A homespun Down East quiz show catches on
Lewiston, Maine — The soul of the true Mainer is legendary. Unlike brash Texans who sport a jingoism unknown north of the Mason-Dixon line, a real Yankee covets his heritage jealously but with unspoken pride.
His laconic dignity brings to mind all sorts of wonderful stereotypes: grizzled lobstermen, or crusty lumbermen in duck-boots, crunching across snow and nary an unnecessary word spoken. It's a reputation forged on centuries of rockhard winters, and is not likely to buckle at the sight of a television camera.
Not that Jeff Gabel isn't doing his best to crack that taciturn Yankee crust. And he's doing it by giving Mainers the chance to strut their low-key stuff on local TV.
Actually it's a locally produced quiz show. Granted, it's a public televisionm quiz shown, but nonetheless it's got the regulation buzzers and gongs and ubiquitously genial host. That's where Mr. Gabel comes in -- balding, pleasant, out-of-state ringmaster to "So You Think You Know Maine" -- the award-winning, highest-rated public television show in the Pine Tree State.
Watching the show is like peeping into a panorama egg -- the Maine psyche in miniature. To those already living within the state, it's like seeing your neighbors on TV. To uninitiated viewers, it's more like watching Aunt Bea and Gomer scramble to answer such pressing queries as "How long, in miles, is the coast of Maine?"
The format of the weekly half-hour program is not unlike any other quiz show that ever waltzed across a television screen with its perky contestants vying for washer-dryers or a trip to Hawaii.
But, "So You Think You Know Maine" is forged of grittier stuff. Contestants usually wear suspenders and hiking boots. Up until five years ago, it was broadcast in black and white. And prizes rarely get more exotic than a one-year subscription to Maine Fish and Wildlife Magazine. Even the title has a nice homespun ring to it with just a hint of throw-down-the-gauntlet challenge -- an attitude not totally out of sync with this don't-fence-me-in state.
No, what WCBB, Maine's biggest PBS channel, has cooked up for its home-state populace is the chance for loggers and housewives to compete with sellers of woodstoves and park rangers on the turf that they all know best -- the history and heritage of the State of Maine.
"So, let's go over and meet our contestants this evening." That's host Gabel, in green blazer and blazing orange tie, addressing his battery of contestants. Tonight, all four competitors are 6th graders.
"First we want to say hello to Curtis Laurence. Curtis how are you this evening?" Curtis is fine. He also has several hobbies, most of which involve the out-ofdoors and sports equipment. He has a newspaper route. Next come Jeanna and Pat. And then Jason.
"Jason, I see here that you collect stamps and coins. Do you know what a stamp collector is called?"
Jason does. "It's a philatelist."
"What's a coin collector?"
"My golly, that deserves a round of applause!" And the studio audience, mostly moms and dads and grandparents bunched together to create the illusion of a crowd, gives it without hesitation.
"Well, good luck to each and every one of you." And before you know it, round two of "So You Think You Know Maine" is off and running:
"OK kids, hands on buzzers. What Maine town shares its name with a Massachusetts town associated with witches?" Jeanna gets to her buzzer first.
"Um. Um. Salem."
"Salem, you got it!" Jeanna gets five points.
"What do Ed Muskie, John Reed, Ken Curtis, and Joseph Brennan all have in common?" This time it's Pat's finger which is quickest off the trigger.
"They are or were governors of the state of Maine."
"Yes, you're right! OK, pens in hands, kids. In miles, what is the greatest width in Maine from east to west?"
And so its goes. The adult version of the show offers, understandably, more challenging questions. Some might call them downright obscure: "How many counties in the State of Maine begin with the letter S?" "Name the military base in Maine that is closest to Canada." "How much did Maine lobsters cost per pound in 1880?" "What is the name of the Kennebec River bridge swept away of the flood of '36?" Rick, Tony, David, and Julie did battle over those questions and more. ("Rick teaches industrial arts in Oak Hill and has been named teacher of the year . . . Julie Bray is and education student in Lewiston. Tony Waldyer, our returning champion, is a fifth-grade teacher in Waterford. And David Stock, whose first love is bus driving, is a park ranger at the Crescent Beach State Park. Gook luck to all of you.")
The heart and head of the show lies half-buried in a snowbank mid-way between Augusta, the capital, and Portland, Maine's largest metropolis. Actually, it's not a snow bank but a lowslung, ranch-style building wedged in between the bowling alley and the Mainway Gas and the Tire Warehouse ("Bias snows on sale now!") If you pass "Joanne's Parking and Storage," you've gone too far.
Under the snow and the clapboardand-brick skin beats the heart of Channel 10. In through the double doors, over the nylon carpet, past the paneled lobby plastered with picture of PBS heroes Jim McNeil and Robin Lehrer, you enter The Studio, the one studio the 35-person station (counting all the volunteer and part-time help) supports. Depending on the day and the time, the crew can be found scuttling about on one of four shows the station produces: "Jobline," "Statewide," "Maine Magazine," and "So You Think You Know Maine."
The actual production staff, the heart of the organization, only comes to about six people. How many actually put together "So You Think You Know Maine"? Tom Van Horn, the bearded and duck-booted producer, laughs. Then he stops abruptly and says, "Two. No, I'm sorry -- three." "It's pretty much a one-man show," counters Gabel, who used to produce it. Whoever produced the show has a demanding job.
"You have to coordinate prizes," explains Van Horn during a break in the taping spent next door at the Korn Haus restaurant. "You have to find your contestants. Adults are by far more difficult to get than children. Lots of parents call up and say: 'We have smart little Jenny. Can she be on your show?' I have to give them a little screen test over the phone. But adults we hardly ever turn down. They come from all over the state, pay their own way, just for the glory of being a television star and the prizes they walk away with."
"Oh, you also have to solicit for your audiences, too," adds Van Horn. Raids on the bowling alley next door have been known to occur when audiences are slim. "The chef here has sometimes been a last-minute contestant when somebody didn't show," admits Geneva Kirk, a comfortabley prim, retired schoolteacher and one of the show's many judges. "Sometimes we have to go to extremes to make all the pieces fit," says Van Horn. "But by far the hardest part is the questions." Thousands of them, gleaned from encyclopedias, almanacs, and who knows where else, sit upstairs at the station ready to be rewritten and rushed on camera at a moment's notice.
The laid-back attitude of the show permeates the station. "We have a lot of freedom," explains Gabel, now the station's programming head. "We have a small staff and no cost-accounting system. So, literally, we can just take our ideas and go with them. We have a real commitment to getting Maine people on Maine TV." In fact, two new shows are coming up: a how-to-retrofitold-houses show, and a learn-to-ski show. The ski shown was the idea of the wife of the station's art director. "The host of that show is a professional skier, when he's not a professional lobsterman," Gabel says.
"So You Think You Know Maine" had a slightly more logical origin: It hit the airwaves back in 1976 as one of the state's Bicentennial projects. And after a lurchy start in black and white, the program has settled into the colorful and casual hit that it is today. Shown four times a week (twice during school hours, a testament to its educational properties), "So You Think You Know Maine" annually garners top berth in the local PBS ratings.
"We're humble about it," says Van Horn, "but we regularly pull in a 6 or 8 rating." That translates to about 45,000 viewers per week. The show pulled in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Award for locally produced children's programming 1981. "We beat out about 80 or 90 other shows around the country," Gabel says. "We even went to the big awards ceremony in New Orleans."
Right now, the big event is to try to find somebody to run the scoreboard for the evening's taping. A blizzard has kept some essential personnel at bay. "Can you run the scoreboard?" Gabel asks his wife, who happened to have shown up at this crucial moment.
These are hardy folk, and this is a proud state. Even out-of-staters get sucked in. "I've lived in a lot of places, and Maine is the only state where people actually refer to it as 'The State of Maine,'" says Gabel. "There is just this pride of what we have here, and the show simply grew out of that." 'The State of Maine,'" says Gabel. "There is just this pride of what we have here, and the show simply grew out of that."