Suddenly, I Found Myself in 'Jeopardy!'

It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I saw the "Jeopardy!" contestant ad in the Los Angeles Times. It said they were looking for women, so I called. The next thing I knew, I had an appointment to try out for the show. I drove to the KRLA TV studio in Hollywood on the appointed day.

"Is this the line for 'Jeopardy!'?" I asked.

"No!" several voices shouted. "This is 'Wheel of Fortune'!"

"Over there," someone said, pointing to a long, quiet line half a block away. I felt a massive surge of inadequacy. Those guys looked serious. The "Wheel of Fortune" group looked like a lot more fun. But I took my place, painfully conscious of the fact that I'd brought nothing whatever to read.

For the rapid-fire written test, they seemed to ask all the trivia stuff I knew. Fifteen minutes later, three names were called. Out of a mostly female pool of candidates, they chose me and two guys.

After thanking everyone else and dismissing them, Suzanne and Glenn, our "handlers," took the three of us down to the set. They took Polaroids of each of us, asked us to talk about ourselves for two minutes, had us play a dummy game (with cardboard cards and desk bells), and finally told us to list five things to "chat about," should we be chosen. They thanked us very much and said they'd call us if they wanted us. If we hadn't heard by January (this was July), they said, we could try again next year. I went home to wait.

The call came in September. The message was on my recorder. The tape date would be Wednesday, Oct. 10. The show would air the third week of the following January. I was to bring my Social Security card, three outfits, and a limited number of guests. They would tape five shows that day, which could mean I might be there until 7:30 that night.

The group waiting at the gate this time was smaller - only 13, including the returning champion. They were an intense lot. At 10:30 a.m. the gate opened, and we were led back to the building in which we'd taken the test.

Women were assigned to one dressing room and men to another. Then we met in the "green room" (which was anything but). I looked at the bagels and decided not to risk it.

Suzanne and Glenn (who seemed like old friends by then) gave us a long orientation and handed each of us a contract to read and sign. Then they said nice things to us to make us feel better, because obviously most of us were going to be losers. They administered the test to about 15,000 people a year, they said. Some 1,500 pass it. Of them, maybe 400 are chosen to appear on the show. I felt privileged. I felt special. I felt really nervous.

This was a serious group. They'd been practicing "ringing in" at home. They'd been reading almanacs. Mostly, they were not in the mood to get cozy with their competition. Two people were friendly: a male stripper from Albuquerque (they announced his profession as "bartender" on the show) and the personnel manager for a poultry farm.

About 11:30 we went through makeup, and at noon we played a practice game on the set, complete with lights, action, and buzzers. The buzzer was my bane. If you ring in too soon, nothing happens and you're locked out for 3/10ths of a second. It's a rhythm thing, anticipating the last sound that will fall from host Alex Trebek's lips and ringing in before anyone else.

AT 1 p.m. the studio audience trooped in. Two contestants leftover from the previous day were in place to meet the returning champion, and the remaining 10 of us sat in two rows down front, wondering which of us would be next. We didn't know from show to show, so the tension mounted as our numbers continued to diminish. After three shows, we broke for lunch. I was finally hungry.

We were provided a pasta buffet on the sound stage of "Soul Train." The bartender had been eliminated, so I chatted with the chicken man. It was obvious that two of us were going to be leftover candidates, and I was ready to say, "Thanks for a nice day; I'll be happy to come back another time."

It was not to be. The chicken man and I were up against each other and the returning champion. She was a four-time winner from Elkhart, Ind. She had been training for four years to appear on "Jeopardy!," taping every show, practicing with a buzzer, reading books on every topic. She had two doctorates and had also been a sportscaster. She'd been wiping everybody out. I began thinking about where to put my consolation La-Z-Boy recliner.

So who won? I was sworn to secrecy after the show, but seven years later, I think it's safe to tell. It wasn't me. Twice I risked it all, and twice I blew it.

The first time I answered "Who is Anne Boleyn?" when I meant Queen Elizabeth. Then I responded to "The two Shakespearean plays in which Augustus Caesar appeared" with "What is 'Julius Caesar' and what is 'Cleopatra'?" Wrong. The correct answer: "What is 'Julius Caesar' and 'Antony and Cleopatra'?" You get partial credit in seventh grade, but not on "Jeopardy!"

The chicken man won. I wish I could remember his name....

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