“I’ll buy a vowel, Pat.”
“Who wants to be a millionaire?”
“Good answer! Good answer!”
“Let’s make it a true daily double, Alex.”
Recognizable phrases from television game shows. We all watch or have watched them. But how many people can say they were on a game show? I can. “Which one?” you might ask. “Did you win?” you could add as an immediate afterthought. “Or did you embarrass yourself?” You decide.
I had moved to Portland in May 1985 perhaps two weeks prior to seeing the announcement on the Rose City’s NBC affiliate KGW. The station was launching the nation’s first locally produced big budget game show and was seeking contestants. Auditions would begin at 9 a.m. Saturday morning at the studio, the announcer said. The game, On the Spot, he added, would be trivia-based. Well, I, too, am trivia-based. Thus, it took me a nanosecond to decide what I would wear to the audition. It would be my pink polo shirt. It was, I assumed, bright enough to make me stand out, to be a memorable contestant hopeful. Well, at least among the men.
I underestimated how many Oregonians and southwest Washingtonians would be lured by this opportunity, so I arrived at KGW several minutes before 9. The line already seemed to stretch miles into the Columbia River Gorge. I hiked to the line’s end and crouched in the shade provided by Milepost 42. OK. OK! I exaggerated. It was 32. On the Spot producers also underestimated interest in this project and were somewhat rattled by the hundreds of applicants who showed up.
I looked around and realized that many of the people in line were wearing attention-grabbing bright colors, crazy hats, unusual jewelry, and bold humorous tee-shirts. I peeked down my chest at my pink polo as its brightness seemed to fade to pastel. An hour later, a team of befuddled producers inched its way along the queue handing out hurriedly marked pieces of paper with try-out times. “Rather than have all of you wait for hours in the hot sun,” a young man roared to the 50 or so hopefuls around me, “we are scheduling auditions.” He handed us scraps of paper with “3:45” on it and moved down the line.
I raced home. I don’t recall if I boned up on trivia. I don’t recall if I paced the floor in anticipation. I do recall, however, staring at myself in the mirror, second-guessing my pink choice, and then changing my clothes more times than a female host of a televised award show. I eventually decided on a simple but striking black and white combination. My slacks and dress shirt were black. But my tie…ah, my narrow leather piano keyboard tie, bold in its white and blackness, stylish by 1985 standards, jumped off that dark canvas. It stood out like Sammy Davis, Jr. and his pale, blonde, Swedish wife Mai Britt had when they attended Yom Kippur services at Seattle’s Temple de Hirsch-Sinai in the 1960s.
The audition, logically, was a trivia test which I found easy. I felt I had done well and that was confirmed several days later when a producer contacted me. “You,” he announced, “Piano Man, have been selected one of nine people to tape test shows to be shown to potential advertisers.” The tapes, he said, would also be used by producers to evaluate what works and what is problematic in the structure of the game. I was thrilled and returned to the station for the taping. When I arrived, producers greeted me with, “Hey, it’s Piano Man.” My audition outfit had worked; my ebony and ivory tie had made me memorable.
I expected, however, to hear from producers again with a taping date for the On the Spot episode on which I would compete. I did not receive that call and games began airing in September. I became concerned, disappointed, and angry. How could they use me for the tests, I thought, and not schedule me during the first weeks of the show’s airing?
I was called, however, many weeks later. It was mid-November. Taping would be the next night. Thanks for the warning, I grumbled to myself. I need a haircut, electric tan, and a mani-pedi. And I have to lose five pounds! I asked my roommate, who was a hospital employee, and my neighbors to come with me for support, but the former had to work and the neighbors had another commitment. Therefore, I went alone. It was after a hellacious workday and I was frazzled and exhausted. I was not in a frame of mind to make my television debut. Nevertheless, I psyched myself up and entered the station lobby with a cocky attitude and met my two competitors. One was a four-time champ. I felt my confidence drain like sweat in a sauna shared with male supermodels.
We were marched onto the set for camera tests. I had dressed in a conservative, long-sleeved, button-down collar dress shirt and color-coordinated tie because, I thought, I no longer needed to stand out since I had already gotten the gig. My shirt, however, did not photograph well; its stripe apparently wasn’t as subtle as I thought and created a shimmering effect known as interline twitter, a phrase I stored away in the pocket of my brain marked “Trivial Technological Television Terms.” I probably had been instructed by a producer to avoid stripes, but as I was trying to retain the names of every US vice-president, Hollywood character actor, and left-handed, albino, Sagittarius pro-athlete, I apparently forgot the no-stripe request. Therefore, a producer brought me a sports jacket to minimize the shirt’s dancing lines. The coat, however, clashed with my shirt-tie combo. But worse, it was several sizes too large for me. I put it on and looked like Mickey Rooney wearing William Howard Taft’s inauguration suit. Crap, I thought, I should have worn the pink polo.
I tried to think taller and broader than I actually am in an effort to fill out the jacket, but before I could grow four inches and gain 35 pounds, the program began. Theme music played. Introductions were made. I recall Larry Blackmar, the affable host, asking about my aloha shirt collection which I had mentioned on my application. “One of them,” I said, “is a Mexican Hawaiian shirt.” The smiley emcee’s eyebrows formed question marks and he asked why. Instead of describing the pattern of palm trees, Tequila bottles, and siesta-ing Mexican men in sombreros, I answered with impulsive sass, “Because it speaks Spanish?” The tone of my response implied “Duh!” If you look up the word “regret” in the dictionary, you will see my picture.
I defeated the four-time champ and won a trip for two to San Francisco, $200 worth of Nike clothes, $750 cash, and an On the Spot logo-emblazoned umbrella so large it could have covered the entire Amazon Rain Forest. But my win did not come without a potentially embarrassing moment that would have dwarfed the Mexican Hawaiian shirt gaffe.
The category was “Nicknames.” Emcee Blackmar began reading the clue. “Marlene Dietrich…” and I buzzed in. I was ready to answer “The World’s Most Beautiful Grandmother” because that was a nickname she had been given decades earlier. Blackmar should have stopped reading the clue when I buzzed in, but he didn’t. “…gave this nickname to Ernest Hemingway.” he continued. Hemingway’s nickname was “Papa.” I didn’t know Ms. Dietrich was responsible for that, but switched my response to the correct one. Imagine the audience reaction had I said Ernest Hemingway’s nickname was “The World’s Most Beautiful Grandmother.” Imagine my picture in the dictionary next to the definition of “televidiot.”
That episode of On the Spot did not air until New Year’s Eve. I watched myself with pride as I won and then went off to a private New Year’s Eve party. I knew some of the guests, but many were strangers. I didn’t mention my TV appearance earlier that evening, nor did any of the guests. But when a late arrival, a stranger, arrived, my secret was exposed. He looked at me and shrieked, “Oh, my God! I just saw you on TV!”
I became the talk of the party. Everyone had questions. “What is Larry Blackmar like?” “Were the lights hot?” “Were you nervous?” and “How do you remember so much useless shit?” The stranger who had seen me on television asked, “Why the hell did you pick that god-awful sports coat? It made you look like Kate Smith.” That triggered the trivia-challenged guests to ask, in unison, “Who?” But the most awkward question asked was, “How many games did you win?”
I could not bring myself to tell them what happened in the next game. While I did lead at halftime, I could feel my adrenaline flow drop from surge to trickle during the commercial break. When the game resumed, I could not, regardless how hard I tried, buzz in first. But worse than that, I couldn’t remember basic trivial information. All the names, dates, titles, and facts in my head became a tossed green salad tumbling in a rickety clothes dryer. I thought the ‘80s pop singer Tiffany was named Tabitha. Or Thorazine. Or triskaidekaphobia. I confused the Kenyan city Mombasa with former Congressman Mo Udall. I couldn’t recall the difference between Yogi Berra and Yogi Bear. I mixed up yogurt and yurt. And I had no idea what a yurt even was! It is no surprise, then, that I lost the next game. My reign as a game show champ ended with a thud.
So, we return to the earlier question: Did I win or did I embarrass myself? Isn’t it obvious? The answer is clearly “Marlene Dietrich.”