Thursday, May 20, 2004

MY WWTBAM Experience

My mother-in-law was in town in September of 2000 and we were watching television one evening. The millionaire show was on and she asked if I ever called the toll-free contestant number. This was about a year after the show debuted and nearly as long since I tried the number. I remembered they asked three trivia questions and recorded your answers but I wasn't good enough to get past those questions.

That night I tried the number again and to my surprise and delight I answered the three questions correctly. It was automated but the recording told me my information was entered in a random drawing for the second round of qualifying. If chosen, they promised to call me between 11am and 2pm the following day. I gave the computer my work phone and ate lunch at my desk the next day but no call came through. I tried once more that night. Again, I answered all three trivia questions right and the next day I got a call from ABC. A real person asked me a lengthy list of eligibility questions. I passed and he gave me the secret toll-free number and PIN for round three. I was very excited. If I answered this series of questions correctly, I might be going to New York as a contestant.

Three days later at the appointed time I phoned in for the next round of questions. Back to the automation system this time with five questions instead of three. I got the first four right but missed the fifth question. Who was born first: Miles Davis or Perry Como? I said Davis but Como was older.

I came so close! I was more determined than ever to get back to the third round. Fast forward to November. Three months later and I was still trying everyday when the phone lines were open. They weren't open all the time. I made it back to round three in October but fared worse, missing two questions. It's the weekend after Thanksgiving and once again I qualified for the third round. (I qualified for round two six times total, with callbacks three times for round three).

The phone game was tricky. Here's how it worked. You must put things in order. A question might be, "put these presidents in order of term, starting with the most recent and working backwards: 1)James Buchanan, 2) Jimmy Carter, 3) Woodrow Wilson, and 4) John Adams. Not only do you have to know the answer, you have to make the corresponding association to the order, rearrange them, and punch it in on your touch tone phone. The answer to our question is 2-3-1-4. You get the idea.

Three days later I took a pad and pen into a conference room, put the phone on speaker, and called the toll free number. Here were the questions. I had 10 seconds to answer each one.

Put these numbered song titles in order beginning with the smallest

1) 1999
2) 99 Red Balloons
3) Eight Days a Week
4) One is the loneliest number

Answer: 4-3-2-1

Put these historical events in the order they occurred, beginning with the earliest

1) Grand Canyon becomes National park
2) The NFL is formed
3) Glenn Miller dies in a plane crash
4) Hostage crisis in Iran

Answer: 1-3-2-4

Put these movie titles in order of release date, beginning with the earliest

1) roadtrip
2) thelma & louise
3) muppets take Manhattan
4) easy rider

Answer: 4-3-2-1

Put these people in order of their year of birth beginning with the most recent

1) Matt Lauer
2) Edward R. Murrow
3) Charles Kuralt
4) Joseph Pulitzer

Answer: 1-3-2-4

Put these islands in order moving east from the Hawaiian islands

1) Canary
2) Solomon
3) Philippines
4) West Indies

Answer: 4-1-3-2

I rocked the house going 5 for 5. The recording said if chosen, I'd be called between 4pm and 7pm that day. I waited at my desk. No call by 5pm. At 6pm, still nothing and I started to worry. At 6:30, I wondered what the heck it took to make it. I figured it wasn't going to happen for me.

I got the call at 6:35pm! It was a producer from the show and after additional eligibility questions, he told me I'd been selected to appear as a finalist on the TV program. I had one week to prepare. I was going to New York to meet Regis and try to win a million dollars! The first task was to pick a companion.

My wife was my first choice but our son Skyler was only 18 months old and not ready for New York travel. My parents would have kept him but my Mom was in Cape Girardeau with my Grandmother. That effectively removed my Grandma, Wife, and Mom. So I tapped my dad.

Pop became my secret weapon in this adventure. He's a psychologist by trade and showed me a video tape of a new technique used by therapists in California called eye movement de-sensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). It's a simple but effective way to drain off excess anxiety in the brain by getting the hemispheres in sync. It's used in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. It helps people come to terms with traumatic events of the past. It has a secondary use among people in anticipation of events, like a performance, to help quell stage fright.

We decided to use EMDR in anticipation of the millionaire event. I was worried about not being able to use the equipment effectively. They had buttons on a panel to punch in your answers for the fastest finger questions. Dad and I used EMDR to explore that.

The network paid for the airplane tickets, hotel, and transportation, so all I needed to do was arrange for my phone-a-friend. Actually, they let you have five friends on stand-by and pick in real time based on the question at hand. At the top of my list was David Mehnert. David and I went to high school together. He agreed to be available during the taping window and I supplemented my list with my wife, my sociology professor from DeVry, my ex-boss from Audio Reader in Lawrence, and a guy I worked with at my first I.T. job at Waddell and Reed. Everybody was set.

I took three vacation days to cover my trip. Everybody was very excited as word spread at work of my impending appointment with Regis. I overcame long odds to make it this far. Now, I had a one in ten shot at getting to the money questions. I confidently told a co-worker that if I had three chances to get in the hot seat, I would be there.

Pop and I headed to KCI when the big day arrived. The reality sunk in when I picked up the airline tickets at the teminal counter. This was really happening. We arrived at LaGuardia airport at 1:30pm local time. We got an excellent view of lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center towers as we swooped into the area on our TWA jet. John from the car service was waiting for us when we hit the terminal. A native New Yorker, John showed no fear navigating the always-heavy, in-bound traffic. The Empire hotel at west 63rd and Broadway was a small, elegant eleven-story building. The lobby was posh but the room was small and the bathroom even smaller. We settled in and I phoned my millionaire contact in residence, Susan Vescera. A meeting to receive per-diem and get wardrobe approval was scheduled for 5:30pm. In the meantime, I phoned the associate producer at the show to inform him of my arrival. Dad took a nap.

I phoned two KU college friends, Alex Rappoport and Michael Bassin, to see what they were doing for dinner. We agreed to meet at Joe's Shanghai in Chinatown at 7:30pm. Brent phoned me back to conduct a pre-interview. In the event I made it into the hot seat, Regis needed notes about my personal life for the chat segments. Pre-interviews and notes were compiled for all contestants. Afterward, I read the almanac to kill some time before the 5:30 meeting. When I arrived at suite 1124 with show clothes in tow, I saw my competition for the first time. Nine other gentlemen of various shapes and sizes greeted me with varying degrees of good cheer. I adopted a cool demeanor.

All ten of us signed releases for per-diem and were given 150 dollars in cash for our three days in the city. Packets were distributed with the complete rules and other release forms. We were instructed to be in the lobby the following day at 9:45am. A shuttle would transport the contestants and companions to the ABC studios. Dress casually and for warmth, she said. The studio was kept at 65 degrees. We were to bring our approved show clothes along with us. Prior to the start of the show at 4pm, we would go to our dressing room for wardrobe, hair, and makeup. After the meeting, I took Dad back to the suite to get his brown jacket approved. It had a funky sharktooth pattern and I was afraid it might not be up to standards but it was deemed acceptable.

The cab ride to Chinatown took 30 minutes and nearly 13 dollars. We struggled through the theater district and Times Square. The Edison Hotel at Times Square appeared to be going strong. It was famous for being the former home of band leader Ozzie Nelson in the 1930s. When I stayed there on my first visit to the city in 1974, the aura of times square was quite different. There were strip clubs and porn houses everywhere. The Nelsons would have been ashamed. I was happy to see the Howard Johnson's coffee shop where Granny and I ate breakfast 26 years previously. Lilly Tomlin waited tables there in the 1960s. This night she had her name up in lights nearby for her award-winning one-woman show. In fact the lights at Times Square were impressive. Our cabbie swung over to the east side past Grand Central station. A quick right turn at the United Nations building on F.D.R drive and we were on the fast track to the lower east side.

The restaurant in Chinatown was a dim sum place. You sat at huge circular tables for ten people. If your party was less than ten people, they seated strangers with you to fill up the extra space. My friend Alex appeared bearing gifts. He gave me a lucky charm, a pocket-sized laughing Buddha. The laughing Buddha was said to bring financial good luck. I carried this with me the next day. Michael Bassin, his wife and his sister-in-law also joined us. Later that evening back in the hotel, I had trouble falling asleep. Imagine that! I dozed off about 2am.

The ABC staff treated us well. They were nice through every phase of the experience. We spent a full day at the studio. Once inside the complex, we could not take phone calls, go to the bathroom unescorted, or consult reference materials. We were in lock-down to avoid any appearance of cheating.

We ate a continental breakfast in the commissary and heard our carry-over contestant was going for 500K at the start of our show. That was great news! It meant more chances to get in the hot seat for the lot of us. (Show rules guaranteed only one chance).

Our producer chatted with Dad and I again about background material and we went to the studio to rehearse. We practiced the introduction routine and all of us took turns sitting in the hot seat and using life-lines. We also got rapid-fire practice on the equipment with sample fastest-finger questions. I got the best time on the first four questions. Thanks Dad! (and EMDR). But the machinery was not idiot proof. It allowed you to punch in the same response more than once and if you held a key down, it repeated. It had a backspace key and a send key. It was the size of a X-Box controller, so most guys used their thumbs. My friend Chris Shanahan told me the forefinger has a slightly faster response time than the thumb so I adopted his strategy.

We walked back to the green room and waited for makeup call. The makeup woman was very nice. All ten of us shared a dressing room and the mood was cheerful. Our carry-over contestant regaled us with stories of the hot seat and his experience from the previous day.

We filed down to the studio where the crowd waited. They introduced us to applause, Regis appeared moments before the taping started, and away we went! Find out what happened. Tune into "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire", with my episode repeating at 7pm central time tonight (May 20th, 2004) on GSN cable.

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