My husband Arturo and I were in a little souvenir shop in Beaufort, NC last year when my cell phone buzzed and showed an unfamiliar number. I answered anyway. Here is a transcript of the conversation which followed:
"Is this Ellen Ciompi, of Durham, NC?"
"Yes, it is, can I help you?"
"Hi, Ellen, this is Maggie calling, I'm the contestant coordinator for Jeopardy! I'm happy to let you know that you've been selected to be a contestant. Are you still interested in playing?"
I have never screamed like that, before or since, in a public place in my entire life. After a few minutes I got off the phone and announced what had just happened. Everyone in the store started cheering and applauding at the words, "I just found out, I'm going to be on Jeopardy!" And that's pretty much been the reaction of every person who has found out about my appearance. The show has been in existence for over 40 years but I had no idea it was such a cultural phenomenon.
My experience with the show started in elementary school, back in the '60x when it was taped in NYC, aired in black & white, and was hosted by Art Fleming. I used to come home to eat lunch and often my mom and I would have our lunch together and watch the show. Later, of course, it moved to Los Angeles, morphed into color, and was hosted by the suave and mustachioed Alex Trebek. The set design has changed a few times, the dollar amounts have increased, and Alex has shaved his mustache but it's still basically the same format, and it's a television icon. There's a "Hall of Fame" dedicated to Jeopardy in the Sony Pictures Studios, where all kinds of memorabilia are displayed; the most impressive is the showcase with thirty Emmy Awards in a golden array.
Anyway, I called Maggie back when we got home from our vacation, nailed down the details, and made my reservations to go out to LA. By the way, the show does not pay any contestant expenses: your travel & lodging are your responsibility, so it's a bit of a gamble to go. Because my mom, Virginia, and I have such a long history of Jeopardy addiction, I asked her if she would go with me to be my cheering section and she instantly agreed. Taping is done on Tuesday and Wednesday of every week--they tape five shows each day. Mom and I got in on Sunday so we took our free day on Monday to do a cheesy Hollywood bus tour. Our bus was driven by a rather androgynous person whose reply to the question, "What's your name?", was, "Well.........when I'm driving a bus, my name is Fade, as in, Fade to Black." Only in Hollywood. The highlights for me were two: Graumann's Chinese Theater, where I put my hands in Judy Garland's handprints and was totally verklempt, and seeing the Kodak Theater, home of the Academy Awards. (Oscar night is big at the Ciompi household.)
We reported to the Jeopardy set at 8am Tuesday morning. The instructions were to bring the vast amounts of paperwork which had been issued, bring 3-4 changes of clothes, have your hair "camera ready" and leave your cell phone/pager at home. We all played practice rounds, were given guidelines on deportment ("even if you KNOW you're right and the judges are wrong, DO NOT interrupt the flow of the game"), tips on using the buzzer ("Press it often, as fast as you can, but wait until Alex has finished reading the question or else you'll be blocked out"), and had our outfits vetted for suitability. (One guy brought three different ties and they were all vetoed because the patterns were too busy for the high definition broadcast; he had to wear a plain blue one from their emergency stash.) We also had our makeup done by the in-house artists. It took them longer than usual to do this, I was told, because "Alex has been tanning, and we don't want pale contestants to make him look too dark." Gotta protect the talent.
The first show we taped on Tuesday featured, of course, the returning champion (that is, the person who won the last show taped on Wednesday of the previous week), plus two challengers chosen at random from the 20-person pool for that week. There was a live studio audience, probably about 200 people. The set is really large - much larger than you might imagine. The board is an array of 36 huge TV screens; Alex looks pretty small next to it. Off camera is an army of technicians, the director, cameramen, the "crew clue" and judges, plus a representative of an outside firm whose job is to make sure that everything is fair and above board--a holdover from the game show scandals of the '50s. Finally the instantly recognizable voice of announcer Johnny Gilbert came out of the speakers: "Welcome to Jeopardy!" He came in front of the audience and reminded them they were not at home and could not shout out answers, asked for generous applause when needed, and made the usual announcement about cell phones. About 11am the first show taped. Each 30-minute show took at least 45 minutes to tape. Alex Trebek answered questions from the audience during the commercial breaks. After 28 years as host, he's probably heard everything, but he was polite and forthcoming with the audience, answering questions about his family (he has 2 kids), his recent injury (his ruptured Achilles tendon is healed now), and why on Earth did he shave off his signature mustache ("My wife got tired of it--and the producers thought it would be a good change.")
After three shows are taped, there is a lunch break. We ate in the Sony commissary - Wolfgang Puck, proprietor - and then went back to tape two more shows. I was not picked on Tuesday and so I had to come back on Wednesday. Just sitting and watching, seeing contestants fall and shows roll by, constantly being on edge that my name would be called for the next round, was far more exhausting than I realized. When we got back to the hotel, my mom asked what I wanted to do, and I said, "I want a BIG steak and a BIG drink!" We did just that and also spent a lot of time in the lobby talking with the other contestants. It was quite a diverse bunch, and as one might imagine they were all interesting, articulate, and memorable people. Many of us exchanged contact information, which was something I never really expected.
My turn finally came the second show taped on Wednesday. After a slow start where I spent a bit in the negative column, things got better. At the first commercial break, Alex talks a bit with each contestant. We had each filled out a card entitled "five interesting things Alex might ask you about". I thought mine were all pretty good: my cabaret singing, our annual Oscar party, my work with the Beaver Queen Pageant here in Durham, our Halloween experience of having over 1,000 trick or treaters, how my sweet husband replaced my engagement ring for our 25th anniversary. What did Alex ask me about? My experience as a surgical nurse with the drug Versed! Talk about a question from left field! But I didn't let it throw me and we had an amusing interchange.
I was still in last place at the break so I got to pick first in Double Jeopardy. I picked a category called "Gang of Fore," which turned out to be all about golf. Not my strong suit! Plus the returning champion was a sportscaster. I did better with the other categories and was able to pick up a couple of correct answers on the rebound, when someone else had gotten them wrong. I never hit any Daily Doubles, which was sad. The Final Jeopardy category was "1870s People". The question I've gotten most often about all this is, "How did you decide the amount to bet?" I thought of all the people I could from that era (Presidents Grant & Hayes; Queen Victoria; Otto von Bismarck; Tsar Alexander II; Edison; Bell; the impressionist painters). For authors all I could come up with was Charles Dickens, which it turns out was wrong since he died in 1870. I thought of the Franco-Prussian War, post-Civil War reconstruction, and late Romantic music. I had $10,000 and decided to bet $5,000 so that if I was wrong I'd still have a decent amount left.
The answer was (paraphrasing): "His final telegram is preserved in the West Point library, and it says, 'Benteen, come quickly and bring reinforcements.'"
My first thought was, this is bad, I have NO idea. Then logic kicked in and I scanned the answer for clues. "West Point": this has to do with the Army. "Benteen": a total unknown. "Come quickly and bring reinforcements": the writer is in serious trouble. Suddenly the light bulb "CUSTER" lit up my mind and I wrote it down--in the form of a question, naturally. Since I was in last place, they revealed my answer first: I was right! Big exhale, big smile. Unfortunately---my two competitors were also correct, and I ended in last place. Prize: $1,000, which didn't cover my travel expenses and which by the way they don't pay until 120 days after the show airs. I did also get a Jeopardy tote bag and pen. The pen is notable for its push button end, which is designed to look like the official buzzer. Not much swag but great memories! One of the hardest parts was having to be so secretive about my appearance. We were told over and over to NOT post anything on Facebook or Twitter, be very careful that we shared our experiences with only trustworthy people, and NOT publicize it in any way, on pain of forfeiture of any winnings.
From online test in January to personal interview and more testing in May to phone call in September to taping in October to airing in January, it was a truly memorable year-long experience. The contestant coordinators were amazingly professional and caring, and they made everyone feel prepared and excited. If you're a Jeopardy fan, I would encourage you to try out. It costs nothing to take the online test. If you're not called back right away you can always keep trying every year. If you want to prepare, you can always play the "Jeopardy" game on Facebook (although it's a lot easier than the real thing, since it's multiple choice), or go to j-archive.com, where every show is preserved in excruciating detail, forever.
And remember, the answer, "America's favorite game show," can only be preceded by the question, "What is Jeopardy!?"