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Night Crawler 

The Dating Game

Wednesday, Nov 24 1999
The Dating Game
Perhaps it's happened to you: Plagued by an early morning deadline, your mind evades rest, swirling and tumbling, folding in on itself like the sweaty bedclothes choking your feet. You read historical journals, hoping for the onset of catalepsy; you drink soothing tea and try to force yourself to think only dozy thoughts; you close your eyes and feign sleep, but the icy-blue digits of your bedside clock are impervious to your efforts, frozen forever at 12:28 a.m. Defeated, you trudge to the front of the house, where you find the living room door closed -- very odd, since you don't recall even having a living room door. Through the cracks around the door frame, flickering blue light, muffled laughter, and sweet-smelling smoke suggest an alternative to your night terrors. You open the door and your roommate looks up at you with happy, leisurely eyes.

"Whatcha doin'?" you ask.

"Mmmm, watching TV," says the roommate with a sheepish grin that implies a still guiltier pleasure. "It's called Blind Date."

Blind Date, a half-hour program that follows the hapless mating rituals of North American singles, has been in syndication since September and airs in the Bay Area on KBHK-TV Channel 44 Monday through Friday at 12:30 a.m. and on Sunday at 6 p.m. Among the show's slightly sadistic, pot-smoking fans it has been described as The Love Connection meets The Real World and Pop-Up Video, something of a palate cleanser for night owls who find The Jerry Springer Show too contrived. Two single people, presumably paired for compatibility, are brought together for a nine-hour date which is recorded by a film crew, distilled down to approximately six minutes, and commented upon by Blind Date's resident shrink Therapist Joe. There are moments of matchmaking bliss on Blind Date -- the wild and crazy cross-dressers who enjoy their first kiss in drag, the single parents who have been dating ever since their introduction, the hot-tubbing toe suckers -- but the odds of success are not much better than in life. With blind dates, awkward pauses, disastrous gaffes, and abject humiliation are almost par for the course; a full film crew and millions of viewers guarantees it.

On the weekend edition, Blind Date sets up return applicants whose previous dates went poorly. First date: The blond bombshell Elahna whose incessant squealing led her last blind date to compare her to a cartoon character, and Marcus, who was likened to a caveman for reasons other than his prominent neck tattoo. The potentially made-in-heaven match goes to Elahna's favorite restaurant, Chuck E. Cheese. Marcus gets drunk and rude. Elahna asks to be taken home. Marcus tells her to take a nap in the car and ape-walks behind her back. A tussle ensues in the middle of a crowded bar. Elahna rips Marcus' favorite shirt. At Elahna's apartment door, Marcus says he had a real fun time. Second date: Clayton and Chrissie. Unbeknownst to anyone, Clayton and Chrissie had had a one-night stand three years ago; Clayton never called. There is awkward silence filled with many humorous thought bubbles from Therapist Joe. Chrissie asks Clayton why he never called. He does a stand-up routine at a comedy club about it. They make out on camera at her house. She wants to date him again. He says he'll call.

So, who voluntarily subjects themselves to this sort of embarrassment?

I arrive at the Grosvenor Hotel on Pine Street where 20 or more female hopefuls are waiting apprehensively for their interviews. Casting coordinator Caroline Johnson, an enthusiastic blonde who got her start with the show doing an impromptu lap dance during her blind date, passes out an intensive four-page questionnaire that asks each applicant to describe herself as a car, list her turn-ons and role models, define love, and explain the circumstances of her last one-night stand. During the grueling wait, Johnson tries to keep the energy high as the applicants try to keep their lipstick from feathering. A color television blares in a corner, providing distraction as the women are individually called in to an adjoining room for on-camera questioning.

Among the potentials for the five San Francisco dates are 26-year-old Lydia Linker, an intern at Digital Video Magazine who is a self-proclaimed sucker for humiliation; Shanna Kingsley, lead singer for the Gun & Doll Show, who seized the opportunity to publicize her band and show up her boyfriend; 29-year-old Jill Smelser, a manager at Urban Outfitters who has no problem getting dates; 31-year-old comedienne Kelly West, who brought her 9-year-old son to the interview; 25-year-old Christy McCaffrey who applied on a dare; 34-year-old romance novelist Ruby Foster, who claims hopeless romanticism as her motivation; and Cyndi Popper, a 26-year-old from Los Gatos who works as an optician's assistant at a Marina boutique. Having seen the show, none of the women are worried about the potential for televised shame.

"It's amazing to me that people can act that ridiculous on camera," says Smelser. "Some of the guys are just complete asses, but I'll take it in stride. It's not like I'll never get another date if this one goes badly. I just look at it as an opportunity to meet someone I wouldn't normally. No big deal."

In the taping room, I am told to stand with my toes on a white line, my head up, shoulders at an angle. I am surrounded by large white screens; there's a microphone up my shirt, a blazing light in my eyes, and a huge camera a few feet from my face. Don't look at the camera, stay angled, act natural, be animated.

"It's purposefully uncomfortable," explains the well-groomed interviewer, "because blind dates can be uncomfortable." Don't look at the camera, keep your feet on the line, use your hands, act natural, repeat the question in your answer, relax. "Have you done anything outrageous?"

The question throws me. Outrage? My mind races: Ritual sodomy, psychedelic liturgy, bloodletting, lunar eclipse, bridge climbing, Voodoo rites, midget bullfighting, cockroach eating, Holy Communion with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence -- this is just life in the city.

"Nothing comes to mind," I stammer.

"OK, is there anything you would never do?"

"There's some things I wouldn't do again: watching someone eat feces. I wouldn't do that again." Don't look at the camera. Relax ...

I'm a Blind Date dud.

But Jill Smelser and Cyndi Popper are perfect.

Smelser is paired with 29-year-old Sega engineer Mike Wilson. He brings her flowers. Since Wilson is new to the area, they go to Pier 39 for tourist fun, then to dinner -- just a man, a woman, a giant floodlight, and a camera crew. Conversation is easy, even a little charged. They discuss the pros and cons of going braless, the effects of seeing the top of a woman's thong underwear. The crew knows it's getting the juice. At the end of the date there's what Smelser calls a "big, crazy-ass, rock-star kiss." The crew misses Wilson's car getting towed and the ensuing drinks that lead to his staying over at Smelser's apartment.

"There was talk of condoms even at the bar," says Smelser, "but we were too drunk by the time we got back to my place." Never fear, another date is in the works for this week.

Sadly, Popper does not fare so well. She's paired with an auto detailer from Santa Rosa named Ben Smith. They're rained out, and eat sundaes at Ghirardelli Square before going for a workout at Gold's Gym, but by the third hour, the chemistry is already toxic. In the changing room, personal trainer Nancy Morano consoles the fashion-conscious Popper: "I see what you mean. He's a real dork."

"And in the car, he asked me if I saw him walking down the street, wouldn't I think he gets tons of dates," bemoans Popper, who earlier said she would rather date an arrogant man than a Ken doll or wimp. "I may have said some stupid things on this show but he's going to get massacred."

"She's really standoffish," says Smith. "She has a wall up the size of the China wall. It's too bad because she's really pretty and she's in great shape, but she's hard to hold a conversation with. I've done a lot of work on myself, physical, spiritual, some therapy. Her idea of spirituality is probably watching The Witches of Eastwick."

At dinner, things go from bad to worse. When Popper steps outside for a cigarette, Smith is appalled.

"This is the worst date I've ever been on," he says to himself. "Is anyone here single?" He tells a woman sitting nearby that he'd be better off if Popper were dead.

"It's like cultural anthropology," says Blind Date field producer Diane Korman, who has gone on no fewer than 84 dates in six months since last working for Discovery Channel's EcoChallenge. "Maybe only 10 percent of these dates work out really well, but that's probably indicative of the dating world in general. People are people, wherever you go."

Thankfully, there are others willing to do the legwork.

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Silke Tudor


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