What It Was Like To Compete On Legends Of The Hidden Temple
In the early '90s, Nickelodeon discovered that game shows were a great source of cheap programming. One of those shows was Legends Of The Hidden Temple, aka "What if we had kids acting out Indiana Jones scenes, but with significantly less death and Nazis?" This show was a staple of many of our childhoods, so of course now seemed like a perfect time to ruin the mystique.
We talked with Nicole, a contestant on Legends in the glorious year of 1993, to get the mildly scandalous details.
First, There's A Stressful Audition
If you lived in the Orlando area at the time, it wasn't unusual to see ads like this in the paper:
Nicole's dark journey began when she saw one of those and begged her grandparents to call. "I was actually hoping for Wild & Crazy Kids [a by-then-discontinued show which also bordered on child-endangering], but it turned out it was for Legends."
The auditions were a mini boot camp in which kids scared of moderate physical activity were ousted in humiliating ways. So like Olympic Day at school, but actually important. "For the first test, we had to do a bunch of exercises, like an obstacle course. I breezed through that. A lot of kids got scared climbing ropes and would freeze, with some Nick workers telling them, 'You stay up there, you're out,' and they were out."
Hey, better there than on national TV, in front of all of your friends and millions of strangers.
"Then there was a 'history test,' which really had maybe five history questions, while the rest were like basic science and then TV show questions ... One of the questions was about Ren & Stimpy, and the kid in front of me turned and said, 'Ren was the cat, right?' After he said that, a Nick worker put a hand on his shoulder and took him out of the line. Gone. Like that."
Welcome to the ruthless world of show biz, you little fuckers! "They were looking for certain kids. Half were boys, half were girls -- you know that just by looking at the show -- but to me they picked it almost like a jury. Really hyper kids were knocked out ... crabby kids were gone. Kids who didn't know Nick were gone."
Kids like Nicole, who were well-behaved and survived the barrage of Field Day activities, were in. A few months later, she was driven to the studio, only to find out that ...
Shooting Was A Rush To Crank Out As Many Episodes As Possible
Each episode of Legends Of The Hidden Temple featured six teams competing, with activities like a moat crossing, a trivia round, a final physical test, and then the big temple run, thinning the teams down to two, and then the winners. It got stupid at times.
If it seems like everyone is in a rush, there's a reason for that. The production was filming five episodes a day in a brutal 14-hour marathon. Coming in, Nicole was given her team (The Green Monkeys) and randomly paired with "some guy I have not talked to before or since." After that, it was a relentless series of kids cranking out game after game, getting through them as quickly as possible.
For efficiency, all of the moat challenges (in which the kids had to cross a swimming pool in some ridiculous way) for all of the episodes were done at once, then they progressed through all of the other stuff they had to shoot in the same fashion.
"It wasn't each group [doing the] moat, [then] questions, etc. It was group 1, group 2, group 3. Moat, moat, moat. I was waiting backstage, and you saw half the people wet and crying and half the people less wet and ecstatic. There was a girl who went to my school who was on the Silver Snakes, yelling at her teammate about how he wasn't trying. There was a girl backstage from the orange team from another group, and she was spitting up water and gasping when she sat down."
Then Nicole was up.
"Entering that stage to cheering people, it's like when the general entered the stadium in Gladiator. It's a bit of a shock. Then we were told to get on this tire to tire swing thing to go across. My partner, and most of the other kids, looked scared. The person at the beginning lane told us what to do before Kirk Fogg, the host, could. I remember asking him, 'What if we drown?' and he just laughed and didn't answer my question."
These kids were never in any physical danger -- you can bet Nickelodeon didn't want a "death by temple challenge" autopsy on their hands -- but from the way it was set up, many contestants clearly thought they were. Then again, what '90s kid didn't want to die that way? That goddamned temple would finally have an actual legend behind it.
Nicole's team managed to advance, but in the next round, it was all over for the Green Monkeys. "My partner was an idiot. He didn't know who Montezuma was, despite the talking head explaining that and a producer telling us before we went on. Seriously. I've already been divorced once now, and I'm more angry about my partner messing that up in 1993."
The Set Was Much Sadder (And Cheaper) Than It Looked On Television
The set of Legends looked pretty amazing on TV, at least by mid '90s kids' show standards:
The key words there are "on TV." Seeing it up close was enough to ruin a childhood. "On the other side of those sets, like the Temple Run, it was bare plywood ... they didn't bother painting the side not on camera." Look, we knew it wasn't an actual temple or anything, but you'd think they'd put out some trivial effort to make it less sad for the contestants. It's almost as if they enjoyed disillusioning them.
"The temple run itself was like going through a cheap haunted house. My team was eliminated before going in, but we got to do a run after for fun ... It was a mix between a haunted house and a McDonald's playplace."
The statues were arguably even sadder.
"Olmec, the giant stone head ... on set it was this moving rubber thing that, if you were close enough, you could hear the parts inside moving. The silver monkey (which no one ever got right) was even cheaper than you think. It felt like heavy compressed foam and had silver bits that flaked off ... It just ruined it. It was all hard foam to look like rocks, and signs out of camera view saying to avoid the dry ice."
Yet It Was Still Fairly Terrifying For A Kid
Note that when we say the stage was cheap, that doesn't mean it wasn't somewhat traumatizing.
"The stage was like coming into a nightmare. It was darker, smoke was there, and you saw kid after kid come in looking exhausted or crying or something else terrible, and then you went in. There was actually dread there. Cheap effects or not, it was a sense of foreboding. Then you come back into the happy fun game room and your mood changed suddenly, with waiting kids asking how it went."
And then there were the Temple Guards, the crew members who dressed up in native costumes and jumped out to snatch kids, instantly ending their run if they didn't have a spare "life" to give.
"I took a break from the games and asked one of the group winners what the temple run was like, and he said, 'The guardians. My grandpa told me what a heart attack felt like, and I think I had one when he popped out.' A girl from my school later went on and actually won ... and she told us that she had honest-to-god nightmares about them. Like, years later. She had a paper in high school. I was in her English class, and it was a Halloween paper about the scariest thing you ever saw, and for her, it was having a temple guardian pop up. Those guardians fucked up at least a few kids' lives. I know that for a fact."
They may look goofy from the comfort of your position safely behind a screen ...
... but imagine 1) you're a child, 2) are racing through a game, on edge because you don't want to lose in front of millions of people, and 3) nervous because of all the mental and physical anguish you've already been through. Then a bringer of doom pops up and grabs you. Suddenly it becomes an experiment in testing how much adrenaline the body of a 12-year-old can handle.
Many former contestants say they're still scared by the idea of guards popping out of nowhere (imagine one of them jumping out of your closet and whispering that the game never truly ended). And it should be noted that some of the writers who dressed as guards really enjoyed scaring the kids.
After All That, They Cheaped Out On The Prizes
So why go through this, besides the appeal of being on TV and possibly getting PTSD? The prizes, right? Well, because of the budget, they actually set the number of grand prize winners per year (eight), stopping the rest with temple guards and the like at strategic times. Holy shit, this whole thing was a masterful metaphor for adulthood all along.
"I got to keep the shirt, but that was it. I technically won $50 and this arts and craft thing, but that $50 was in a savings bond, so I'm not getting that money for at least another 10 years. And I don't even remember what I got -- it was one of those 'rad' arts and crafts things the '90s had so much of. I never opened it ... I remember in the parking lot, another kid who went out that round brought it to their car, and it had somehow opened, so there was this multi-color sludge staining his mom's car seats and her freaking out about it. So not only did we get almost nothing, we got, like, the cheapest kinds of things from it."
It was like winning the lottery, only to find out the prize is a Dollar Tree gift card. Ultimately, the true magic driving Legends Of The Hidden Temple was the fact that children will always work for cheap.
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, journalist and interview finder guy at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience for a Personal Experience? Hit us up here today!
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