Mix Lust and Loneliness with the Power of Tv, and You've Got the Latest Daytime Addiction, Love Connection

updated 06/16/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/16/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Celia Garner and Andre Ritchie remember how it all came together. Celia, a 28-year-old secretary, had moved to L.A. from Wilmington, Del. hoping to continue a four-year relationship. It ended when she discovered her lover had moved in with someone else. Life was dismal: She had no furniture, friends or romantic life, and her mother died. Then in May of last year her roommate saw an ad for Love Connection and told Celia about it.

Andre, 29, a tile setter, was also on the rebound. Separated from his girlfriend for almost two years, he was still "down in the dumps," as he put it, until his mother persuaded him to try out for Love Connection.

So it was that Celia and Andre came to join the 300 people who each day try to get on Love Connection, the syndicated daytime TV show that has spawned four marriages, three engagements and untold liaisons in its three-year history. It was born when executive producer Eric Lieber saw an ad for a video dating service, realized that there were countless desperate singles out there and decided to create a program devoted exclusively to the agony and ecstasy of pairing off.

Love Connection boasts no big money giveaways, no flashing lights, no blond sidekicks. Yet the show sells in 85 percent of the country's syndicated TV markets, grosses $25 million a year and draws 4½ million viewers daily, including, say the producers, such unlikely devotees as Dustin Hoffman and Connie Chung. "Everyone thinks of himself as a great judge of character and likes to put in two cents," says Lieber, explaining the show's appeal. "There's a little yenta in all of us."

There's also more than a little of the voyeur. While The Dating Game, its amorous ancestor, was content to show the selection process, Love Connection goes all the way—squeezing juice from the date itself, practically invading the bedroom. The audience, for example, screamed and hooted after Sue Correa, 23, and Brian Berenbaum, 25, announced on the show that they had spent the night together. Crowed Sue: "He got about 10 minutes sleep!"

Prurient kicks are one thing. But as host Chuck Woolery points out, audiences "enjoy the dates that fail even more." When a couple described one such failure, the man made an unkind comment about the woman's appearance. Retorted the woman: "Don't talk to me like that, you dirty little worm!" Whereupon the audience rose practically as one in a standing ovation.

Whether they end up as friends, lovers or enemies, Love Connection contestants start the same way. Each is interviewed by a staffer and given a PALIO score—a rating based on personality, appearance, life-style, intelligence and occupation. The contestants are then ranked as selectors or selectees.

The selectors then adjourn to production assistant Brad Aul's office to watch videotapes of three selectees, who talk about themselves. "This is maybe the most tense and emotional part of Love Connection," says Aul. "The reactions vary from people who abhor what they see to a girl who started hugging and kissing the TV set."

Shawna Broidy, 24, a computer firm account manager, recently went through the selector process. Watching the tapes roll, Shawna decided that she liked the first selectee, categorically rejected the second, and went crazy for the third—one Andy Rodin, 25, a sporting goods agent. "He's the one!" she exclaimed. "He wears Calvin Klein underwear and size 10½ shoes. He's the one!" Next, the date was set up. Aul gave the pair $75 for expenses and warned: "There's just one rule. Between the end of the date and time you appear on the show, you are not to call or see each other. So if you fall in love, put your glands on hold."

A few weeks after the date, the couple would be brought to Love Connection's small, no-frills set, into the hands of emcee Woolery. A man whose Ken doll looks should serve as a mold for a generic game show host, Woolery, 45, isn't shy about nudging a couple toward R-rated anecdotes about their time together or tossing a verbal jab at a cocky contestant. In addition to introducing his daters and datees, Woolery shows the studio audience tapes of the three original selectees and lets the crowd vote for its favorite; the selector is then offered another $75 date with the people's choice. "This is really the one show I do that I'll watch at home," says Woolery, who earns about $1 million a year for hosting Scrabble as well as Love Connection. "I really like its unpredictability."

He's not alone. It's the unexpected reaction, the surprising answer and the weird confession that seem to make Love Connection irresistible. Take Brian Berenbaum, who revealed that he uses sushi as a romantic yardstick. "If a girl likes California roll, I'll like her. If she does all the ordering, she's pushy. If she orders quail eggs, she's going all the way." Then there was Leslie Howard, 34, who explained that she judges men by taste and smell. "I can tell just by his breath if a date's going to work out. First I get the smell—I smell the face while I'm kissing. Then I weasel down the chest and the armpit. I once fell in love with a guy because of his armpit."

Sometimes Love Connection can be the pits in a different sort of way. Despite his designer underwear and shoe size, for example, selectee Andy Rodin didn't work out for selector Shawna Broidy. Oh, Andy had a good time, all right: "We felt everything was structured at the beginning, then we loosened up." Shawna, however, confessed disappointment. "He wasn't quite my type," she said. "He had gorgeous eyes—I could've looked in them forever. But once he opened his mouth, forget it."

Why should anyone risk such rejection and humiliation by appearing on Love Connection? Executive producer Lieber says, simply, "There's a little ham in everyone." But Dr. Richard Back, a psychologist who teaches courses on singles' life-styles at UCLA's extension program, feels the answer goes deeper. Love Connection, he says, "has an appeal that's magical. Combine the fantasy of finding the perfect person with the instant gratification of being on TV, and the two are a powerful lure. There's a magical hopefulness to the show."

Celia Garner and Andre Ritchie can attest to that. After her roommate and his mother persuaded them to go on Love Connection, they went head over heels. In fact, they broke the show's one rule: After extending their date into a three-day binge, they continued to see each other for the next six weeks. By showtime, Andre was so certain about the magic that right in the middle of taping the program, he popped the question. Celia was stunned, and then, like a good daytime TV contestant, proceeded to shriek her head off. Even Woolery was surprised. "What's your answer?" he asked.

"Yes!" she cried.

"Are you sure?"

Oh, most definitely. Seven months later, on May 17, Celia and Andre in love connected.

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