Thursday, May 24, 2012

My Non-Fast Fingers (Or How I Blew My Chances to Be a Millionaire at 38)

When it debuted on ABC television in August 1999, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire became an almost instant hit, gaining a following of almost 30 million viewers per night on a three-night-per-week basis.

It also hooked my imagination. The concept was deceptively simple: Answer a tower of increasingly difficult multiple choice questions, using some well-placed assistance along the way, and pocket the earnings. No humiliating stunts. No goofy costumes. And best of all, no need to travel to the West Coast to participate; being New York-based, Millionaire was readily accessible.

Plus, I had had some game show experience. Some ten years' prior, I had earned my way on a long-forgotten show called Trump Card, which was televised from nearby Atlantic City. Trump Card was Donald Trump's attempt to muscle in on the Merv Griffin concept of entertainment entrepreneur-cum-game show mogul.

Trump Card was a bingo-like game where answering questions enabled players to light up squares on an electronic card and, once filled, they would advance to the "big board" and win a significantly higher amount. I remember attending a number of local auditions and interviews and finally being accepted for the show.

To make a long story short, I didn't win the jackpot, but I did win the game and walked away with $5,000. Which Uncle Sam was delighted to tax later that year at a nice %6.

Anyway, that taste of fame--coupled with the chance to up the stakes and play for a million--made me determined to get on Millionaire.

The hurdles to jump toward contestant-hood were many and fickle.

Level One was a phone version of the game. But the secret there was getting through on the line. Countless busy signals greeted me as I dialed furiously, increasingly frustrated that the limitations of the telecommunications industry back then were snuffing my dreams.

Level Two hinged on successfully getting through Level One. Wanna-be millionaires who got through on the contestant line then answered a series of "Fastest Finger" questions. Fastest Finger was eventually dropped from the WWBAM gameplay, but in essence, it went something like this:

Q: Put these Stephen King novels in order as to their date of publication, starting with the earliest:
  1. Pet Sematary
  2. The Shining
  3. Carrie
  4. Cujo
The correct answer--3, 2, 4, 1--was hurriedly punched into your phone keypad and the game went on.

I believe three FF questions were asked. If you got all three correct, you were sent onto Level Three.

Level Three was a random pull of the thousands of people who successfully answered the questions in Level Two. These lucky qualifiers were then sent through the Fastest Finger regimen yet again, this time, as I recall, where success meant not only accurate but fast!

Now here is where my memory starts to get sketchy on the process, because although I went through Levels One, Two, and Three dozens and dozens of times, I only proceeded from Level Three once.

I know there was another random draw in there somewhere, where lady luck was employed yet again to cull the contestants down to a more manageable number. And I know we were interviewed on the phone for personality, human interest stories, and audience appeal.

But once someone successfully navigated all of the above and was still left standing, he/she was invited on the show. And that's exactly what happened to me on September 25, 2000. 

The logistics were many--after all, ABC was flying in contestants from all over the country to compete--and there were a number of faxes (heh -- does anyone fax anything anymore?) and phone calls to verify each detail.

I was allowed to bring one guest, so Eileen and I packed our bags for the Big Apple. Oh, and I forgot to mention this little tidbit: Eileen was five months pregnant!

ABC insisted on flying us in, which was just plain odd because we could have driven there in under two hours.

But protocol is protocol, and after hustling into the departure gate at the airport, we were ushered onto a tiny plane that barely took off before starting on its landing procedures. 

ABC provided transportation between the airport and the hotel, and I couldn't wait to enjoy this little perk. All my life I had watched limo drivers standing at baggage pickup with their cardboard placards: Mr. Phillips, Ms. Henderson, Mr. McCauley. I could only fantasize about being that rich or powerful or influential to warrant a limo driver with a placard with my name on it.

And now, it was coming true!

Except that it didn't.

At the last minute, ABC changed our flight. Instead of bringing us in at JFK, they flew us into LaGuardia. But they never told the transportation company. So our limo--and our driver, and his sign--were at the wrong airport.

Dejectedly, we cabbed it to the hotel.

We stayed at the Empire Hotel on W. 63rd Street, where all contestants from all over the country would be lodging. The accommodations were comfortable, but not nearly as opulent as we had imagined. In what could serve as a scene from a Neil Simon comedy, our window overlooked the rooftop of one of the lower levels of the hotel, complete with whining air conditioner units that were splattered with pigeon droppings.

The night before the taping, Eileen and I went out to dinner, eating at a cute sidewalk bistro nearby. ABC provided us with a stipend while we were there, and although I can't remember the amount, I do know that for our evening out, it barely covered our iced teas.

New York prices and all.

We attended a preshow meeting the following day. More forms to sign. More ID checks. More rules and regs. We had to show the wardrobe we intended to wear on the air (two outfits, in case our show ran over into the next episode), and there was some problem with my shirt. So Eileen and I hustled over to a Gap and bought a replacement.

We also snuck off to a matinee of Kiss Me Kate that had been revived on Broadway.

The morning of the taping, we all reported to the studio, and it all started to become very real. 

I. Was. Going. To. Be. On. Who. Wants. To. Be. A. Millionaire!!!

More signatures. More ID checks. Briefings. Instructions.


We were brought onto the empty set and checked out not only the Fastest Finger chairs that ringed it but the coveted Hot Seat as well.

We were all assigned seats along the perimeter of the set and went through a practice version of the show.

"Be animated. Have fun! Ignore the lights and the cameras," we were told. I didn't find it hard to ignore the cameras, as they were more or less obliterated by the lights!

A production assistant filled in for host Regis Philbin. We went through a handful of Fastest Finger questions, just to get the feel of the button pushing involved. And I prematurely thought that perhaps I had a chance of doing well on the show, as I was quick and clear-thinking enough to managed a correct answer in the fastest time!

Q: Put these parts of a bird in order from front to back.
  1. Wings
  2. Tail
  3. Beak
  4. Neck
Although the answer seems incredibly easy here and now, it was a challenge. After all, in the off-the-charts excitement, I wouldn't have surprised myself to get the answer incorrect when asked my name!

So I landed in the Hot Seat and chatted with the stand-in for Reege. The crew found Eileen in the audience and gave her some camera time, asking about the baby. And I then faced a few questions. 

Every contestant got a chance in the chair during rehearsal, whether he/she earned a way in or not, just to make us as comfortable as possible.

Once we had completed the run-through, it was time for final prep. We went into make-up, dressed in our show clothes, and met backstage. 

A small, wiry man worked his way down the line of 12 of us, shaking each hand and offering a warm welcome. It was Regis Philbin. Boy, is he short!

Audience! Applause! Music! Lights! Camera! Action! We were on!

Our episode began with a contestant hold-over from the prior show. He finished out his turn, and it was time to find out which one of us was ready to embark on the road to financial freedom.

Q: Put these Presidents in alphabetical order by middle name
  1. Richard Nixon
  2. Lyndon Johnson
  3. Gerald Ford
  4. Jimmy Carter
What? Huh? Middle name? Er. Milhouse. Um... I pushed four buttons in random order.

And was wrong.

So we sat and watched one of our own try. And again, I don't remember how far he made it, but I know it was not for a million.

So we were up again! C'mon... I can DO this!!!

The second FF question escapes me, but I do know that once again, I was incorrect.

And not long after, the time was up.

Handshakes. Thanks. A commemorative tee shirt. Back into street clothes. Back to the hotel. Back to our normal lives.

I didn't win a million. In fact, I didn't win anything at all.

But on ABC's nickle, we did go to NYC on a beautiful September weekend. And I received a keepsake "check" for a million dollars, which makes a nice souvenir.

We came home. And I remember walking the dog after we had unpacked. Several neighbors stopped me along the way and asked how I did. ABC asked that we not reveal the outcome, so as to not dilute the anticipation of the audience.

But in response to the question, "Did you win a million dollars?" I smiled and offered this: "If I had just won a million, what are the chances that I would be walking my dog right now?"

The show aired that October. Friends and family gathered at our house and watched, and it was quite a thrill (we still have it on a VHS tape somewhere, if it hasn't disintegrated by now). Funny enough, that episode occasionally was repeated on The Game Show Network, and after its re-airing, my phone would ring with a neighbor or friend commenting that they had seen me.

The following January, Eileen's pregnancy came to fruition with the birth of our youngest, Kristin.

So all in all, it was a fantastic experience, one that I'll treasure for a long time.

And yes. That is my final answer.

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