule for a two-week trial run of a talk show hosted by KNBC news anchor Kelly Lange. When Marble returned on January 19, it changed to an all-celebrity format which finally brought on its demise. While the last first-run episode aired March 12, its replacement The Fun Factory was postponed due to a technicians' strike, resulting in repeats airing through June 11.

Episode status[edit]

Recordings of three episodes are known to exist.

Recordings of episode 4, from Thursday, July 10, 1975, featuring celebrity guests Florence Henderson and Roddy McDowall, are held by private collectors and can also be seen on YouTube. A recording of the first all-star episode, from February 17, 1976, exists at UCLA Film & Television Archive. A recording of the second all-star episode, from March 1976, can be found at the Paley Center for Media.

Comedian David Brenner mentions the show on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on December 5, 1975. Earlier that day, on a taping, he and Florence Henderson won $56,000 and six cars for two contestants. He also notes the show had been recently cancelled. This discussion can be found on Volume 3 of "The Tonight Show Vault" DVDs.

In popular culture[edit]

A brief clip from The Magnificent Marble Machine is seen in the 1979 film The China Syndrome, as the "regularly-scheduled programming" that the TV station interrupts to show the main character's report from inside the power plant. The clip shows celebrity guest Joan Rivers playing a normal ball on the machine, though the original audio is dubbed over with music[note 1] composed for the film. Neither the show, Rivers, nor Heatter-Quigley are mentioned in the film's credits.


  1. ^ written by composer Michael Small and included on the film's soundtrack release ("Source Suite #1")

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