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Trials, tribulations of a gameshowholic

August 24, 2000

Trials, tribulations of a gameshowholic



My name is Bob F., and I'm a gameshowholic.

My destiny in life, I'm convinced, is to make a fool of myself on a nationally televised, big-money quiz show.

Life wasn't always like this. Granted, over the years I earned a rep among friends, in school and at work as being, well, if not a trivia geek, sort of a walking reference library of old movie plots, '60s song lyrics and other "odd facts known by few," as Barney Fife once put it.

At home, I would play along with "Jeopardy!" and other quiz shows, but not religiously. No point in trying to get on one; they're taped in Los Angeles and you have to pay your own way.

I was on a TV quiz show once, anyway.

Flash back 31 1/2 years, to the studios of WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., where Martinsburg High's "It's Academic" team is instructed to look at a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I on the video monitor.

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Mac McGarry (yes, the same Mac McGarry), reads, "Name this 16th-century English monarch, for whom the colony of Virginia was named."

Seared into my memory, more than three decades later, is my precise train of thought as it sped full steam off the splintered end of a washed-out bridge and into the abyss of embarrassment:

"That's Elizabeth the First," I deduced. "She was known as the Virgin Queen. Hmmm. Virgin Queen. Virgin Queen. Virgin Mary. Got it!"

"Mary?"

Oops.

I never dreamed that my childhood habits of reading the encyclopedia "for fun" and studying the credits of every movie and TV show I'd ever seen would pay off in serious cash.

The premiere of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire" last summer changed all that.

Night after night, as tens of millions of viewers played along at home, a parade of regular people, most of them middle-aged American males like me, sat in the hotseat opposite Regis Philbin, becoming rich and famous.

That could be me. Heck, it should be me.

Like many of you, I've punched 1-800-433-8321 nearly every night the "Millionaire" contestant lines are open. And close to 40 times, after correctly answering the three questions, I've waited in vain by the phone the next day.

Well, not entirely in vain. Last February, on consecutive days, the phone rang, qualifying me for two "playoff" games. Ten winners from each would go to New York. By coincidence, both "playoff" games came the same day.

Came and went. I blanked on the first question of the first game. Having never heard of Saul Bellow's 1959 novel, "Henderson the Rain King," I was unable to arrange the four words of that title in the proper order.

I took 15 minutes to recompose myself, then dialed in again for game two. It was a different set of questions, and much harder. Choke City again.

Two months earlier, I had a much closer brush with game show superstardom.

Remember "Greed," the Fox network's hastily conceived answer to "Millionaire?" You might not; it went on the air in November and went off last month.

"Greed" originally offered a top prize of $2 million plus, which could be split up to five ways. During the course of the game, randomly chosen players had the option of "terminating" a fellow contestant in a face-to-face, one-question challenge. The winner kept the loser's share of the jackpot.

My wife, Carolyn, was watching with me the night Curtis Warren, who eventually won $1.4 million on "Greed," terminated a tearful female contestant.

"Why me?" the young lady, suddenly $100,000 poorer, sobbed. "I felt the need for greed," Curtis replied, coldly.

"If you EVER go on that show," Carolyn announced, "I'll divorce you."

Later, when Curtis, Melissa Skirboll and Dan Avila reached the $1 million level on a multiple-choice question I answered instantly, Carolyn changed her tune.

"If you go on that show and screw up, I'll divorce you."

She didn't know I'd already invested $3.98 on two calls to "Greed's" contestant line. And she was out of the house that Sunday afternoon a week or so later, when a "Greed" production assistant called.

First came the quiz, 12 easy multiple-choice questions (a sample: "In which war was the battle of Bull Run fought?"). Later, another staff member called for an interview in which I was asked, among other things, to describe myself physically. But I don't think she understood what "sort of a cross between Garry Shandling and Steve Kanaly, the guy who played Ray Krebbs on 'Dallas' " looks like.

But apparently the folks at Dick Clark Productions wanted to find out. About two weeks later, in early December, travel coordinator Hazel Scott called to say I won the "opportunity" to appear on the series.

"You understand you might not actually get on the show," she cautioned.

"I understand perfectly." Right. As if they were going to keep me off the air.

The odds were good

I'd already done the math. They were flying 25 potential contestants to L.A. They would need 24 players to tape two one-hour episodes that Saturday. I liked those odds.

At the very least, it was a free trip to L.A.

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