My quest for the `Millionaire’ hot seat

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire

By John Grochowski
Chicago Sun-Times
July 23, 2000

To me, TV quiz shows have never been a trivial pursuit. I’ve always loved playing along, from “It’s Academic” and “G.E. College Bowl” to “Jeopardy!” (in both the Art Fleming and Alex Trebek incarnations).

So when ABC debuted “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” last summer, my first reaction was to shout out answers along with the contestants. Why break a lifetime habit?

Then in November, the show started promoting a toll-free number_(800) 433-8321_with a qualifying quiz. By then, I’d seen enough of “Millionaire” to have a second reaction:

Why not me?

After trying off and on for several months, I made it to the show. And if you watch Tuesday night (7 p.m., Channel 7), you’ll see me in a show that was taped July 10 in New York. A 2 1/2-week whirlwind took me from my home office in Elmhurst to my brush with “Millionaire” and host Regis Philbin.

It started with a single phone call:

THURSDAY, JUNE 22: As “Millionaire” aired that evening, I noted that the toll-free number was open_it’s open only when a taping block is coming up. A recording gives players up to three questions of the show’s “fastest finger” variety. The player must arrange four answers in the correct order, such as: “Using the numbers on your telephone keypad, arrange the following four composers according to the date of their birth, starting with the earliest: 1. Elton John, 2. George Gershwin,3.Peter Tchaikovsky, 4. Ludwig von Beethoven.”

When I get all three answers right, I’m instructed to enter a phone number where I’ll be the next day in the event my name is randomly selected by computer from among all who passed the quiz.

I tell my wife, Marcy, “We have to be home between noon and 3 tomorrow afternoon. Regis is calling.”

She laughs. I’ve been a first-round qualifier before, but we’ve never gotten the call.

FRIDAY, JUNE 23: I’m working in my home office, and Marcy jokes, “Regis ought to be calling any time!” Eight-year-old son David, who loves the show, is wide-eyed as he asks, excitedly, “Is he?”

Timing is everything. Just then the phone rings. Marcy answers and rushes in. “John, it’s `Who Wants to Be a Millionaire!’ ”

This time, it’s a live person, making sure I’m eligible to be a contestant. (“Are you or anyone in your immediate family or anyone living in your household employed by the Walt Disney Co., AT&T, West Teleservices, Valley Crest Productions or anyone involved in the judging of `Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ ?”)

Finally, I’m one of 40 people given a second toll-free number to call the following Tuesday for a five-question second-round quiz.

TUESDAY, JUNE 27: I have a 15-minute window to play my second round_I have to be home between 2 and 2:15 p.m. to make the call.

The format is the same as in the first round, with five questions in increasing order of difficulty. The opener is: “Arrange these four words in order to make the name of a National Football League franchise: 1. San, 2. Niners, 3. Francisco, 4. Forty.”

The fifth question, “List these four literary characters in order of first appearance, starting from the earliest,” sounds as if it’s meant to weed out the pretenders. (Ferdo Baggins? Just how old is J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy?)

I surprise myself by getting all five correct, and I’m asked to punch in a phone number where I can be reached from 3 to 7 p.m. that day. That’s a problem. It’s a work night. I have to leave for the office at 4:30. There would be only one attempt to reach me. I punch in my home number and hope for the best.

At 4:05, the call comes. A representative of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” takes about 10 minutes asking the same eligibility questions, then finally says, “Congratulations! You’re going to be on the show.”

Marcy and I will leave Sunday, July 9, and return home Tuesday. The show pays for airfare for two people, hotel for the duration, $50 per diem and supplies ground transportation in New York.

By the time I have everything written down, it’s time to leave for work. David is playing in the backyard, and I tell him. “Guess what? I’m going to be on the show.” He breaks into a big grin: “Hooray!”

FRIDAY, JUNE 30: About 10 a.m., an associate producer calls to gather biographical information.

“So what do you do?”

I’m an author, columnist and editor.

“Really? What do you write?”

Well, I write a twice-weekly column on casinos for the Chicago Sun-Times in addition to my duties as a sports copy editor, and I’ve written a series of Answer Books on casino games_so I guess I’m supposed to have all the answers for you.

“Oh, you’re writing Regis’ blue card for me.”

There’s not really a great hope of getting book titles mentioned on the air. Rules prohibit mentioning commercial products. But as long as he asked. . . .

The interview takes 25 minutes, and we talk about collecting fossils, Beatles memorabilia, being a baseball nut. I hope to get to the hot seat so Regis can use some of it.

Later that afternoon, Jennifer from the show phones. She will be my producer and looks forward to seeing me in New York.

SUNDAY, JULY 2: I dash off an e-mail to Roger Ebert, hoping the Sun-Times movie critic will be a lifeline. It would be fun to turn a tough movie question over to the expert, but it turns out Roger is ineligible. His TV show has Disney ties.

It’s my niece Michelle’s birthday, so Marcy, David and I head out to my sister Debbie’s house for a party. My sister Bev and her husband, Mike, will be there, and I’d asked them to bring along their “Millionaire” software. It turns out Debbie and her husband, George, have the second edition of the software, so I borrow both, and play constantly for the next week.

THURSDAY, JULY 6: It’s time to finalize phone-a-friend lifelines. We get to name up to five people, and may use one if we get to the hot seat and are stuck on a question. On the day I qualified, I’d asked Phil Blanchard, the Sun-Times telegraph editor on whom I plan to lean for geography, current events and general arcane knowledge. My others will be Darel Jevens and Jae-Ha Kim from the Sun-Times features staff, John Lavalie, a librarian friend in Des Plaines, and George Vass, an author and retired sportswriter and copy editor who is my backup on classical music, literature and history.

“I’ll be happy to do it,” George tells me, “but if it’s pop culture you’re looking for, I don’t know it.”

That works out well, since Darel warns me not to ask him questions on classical music.

SUNDAY, JULY 9: It’s time to go! Our flight is delayed slightly, and we arrive in New York about 12:30 p.m. A limo driver meets us at baggage claim. We’d checked no bags, so we’re off and arrive at the Empire Hotel at 44 W. 63rd at about 1 p.m. It’s a nice older hotel in a great location near Lincoln Center and just a few blocks from Central Park.

We’re free for the afternoon, so Marcy and I walk up Columbus, a street full of restaurants and shops, running parallel to Central Park. We stop at an Asian restaurant for lunch, then continue up to 77th Street and the American Museum of Natural History. The American Museum has one of the world’s great dinosaur collections, and we spend a couple of hours gawking. (“Look, Marcy, that’s the protoceratops skull that Roy Chapman Andrews wrote about in All About Dinosaurs, the bookthatturned me on to fossils when I was in second grade.”)

Finally, it’s back to the hotel, and at 6:30 p.m. the contestants gather to meet with Susan Vescera, the show’s representative who lives in the hotel. She explains the procedure for the next day’s taping. We’re to meet in the lobby at 9:45 a.m., and vans will take us to the ABC studio four blocks away. We are to bring no cameras, cell phones, pagers, computers, games, address books, magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias, dictionaries, novels, writing tablets_nothing that would giveanyappearance that a companion could conceivably signal an answer to a contestant.

Meanwhile, she says, if we need anything, give her a call. Lisa, another contestant, jokes, “Will you give me a foot rub?” Susan’s reply: “That’s not in my job description, but I can find you someone to give you a foot rub.”

MONDAY, JULY 10, 9:45 A.M.: Two vans take contestants and companions to the studio. After passing through security, dropping off our on-the-air clothes in a dressing room and handing over IDs and paperwork, we’re led into a comfortable room with overstuffed chairs and sofas for a continental breakfast.

Two senior producers, C.J. and Lauren, try to make everyone feel comfortable, while explaining a few rules. We are not to speak with anyone but other contestants, companions or people wearing badges indicating they’re associated with “Millionaire.” How serious are they about avoiding outside contact? Anyone needing a bathroom break will be escorted by a producer.

While we’re eating, associate producers pull up chairs and interview contestants, looking for tidbits that might be interesting for Regis to ask about on the air.

While waiting for Jennifer to interview me, Marcy and I chat with the couples nearest us. Kathy from Las Vegas is there with husband Gary. He’s worked in casino sports books, most recently at the Showboat, and we have a fine old chat about the casino industry. To our right, there’s Todd, the youngster of the group, with wife Andrea. Most of us are fortysomething, but Todd is in his early 30s. Andrea’s another newspaper person, working in marketing for the Knoxville News-Sentinel inTennessee.

Once Jennifer is finished with us (“Tell me more about the fossils. What’s the oldest one you have?”), it’s time to move on.

NOON: Down the stairs, across, up more stairs, and finally we come to the set of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” for rehearsal.

In the small-world department, I’m seated next to Rose Kerley from Melrose Park, and her husband, Glenn, comes down to tell me he reads my column all the time. He manages an overhead door sales center in Elmhurst, practically in my backyard.

We get to practice on seven fastest-finger questions_not with Regis, we won’t see him until the taping_and everyone gets a turn in the hot seat.

Either Todd or another John is first in on all seven fastest-finger trials. I finished second in one, in 5.49 seconds. Todd was done in 3.98. Eight of us start to wonder if we’re there for window dressing.

Each of us gets two questions in the hot seat. The nine companions serve as the audience, and when some of the contestants want to use the “ask the audience” lifeline, our companions vote. I manage to skew the results of one. The question is, “Where did KingJohn sign Magna Carta,” and a producer tells us, “In case you can’t tell, the practice questions come from the British version of the show.” I look back at Marcy, and she mouths an answer. I mouth back “C,” Runnymede. Othercompanionstake up the cue, and the producer is taken aback when the poll comes up with 88 percent for Runnymede.

Finally, executive producer Michael Davies arrives for a pep talk. Much of it is on the theme “Regis doesn’t know.” Don’t worry if he seems to be trying to influence you toward an answer, or questioning your decision, Davies tells us. Regis’ screen doesn’t light up with the correct answer until the contestant says “Final answer.” Until then, Regis doesn’t know.

After about two hours, we leave the set_and it’s about time. My teeth are chattering. It’s very cold_had I known, I’d have brought a long-sleeved shirt or a jacket instead of the short-sleeved shirt I’d be wearing that afternoon.

2 P.M.: Over a buffet lunch, Kathy from Las Vegas tells us that this is the first time she’d tried to qualify. “Gary (her husband) called once and handed me the phone. I didn’t know what was happening. I hung up. Then I called, and got in the first time.” We chat with other contestants, and most of us agree the nervousness is building. It’s getting close to the time for the real thing.

3 P.M.: Companions stay in the lunchroom, then head back to the set as the audience files in. Contestants go to the dressing room to change clothes. Then it’s over to hair and makeup. At my son’s baseball game a couple of days earlier, I’d gotten a nice sunburn onmy nose and forehead. The makeup lady puts a little something on to take the red out, does a quick spray on my hair, and I’m ready to go.

4 P.M.: At last, it’s show time! In the wings, we line up, and each shake hands with Regis and introduce ourselves. He has been given pronunciations of our names, but he wants to hear the contestants say it once.

Now we’re each introduced as we go to our fastest-finger seats. “Wave to the audience,” C.J. tells me as I walk onto the set, and I wave first to one side, then turn and wave to the other. When we’ve all reached our seats, and tried to calm the butterflies, it’s time to start.

What next? I’m sworn to secrecy. Watch the show Tuesday night, then turn to the Sun-Times on Wednesday morning and I’ll give you the instant replay.

July 23, 2000

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