And up and at ‘em. Today is The Day. I really wish that I could tell you here that the first thing on my mind was “okay, sunshine…time to go and win a million bucks!” In all honesty, though, the first thought to enter my head was more on the order of “holy crap, it’s early!” The neurons were firing soon enough, though, and it wasn’t long before we were dressed and ready to go in the hotel lobby, waiting for the bus that would take us all to fame and fortune. That was not how it would work, of course; there were ten guys down there who would all be playing; there might be two or three who actually get up to go face-to-face with the impeccably-dressed Mr. Philbin. Or, possibly, as few as one – it was rare, but it had happened…or as many as four, should disaster strike a couple of our comrades. But that was for a bit later in the day. For now, the guys and their companions were mingling quite freely; one could sense a genuine bond quickly developing among everybody in the group. The camaraderie and the energy continued as we boarded the bus and were carried the few blocks to the studio where, in a few hours, the drama would play out. As we walked off the bus and into the building, one of the guys shouted out “let’s get as many in here as we can to the thirty-two thousand!”. And everybody roared their approval. We were ready.
Upon entering the studio, we were informed that we – contestants and companions – were now under what was called “contestant isolation” – an ominous-sounding term with its roots in one of the more infamous scandals in television history. More than forty years earlier, television game shows (referred to at the time as “quiz shows”) were riding an incredible wave of popularity; shows such as “Twenty-One”, “The $64,000 Question”, and “Dotto” were among the hottest programs on television…until it was discovered that the shows had been rigged, with favored contestants being given under-the-table assistance. The revelations very nearly destroyed the genre, and it took years for trust to be regained.
Thus, we were informed that we needed to surrender anything that could, in any way, shape, or form, be possibly used for nefarious purposes. Purses, wallets, cell phones, digital watches, stray papers in one’s pocket…all confiscated until we were released from isolation upon leaving the building. Beyond that, we needed to remain within eyeshot of the production staff at all times. Yeah, at all times, up to and including potty breaks (which were taken in groups for the most part…much easier that way, of course). We were not allowed to so much as nod to the janitor; we were in our own little bubble, protected from any figurative infection that might raise so much as the faintest hint of impropriety. Except for the bathroom thing (as well as smoke breaks, although I was not aware of anybody so inclined within our group) this was not as onerous as it might sound; we were all kept sufficiently occupied and, well, isolated to pretty much head off any potential trouble.
With that done, we were brought to the “green room” – a waiting area so called within the business not for the color of the walls, but rather for the presence of greenery within the room…helps to relax people, I suppose. Here, we were filled in by a representative of the show as to what to expect today. We were informed that there was no guarantee of any more than one fastest-finger round; the good news was that Andy Aaron – the contestant who would occupy the hot seat at the beginning of the show as the carryover from yesterday’s taping – already had answered the $250,000 question…so he would not be taking up as much time as he might have had he gone up on a buzzer-beater. We were given some hints as to the lifelines and their usage (an interesting revelation being that the 50:50 lifeline was not random, but rather set up to include the wrong answer that most logically could be correct). We were warned not to pay too much attention to Regis’ commentary. This was the time for any questions; once that was finished, we were led to the studio itself for rehearsal.
The first thing you should know is that the studio itself is nowhere near as cavernous as it appears on TV; such is the magic of the camera. Andy was already there, sitting in the front row of the spectator seats and waiting for us to enter. The companions were sent off to the farthest corner of the seating area – the “cheap seats”, if you will. We were instructed as to which seat we would occupy in the Ring of Fire, how to enter and exit these seats, and how to use the consoles in front of us. The consoles consisted of two parts – a LCD display, approximately the size of a laptop display, and below that a smaller box about the size of your hand upon which was mounted six buttons – four in the middle marked A, B, C and D, which would be used to select the order of your answers for the fast-finger round, one on the far left to wipe off the selection made by the previous button (turning “CABD” into “CAB”, for example), and one on the right – the fateful button – marked “OK”; once that button was pressed, your answer was locked in and could not be changed.
We had been informed previously that things were designed to take us out of the comfort zone, and here was where it really became apparent. The consoles were mounted to a bracket connected to the chair, facing more or less straight up…and placed directly below an overhead light which shone straight down on the LCD screen. If you tried to look straight on – the way you are reading this right now – you would not be able to see much of anything except for the overhead light reflecting right back at you. Move your head to one side or the other, and the light is not as overpowering…but the display then becomes more “washed out” and more difficult to read. Holy crap…these people are evil. Although it was not noticeable on the show when they faded from one player to another during the fast-finger rounds, my head was constantly moving, trying to properly read what was on the display.
And then we got a chance to play. There were eight fast-finger games played in rehearsal, and it quickly became apparent that this was not a bunch to be messed with. Most of you likely remember the scoreboard that was flashed at the end of every fast-finger round on the show, with names of those contestants who got the answers in the correct order lit up in green, and those who missed remaining in black. And, believe me, there was a lot of green on that scoreboard in practice – overall, something on the order of three-quarters green all the way through rehearsal; this bunch clearly knew their stuff. Beyond that, it became apparent that if you did not get your answer up within four seconds and some small change, you were going to be out of luck. Smart and fast, and it was clearly spread out among all ten of us, with the group well-represented among the eight rounds played. There were five of us (including your humble correspondent) who each won a round; the remaining three rounds went to Fowler Jones – the youngest guy in the group, who was seated next to me in the circle.
From there, we were each led up on stage to take a turn in the Hot Seat…ground zero for the game. We were instructed in the proper technique for mounting and dismounting the chair – a necessity of greater import than one might suspect, as the chair was somewhat top-heavy and mounted on a relatively spindly base. This lent itself to an occasional slight swaying sensation when one would shift his weight…again, taking you out of the comfort zone. A staffer took the place of Regis in the opposite chair, and we were each given two questions to play as we saw fit. Lifeline usage was encouraged; our common “phone-a-friend” was another staffer up in the control booth….a guy who clearly had a sense of humor on him. When my turn came to call for my phone-a-friend, I offered my opinion that “the man is a genius”. And, of course, the first words out of his mouth were “”Dial-a-genius…”; needless to say, he got it right.
Rehearsal done, we broke for lunch. We were escorted to what was called the “VIP area” of the ABC commissary; actually, it was a small area surrounded by a rail outside of which, of course, we were not to venture. That we were in the VIP area, and Peter Jennings – who walked past while we were eating, and made some eye contact along the way – was on the outside should tell you all you need to know about the “VIP” terminology. There was a bit more time for socializing among ourselves after finishing lunch…and then it was time to get ready for the real deal.