Big-eyed and breathless, Todd Knapp stares at the circle of sandcastles and ponders his options.
He will, he cries, go for it.
Knapp turns his back and pulls the lever that sets a beach ball in motion. More like a wrecking ball, it swings out on a rope, sending the audience into a howling frenzy.
Back and forth, the beach ball sways, toppling precious sandcastles in its path.
Pink and blue neon lights flash all around. A strawberry-blond woman in purple sequins and with fire-red nails leads the crowd in a chant. At last, a guy dressed as Popeye the Sailor grabs the swinging beach ball and it's over.
Three sandcastles are still standing. That makes Knapp thousands of dollars richer.
"Yes!" contestant Knapp yells, wildly pumping the hand of the grinning host.
And it's off to the next round of Flamingo Fortune, the Florida Lottery's new television game show. It's point is simple: Sell more lottery tickets.
How better to do that, lottery officials thought, than to show real people winning cold cash every Saturday evening.
"The challenge to creating the games," says lottery broadcast operations director Paul Jacob, "is there can be no skills involved."
In keeping with the the lottery itself, Flamingo Fortune, which debuted last month on TV stations across the state, features only games of chance.
Balls fall through tubes. Wheels spin. Winning picks lurk behind walls of random numbers.
Off the set, the drama is more intense.
Legislators complain that they never approved spending lottery money on a TV show. Critics question where the show's prize money comes from and how its creators were picked.
State Rep. Randy Mackey, D-Lake City, wonders whether the show can accomplish its goal of increasing lottery sales as much as $90-million a year.
"I hope it does generate that," he said. "I would have liked to see some proof that it works. It was really kind of going out on a hope."
Mackey has seen the show.
"It's just a little bit, uh . . .." He pauses.
"I don't want to use the word "hokey,' but . . .."
He can't think of another.
Cloud hangs over show
Lottery secretary Marcia Mann has heard far sharper criticism than that.
Lottery sales have not grown at the pace they did in the early years, before Mann was hired by Gov. Lawton Chiles to head the lottery. Last fiscal year, annual sales were $2.3-billion. That was the highest in the game's eight-year history, but only a small rise over 1991's $2.19-billion in sales.
Meanwhile, a company that wants to run the lottery's online games accused lottery officials of tilting the contract _ worth as much as $500-million over 10 years _ in favor of the company that already holds it.
Then came Flamingo Fortune.
Similar game shows exist in other states, including Illinois and Massachusetts, and their experience indicates Flamingo Fortune should boost Florida's sales by $60-million to $90-million annually, Mann says.
The show encourages ticket sales directly, since contestants become eligible for the show by playing a new scratch-off game or two existing lottery games. And indirectly: Television viewers will see people winning an average of $200,000 during each 30-minute show and want to join the fun, lottery officialshope.
It's too early to draw conclusions. After the show's debut last month, lottery officials announced "strong overnight ratings," including viewership in 97,326 Tampa Bay households. The show came in second behind Jeopardy! in its 7:30 p.m. Saturday slot on WTVT-Ch. 13.
Some lawmakers are unimpressed.
They complain that no one asked them about a game show, which is expected to cost between $3-million and $3.5-million for 52 episodes this year.
Lottery officials counter that the money will come out of a fund already designated for advertising. "It didn't require legislative approval," says Mann. "We don't come and ask, can we do a commercial? Can we do a billboard?"
Next year, the lottery is asking legislators for permission to spend an additional $2.95-million of its revenues on advertising, which has become more expensive, a lottery spokesman said. But Rep. Mackey, who chairs the committee that oversees lottery spending, wonders whether the game show has something to do with the request. "Somewhere, they've created that deficit," he said.
Prizes for Flamingo Fortune, expected to total about $6.4-million, aren't included in the show's budget. Part of that comes from a new lottery policy: rounding down prizes won in two other lottery games. The lottery has always rounded off prizes to the nearest 50-cents, but it used to round up as well as down, lottery spokesman Ed George says.
A player who wins $4.30 in Fantasy 5, for example, will collect $4. In the past, that player would have received $4.50.
The change is fair, George says, because ticket buyers also gain an "added value" with a chance to be picked for the television show.
The awarding of the contract to create the show also has sparked debate. Mark Goodson Productions, makers of The Price Is Right, got the contract, which pays the company $7,500 per show plus two minutes of commercial time. As an artistic service, lottery officials say it is exempt from the normal state bidding process. Critics said it should have gone to bids.
Miami filmmaker Al Crespo, who has campaigned tirelessly against the show, wonders why a Florida producer was not given the chance. In addition, Crespo accuses the lottery of awarding contracts unfairly to subcontractors. Lottery officials say Crespo is imaginative _ and wrong.
They seem worn down, irritated, by the cloud that hangs over their fantasy show.
"We feel the right decisions were made with this game show," says spokesman Ed George. "Let the show run awhile and let's see."
Chiles, who was against creating the lottery in the first place, agrees.
Chiles has even watched the show.
"He liked it very much," said Chiles spokesman Ron Sachs. "It's a big hit and it's doing what it's supposed to do _ which is to promote the sale of tickets to promote education."
Win for local actors
For the hundreds of actors, singers and waiters who auditioned to become Flamingo Fortune's on-camera host, the show also meant a crack at fame.
The winner was J.D. Roberto, a 25-year-old Orlando actor. On the show, where he hollers lines like _ "Let's keep making money!" _ he's just J.D.
It's a stretch of sorts from Roberto's earlier credits: Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II. He graduated with honors from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and studied with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But Roberto, who says he has never won money playing the Florida Lottery, considers this role his "big win."
The job has won him recognition at his local Texaco station and Dunkin' Donuts shop, he says. And in Ohio, his mother gathers the neighbors to watch tapes of the game show.
Behind Roberto's fluffed hair and boy-next-door grin, hundreds toil on the production.
Dozens of crew members in headsets swarm around Universal Studios sound stage 23.
Lottery workers with clipboards test each of the games _ Beach Ball, Grand Prix, Free Fall and Treasure Island _ at least 100 times and store them in special "secure cages" when tapings are over.
A "warmup" man named Cassidy, who tried out for the host job, struggles to entertain the contestants and studio audience during slow moments.
And there's Heather Alexander, J.D.'s co-star and the woman in the purple sequins.
Alexander, another Orlando actor, has done Annie and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas on the Florida dinner theater circuit. The 29-year-old mother of three also has appeared in commercials for Sprint and Pic 'n' Save. She smiles so much that an audience member asks whether she ever stops.
Since the show first aired a month ago, Heather's hemlines have raised and her necklines have plunged. Heather, who described the old image as a "Mrs. America" look, says she likes the change.
Heather's title is co-host, but J.D. leads the contestants through the games. Heather does the cheerleading and announces at-home winners.
Nothing odd about that, lottery officials say. Think Pat and Vanna.