Absolutely No Skill Involved: An Oral History of the Ohio Lottery’s Cash Explosion Game Show

Now in its 35th year, Cash Explosion has become the little lottery game that could.

May 18, 2022 at 5:00 am
click to enlarge Cash Explosion turned luck into a game. - Photo: Provided by The Ohio Lottery
Photo: Provided by The Ohio Lottery
Cash Explosion turned luck into a game.

For Ohioans under age 35, there’s never been a world without Cash Explosion. The Ohio Lottery’s Saturday night game show launched in February 1987 with a cheap-looking set and gameplay that involved drawing index cards out of a painted wooden box.

But it’s come a long way since, now existing as a futuristic-looking, digitally-driven game that gives away $100,000 every week.

Even to non-lottery players, Cash Explosion’s humble beginnings and enduring legacy are impressive. It’s the longest-running state lottery game show and is currently the only one on the air anywhere in the United States. Ohio Lottery officials say the show has given away more than $250 million in its decades-long run, and audiences have deep affection for game personalities like Sharon Bicknell, who was with the show off and on for about 27 years.

With its anticlimactic gameplay, ghostly remote shoots, and glitzy evening gowns, it’s been a bizarrely successful run.

Jump into the wayback machine and ride to a time when the lottery was suspicious and new and Cash Explosion was but a glint in a marketer’s eye.

Part 1: “Don’t think that somehow you’re going to beat the system here.”

When the Ohio Lottery began in 1973, it wasn’t necessarily welcomed with open arms. Residents didn’t trust the process, and “numbers” drawings had already operated for decades in some cities and workplaces. Still, the Ohio Lottery Commission plugged along, gaining a little public support in the mid-’80s when the Ohio Legislature stated that a portion of the lottery’s proceeds should fund public education.

That’s also roughly around when scratch-off instant win tickets entered the picture. As Ohio Lottery workers struggled to figure out how to entice players to the new games, they began to kick around an idea: What about a lottery game show?

Tom Chema, former executive director, Ohio Lottery Commission: I was the ninth lottery director in the then nine-year history of the Ohio Lottery.

[Former Governor] James A. Rhodes was very concerned about organized crime infiltrating the lottery. In fact, he seemed to be more concerned about that issue than he was about selling a lottery ticket. So a lot of his lottery directors were involved in policing.

The man I succeeded had been the agent in charge of the FBI in Cleveland. There were a bunch of police types in charge who knew nothing whatsoever about running a consumer business, and they ran it in a very poor way. There were also a number of scandals. One of my predecessors went to jail and the state had been investigating some of our employees for theft. Human nature is human nature. There was all this cash floating in and out of the office and some of it ended up in these folks’ socks and back pockets on its way to the treasury. While I was [at the Lottery], we fixed that.

David Gale, former marketing director, Ohio Lottery: In the ‘70s, the lottery industry had to fight to get the laws changed so that we could at least advertise our games on TV.

In the ‘80s, it was a significant time for lotteries all around because they were finally gaining in popularity, but there were only a handful of games and that was it. The instant scratch off products of today? There was only one in the marketplace.

Chema: We were trying to broaden the base. With the popularity of the big money lotto game, we were generating more revenue, but it was from fewer people. That was not what we were trying to do.

We saw [scratch-offs] as a way to pull back some of the base that we had lost and to further expand the base to younger impulse buyers who would go to our agents, whether it be a drugstore or the filling station, and think about the instant ticket game as a vehicle for them to take a chance and potentially make some money and have a little fun.

In 1984, we did this big reunion for everyone who had won at least a million dollars from the lottery. David Gale and I thought it would be really a good thing for us to develop a program that would show appreciation to people who played the instant ticket games and won relatively small prizes at that point in time. We wanted to give some publicity to both the games and the players, and also to the agents who sold the instant game tickets.

We got our heads together with Marcus Advertising, which was the vendor that did the lottery’s advertising, and came up with this idea of doing a studio TV show similar to some of the game shows that were popular back in the early to mid ‘80s.

Gale: We thought, “How can we diversify the instant product?” because more and more lotteries were introducing a second instant scratch-off that had a particular theme, like football or something.

We said, “Well, we have this airtime that is part of the lottery’s media buy. Maybe there’s a way that we can use that airtime and create an instant scratch off game where a portion of the prize fund goes to the top prizes and to the game show.” So there would be a second opportunity to play if you didn’t win, because non-winning tickets went into a drawing.

The fact that we used real people became the key to Cash Explosion. We talked a little bit about Andy Warhol’s theory that everybody likes their 15 minutes in the limelight, and it was an idea that we didn’t know if it would work, but we thought we would give it a try.

There were a lot of different objectives that we wanted to accomplish back then, and consumer education was an important one, where the money goes, how people benefit, the fact that people are winning and that kind of thing. We wanted to provide this opportunity to say, “Hey, I know this person! He or she lives down the street from me” or “We shop in the same store!”

Chema: I had to get the folks in Columbus, the governor and the legislature, comfortable with what we were doing. There were people in that era who still hadn’t come to accept the lottery as an appropriate thing for the state of Ohio to be involved in. And so marketing in such a direct way and competing on television for other recreation dollars in a very direct way was something that not everybody in the administration thought was a great idea.

It was a major issue to get the state auditor to buy off on the show. The auditor was a guy named Tom E. Ferguson and he was not a fan. We had a lot of issues with him early on.

We had to make the disclaimer that it would be a game of chance, not a game of skill. Don’t think that somehow you’re going to beat the system here.

Part 2: “We were just looking for human beings who spoke English. That’s all we needed.”

With the vision endorsed by the state, the team was free to create the lottery game show. But how would they do it? Gale and Marcus Advertising knew they’d need outside help, so they placed an ad in Variety magazine looking for a game show producer willing to move to Cleveland for as long as it took to get the show off the ground. Les Roberts—who would later become one of Cleveland’s most beloved authors—answered the call.

Les Roberts, co-creator, Cash Explosion: I had written for and produced a lot of game shows [in Los Angeles], like Hollywood Squares. In fact, I was the first head writer and producer of that show back in ‘66.

Marcus Advertising put an ad in Variety looking for a game show producer, and I wasn’t working at the time. I thought, “I’ve never been in Cleveland in my life, so what the hell?” So I called them and sent a resume and they hired me.

Gale: One of the things that Les Roberts brought to the table was his experience in Hollywood, working with several of the game shows that were being played then on a national basis.

Roberts: I arrived in Cleveland, I think, on Jan. 5, 1987. It was colder than hell, and I didn’t have any cold clothes. They set me up in the office, and they got me a place to live.

When I came here, I didn’t even know Cleveland was on Lake Erie. I know it was in Ohio somewhere. All I knew about Cleveland when I got off the plane was Bob Feller, Jim Brown and the river burning.

Gale: We brought [Les] in to help us create the format and all of that stuff. It was a collaborative effort between Les, the ad agency and my office.

Roberts: I came up with several different ideas for the show, and most of them were shut down by Marcus immediately.

Roberts, Gale, and Marcus Advertising knew that to make a show that met lottery and auditor standards, everything had to be done by total chance, as if the contestant was spinning a wheel.

Gale: It was close to being [a wheel] in the first go round, because it was so long ago. The technology certainly wasn’t back then what it is today.

Roberts: They told me, basically, the kind of show they wanted to do, which was very different for me, because when you’re running a show for the lottery, it doesn’t mean that somebody has to be smart or anything like that. We were just looking for human beings who spoke English. That’s all we needed.

I thought, “How the hell am I going to do this?” But I figured it out, even though I had a very low budget. When the show was first shown on the air, it really was tacky. I begged for more money, but they said the lottery didn’t have it.

Gale: [Finding the format] was easy to do, to tell you the truth. It was more, “How do we make this entertaining? How do we hold our audience? Is this something that’s good?”

The game’s initial format asked contestants to pull a one, two or three from a box on their podium. The corresponding number of lights would appear on a pyramid game board above their name, and the first few people to the top moved on to the next round.

Roberts: I had a couple of things that I started with that, as a longtime game show producer, I found interesting, which is that contestants picking numbers and whatever, but you might pick a bankrupt, which means you had to go home. They did that the first show, and they said, “Oh, we can’t do that.”

Bob Grossi, Cash Explosion’s first host: They stuck people from the auditor’s office on the set the whole time to make sure that it was in fact a game of chance and that nobody cheated. They were just picking cards at random to add up to a certain number and the person with the most points got to the $50,000 pinnacle. It was a pretty simple concept, but it worked.

click to enlarge Longtime host Sharon Bicknell smiles on the set of Cash Explosion. - Photo: Provided by The Ohio Lottery
Photo: Provided by The Ohio Lottery
Longtime host Sharon Bicknell smiles on the set of Cash Explosion.

Part 3: “I’ve got something that you might be perfect for.”

Grossi had previously worked in Los Angeles but moved back to Ohio after running into a string of bad luck.

Grossi: They were looking for a host for an afternoon magazine program at Channel Five in Cleveland, and so I called up there to see if I could get an audition.

Don Webster, who was the general manager then, is a former longtime weatherman. He remembered me from Channel 10 in Columbus, because I did the weather there, and he said, “Sure, come on up. Let’s talk.” So I went up and did an audition for them. For whatever reason, I didn’t get the job, but he liked something about me and said, “I’ve got something that you might be perfect for” and he put me in touch with Marcus Advertising.

Roberts: I was looking for a guy that had a great personality, who was halfway decent looking and who understood the tempo of a game show, which is very different even from being a stand up comic.

Grossi: When I auditioned for Cash Explosion, I bet there were 50 or 60 other people auditioning.

The lottery wanted to give Grossi a sidekick, a Vanna White to his Pat Sajak, as on Wheel of Fortune. Enter Sharon Bicknell.

Sharon Bicknell, longtime co-host, Cash Explosion: They had the concept and they had been auditioning a lot of talent, primarily models. They were finding that because much of it was not scripted and that it was going to be improvisational with the contestants, that they were having difficulty throwing weird stuff at [the models].

My background was on stage. One of the producers at Marcus had seen several productions that I had done at the Cleveland Playhouse and knew that I did some ad work on the side, so he asked me to come and audition. It turned out to be a really good combination and a really good fit.

Stephanie Miller, former show coordinator, Cash Explosion: Sharon is approachable. She’s down to earth. She goes out her way to make contestants feel they are special, and it’s not an act.

Bicknell: I loved the interaction that we were going to have with the contestants, and it really didn’t bother me that much that a lot of it was improvised.

We did the show live to tape, too, so we tried to do it so that it would need the bare minimum amount of editing, because we taped it on Friday and the show aired on Saturday. Because of my background doing live theater, I was more used to a live format, so that actually worked in my favor.

Grossi and Bicknell were paid Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists scale wages and hired on a provisional basis for, Bicknell says, “maybe 12 weeks.” No one knew how the show would do, or if people would even like it.

Bicknell: It was a really small, tiny, humble beginning. They were hoping for 12 weeks, but they weren’t even confident that it was going to go that long.

Grossi: I’d never done anything like that, and I’m not sure anybody else in the country working for the lottery was doing a show like that. We were paving a whole new path.

When I was hired, I stayed in Cleveland for about two weeks and went to Marcus Advertising every day. Les, who created the show, showed me what I needed to do as the host. Sharon was exactly like Vanna White on Wheel Of Fortune. Her role was simply to just turn the letters on the score, so she wasn’t involved in these rehearsals. I went in and every day and we practiced and practiced and practiced while the set was being built, etc. They were coordinating all of this with the folks at Channel Five, because we were using their soundstage to produce the show.

Roberts: We were shooting at WEWS in Cleveland, and I was working with them on getting the set together. They said to me, “We can’t do the set the way you’re asking because we would need one more light.” I sat there and I stared at them and I said “Buy another light! I’m bringing you a big show! Buy another light!” And they did.

Grossi: After those two weeks of set up, we taped our pilot.

Bicknell: It was not all smooth and wonderful at the very beginning, obviously, but the format was solid. The first time we went through it, the episode ran about 45 to 50 minutes long, which was not going to work. So there was a lot to do.

Part 4: “Try to make it as suspenseful as you can.”

With talent and a show format in place, the lottery started to shoot episodes of Cash Explosion, though not on the schedule that fans know and love today.

Gale: We actually tested the concept for the first nine months by doing a quarterly show. We would just stretch out the entries over a three month period of time, and we took the show on the road. We took it to various communities throughout Ohio, and we even did one of the shows from the center of a shopping mall.

Bicknell: The prizes that we had to give away originally on our wheel, they weren’t awesome. Until we got started, we were an unknown entity and nobody’s going to give you anything if they don’t know you.

So, you would spin the wheel and win a weird vase or a tanning bed. It was kind of bizarre. You’d look at those things and go, “Wow, I kind of hope I don’t win that.” But it was the fact that you won something, and eventually we got to cars and park trips and nice things after people realized we were going to be on for a while.

Roberts: I broke my ass trying to give a car away, and that worked for a while.

Grossi: We gave away a car from GM every week. The contestant would win by finding the car under one of the numbers or on one of the cards they were pulling up.

Bicknell: I believe people could take the money equivalent of [the car], but many of them took the cars. It’s always a little bit of a gray area, because not everybody’s totally aware that they have to pay the taxes and that everything is not 100% free.

Grossi: There was always a little bit of a pause. “Okay, Frank, you’re two points behind. Which card are you going to take?” We tried to make it suspenseful. But I don’t think there was really any strategy. It was a game of chance. It was just a guess.

Bicknell: It’s the luck of the draw or the luck of whoever happens to just pick whatever they pick. People would say, “You can’t build suspense that way. You can’t build excitement that way.” But, especially in the early shows, it was unusual and because it was based on luck, that gave it something that other game shows did not have. Everybody had a chance, if you got the ticket. It didn’t make any difference. Everybody who came onto the show was on an equal playing field. It didn’t matter what city you’re from, what educational background, nothing. It’s just the luck of the day.

Grossi: Rick [Alexander], our producer, was always telling me, “Try to make it as suspenseful as you can.” That was the fun part of being the host: trying to make it a lot more exciting than it actually was.

Part 5: “They had to move Hee-Haw.”

Cash Explosion premiered Feb. 7, 1987, and the response was immediate.

Gale: After the first week of [the show] being in the marketplace, overall instant sales increased dramatically.

Chema: Even from the first pilot that we did, we were really surprised how many viewers tuned in.

We did a number of not horribly scientific surveys or polls, if you will, that we asked our sales agents to do at point of sale. We asked the instant ticket purchasers whether they watched the show and what they thought of it. Using that info, we developed some data points that were not supposed to be scientific or a real market study within three points. certainly, but it gave us a very rough set of data points that showed us that the show was very popular and that people liked it.

The old Nielsen ratings system also had the show… it wasn’t the Super Bowl or anything, but it got, relatively speaking, very high numbers. From the get-go, it exceeded our expectations.

Grossi: I hadn’t been on television in Columbus for almost three years, but once the show was on the air I started getting recognized all the time. “You’re the lottery guy. What do I need to do to get on the show?” The audiences that came to the show’s tapings were thrilled, too. I mean, they’d stay after the show and ask for autographs.

Gale: Since day one, we’ve had that Saturday night time slot, and the only other competition that I believe we had back then was Hee-Haw. It had a huge following, but it actually ended that at some point. They had to move the airing of Hee-Haw because we were building up our own huge following as well.

click to enlarge The modern-day set of Cash Explosion looks very different from sets in the ‘80s and ‘90s. - Photo: Provided by The Ohio Lottery
Photo: Provided by The Ohio Lottery
The modern-day set of Cash Explosion looks very different from sets in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Part 6: “The hardest thing you have to do is pick a letter. [Then] you get money.”

Contestants clamored to be on the show, often preferring to win the show entry on the Cash Explosion scratch-off instead of the $500 top prize. Two of the show’s early contestants were Rodney Rollison and Jane Switzer, who were on in 1990 and 1993, respectively.

Rodney Rollison, former Cash Explosion contestant: My ex-wife and I still argue about this. She said I bought the ticket for her, and that’s not true. And I bought the ticket on Linden Avenue in Zanesville, I think at a Dairy Mart. And I hit the three entries.

Jane Switzer, former Cash Explosion contestant: I had seen the show and I said, “Boy, that would be a lot of fun,” so I started buying the tickets. I got one that said “entry, entry, entry,” so I sent it in.

My parents just happened to be in town that weekend for Thanksgiving, and I said, “You know, my ticket could be drawn tonight,” and my mother said I was nuts. “Don’t get your hopes up.” And then I was the second one picked.

Rollison: I got this call that I was gonna appear on the Cash Explosion show, and hell, I’d just won a goldfish at the mall. I was like, “What the hell am I going to use this goldfish for? I guess I could use it for catfish bait.” I told my wife at the time, “I ain’t gonna kill this goldfish. I’m not gonna use it. I’m gonna name it Cash Explosion.” So I named this damn goldfish I’m carrying around in a plastic bag of water at the mall, calling it Cash Explosion. I was talking to the bag, like, “You gotta win me big money, man.”

Switzer: At that time, you had to go up to Cleveland for the taping. I think I went up two weeks after the lottery contacted me. They had me go up the night before and gave me a hotel room. I took four friends with me and my parents drove over from Niagara Falls along with my aunt and uncle.

At that time, they also gave the contestants a luncheon and then they took your family and friends on a tour of Cleveland. If I’m not mistaken, I believe they went in Lolly the trolley [Cleveland’s longtime tour and transportation service].

Rollison: My family was treated top notch. They put us in a Holiday Inn, and I was looking out the window at the lightning and thunder. It was the first time we all stayed in Cleveland, and along with the thunder, the biggest snowflakes I’d ever seen in my life were falling. I thought, “What the hell’s going on in my life right now?”

Bicknell: They came to the studio in a limo. They got treated like kings and queens. It was a full thing. And I mean, it’s Ohio. They’re not in California.

For years, I wore evening gowns for the show. We didn’t dress casually, because it was that special. Over the years, that evolved, but I’m always going to be partial to the early years, because there was so much emphasis on the contestant and the glamour of doing TV.

Miller: After the hotel, the contestants came in and got makeup. They were the star of the show, which they are because without them there is no show.

Grossi: They had a luncheon for them, too, and [a producer] was there to prep them for what they were about to experience. Then Sharon and I would walk in at the end of the lunch and have a little chat with them before they went up on stage, just to sort of ease their anxieties.

There were some older people who were really nervous about it, and I’d go over and put my arm around them, especially if they were older women, and just sort of try to make them feel comfortable. The men, if they were nervous, they sure didn’t show it.

Rollison: It was nerve-wracking, but I was kind of laid-back. It was the first time I had a suit on in probably 20 years. I didn’t even wear one at my wedding. I got married in my blue jeans.

Gale: One of the advantages that traditional game shows had that we didn’t is they could screen their contestants.

When we pulled a winner’s name out of the hat, typically, that was the person that showed up to play the game. But we also quickly realized that we needed to have a policy for the winner to have a designated stand in.

We were very fortunate in the contestants that were drawn, because there were very few times where we had to say, “We need to get a stand in here,” But there were one or two times where we looked at each other and said, “Okay, we need to find out who your stand-in is.”

Bicknell: There were a couple stand-ins that were unusual. Like, there was somebody who was supposed to be undercover who’s in the back and we couldn’t show their face. I’m not sure if they actually were government agents. I just remember them sitting all the way in the back and I thought it was weird that they were actually in the studio because normally if somebody stands in it means somebody was sick or couldn’t come. I don’t know if it was any illegal thing that they were back there for, but it just seemed to me that they couldn’t be on camera for some reason. Maybe I just built that up in my mind.

The players that did appear on screen didn’t necessarily come into the game with much of a strategy.

Rollison: Life’s a guessing game and so is Cash Explosion. Just give me a letter and let’s go. It was no big deal, let’s get this shit over with. That was mainly my attitude.

Switzer: I won $7,300. At that time, you might have been guaranteed like $5,000 or so. The lady next to me just kept getting doubles and she went home with maybe $25,000.

Miller: Everybody goes home a winner. It’s a no-brainer – the hardest thing you have to do is pick a letter. You get money.

Rollison: I never touched the keys to the car I won. I sold it.

Switzer: They advised us that when we got our winnings that we had to wait because they had to check to see if we owed any child support or something.

Miller: I’ve seen people come on the show and win, and I’ve seen how it’s transformed their lives. I can remember a young female contestant who was living with her parents and she had kids. She won a van and some money. She gave the money to her parents, but she was able to sell the van so she could go back to school and get a place for her and her kids. It changed her whole life, just winning that amount.

Bicknell: The one that I remember the most was our first big winner. He borrowed bus money to get to our show, and he borrowed a suit to get there. Then he won the $50,000. He came back a year later and told us how much it changed his life.

I remember before we started really airing the show, we were on a morning show promoting it, and they asked me, “Is this change-your-life money?” I remember saying, “I don’t know if it’s change-your-life money, but it’s make-a-difference money.” The reason I remember this guy so well is because he hugged us so hard and said that the money made such a difference.

Scott Lanum, managing partner, Mills James Productions: We’ve had regulars on the show, too. There have been several times when we’ve had repeat players on the show. They might not have done it 16 years ago.

Bicknell: I have to tell you one of the sweetest stories, though, about a remote show that we did. We got in town and we stayed overnight. The next day, we got to the theater early and there was a gentleman waiting outside. He asked if he could talk to me for a minute before we went in and I said sure.

He said, “I’m not going to stay for your taping today.” I said, “Oh, you didn’t get a ticket?” And he said, “No, that’s not it. My wife and I watched your show always and forever, and we always hoped you would come here. You did come but I lost my wife earlier this year so I just wanted to tell you how much it means to me that you are here in our town, but I just can’t come in.”

There were always moments like that. I got a letter from a gentleman, and he and his wife had watched the show with their son, who had gone off to service and did not return. When he wrote this letter to me, it was some years after. They had moved back to Ohio, and he said, “When we turn on the television, the one thing that meant so much to us is that we still found you. We had moved, and our life is different. Our son is gone. But we found a strange sense of comfort knowing that you were still there.”

To learn more about Cash Explosion, visit ohiolottery.com/Games/Cash-Explosion-Show.

A version of this story was originally published by CityBeat sister newspaper  Cleveland Scene.

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