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My one shot in a million

Al Parker - September 14th, 2009
MY One Shot in a Million
Tough questions rule at game show audition

By Al Parker 9/14/09
Press News Service

The 20-something brunette clears her throat, stares sternly at the crowd in front of her and warns, “Don’t even think about taking this test home with you. If you want a souvenir, you can take the pencil.”
With this admonition, 102 of us test-takers gathered in the ABC Building’s cafeteria in New York City to begin the 30-question “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” qualifying exam. We have 10 minutes (timed with a stopwatch by the stern brunette) to finish.
I pop open the manila envelope and see the very first test question: “The movie The Devil Wears Prada is based on the life of the editor of what magazine?”

A. Vogue
B. Glamour
C. Mademoiselle
D. Cosmopolitan.

My eyes glaze over. “Whaaaaaat?” I think to myself. “Let’s guess Vogue.”
This long shot “Millionaire” adventure began when my wife, Helen, saw that the show was accepting audition applications online at “You should try,” she said, recalling my previous efforts to land a spot on the show.
Ever since Regis first asked “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” I’ve been shouting back, “Me, Me, Me!!!”
But no one was listening.
For the show’s first few years, the application process was done by phone. You had to answer five questions correctly, each within five seconds. If you went five-for-five, your name went into an applicant pool where contestants were randomly selected and called with an invitation to take part in the show.
Three times I aced the questions, sure that I’d soon be chatting up Reege about Notre Dame football. But my phone remained silent.

So last month when I filled out the online application, I had no high hopes. It was free, so why not take a shot? I applied at 1 p.m. and at 4:11 p.m., I got this email:
“Your Millionare audition has been confirmed and we look forward to seeing you on Wednesday, May 27th 5:45 p.m. at the ABC Building, 57 West 66th Street, New York City.”
Immediately I made plans to follow in the footsteps of John Carpenter, who became the show’s first millionaire in 1999 when he answered that Richard Nixon was the president to appear on “Laugh-In.” Since then there have been 10 other top prize winners in the U.S. version of the game and 160 worldwide where “Millionaire” is seen in more than a dozen countries.
Next, I lined up a flight from Traverse City to Detroit to New York City and a one-night stay at the Hotel Edison, an art deco treasure built in 1931 and beautifully refurbished. Located at 47th and Broadway, it’s a short walk from several landmarks, including Radio City Music Hall, Times Square and Rockefeller Center. (I visit them all, taking in the New York City vibe on my first trip to Manhattan.)
In preparation for the trip, I began poring over reference books, boning up on presidential trivia (Did you know that James Madison was the shortest president?), science (The speed of light is 186,282 miles per second.) and mythology (Apollo’s twin sister was Artemis).
Years ago, someone gave me a CD-ROM version of the game and I played it hours on end. Complete with flashing lights and throbbing music, the game helped me hone my skills with the affable digital-Regis. I played 60 games, averaging $97,566 per contest. I reached the $1 Million Prize twice and $500,000 three times. I felt primed, rested and ready.

On the test date, my flight arrived in the Big Apple at 2 p.m., more than three hours late (thank you, Northwest). It was a one hour ($40 with tip) cab ride from LaGuardia to the Hotel Edison, so I had just a little time to sightsee and take photos before heading to the ABC building on West 66th near Central Park.
By 5 p.m. I join a small knot of audition hopefuls on the sidewalk outside the ABC Building. Two 20-something guys toting clipboards check us in and order us to line up along a wall. I was the third in line, following a 19-year-old guy who drove from Wisconsin for the audition and a 40-something New Jersey man, who immediately tells us he had taken the test four times before.
Anyone who passes the test has a brief interview with the producers who decide who gets on the show. Pass the interview and you get a postcard letting you know when to arrive for a taping. Fail the interview and you get a card thanking you for the effort.
New Jersey Guy passed the test four times and flunked the interview four times. “I guess I’m just not interesting enough,” he sighs.
By 5:30 the sidewalk is a jumble of nervous, optimistic auditioners swapping stories and milling around. Soon the doors open and 120 hopefuls who just finished the test come spilling out. “It’s really tough,” says one departing auditioner. “Out of 120 of us, only four passed it.”
Not good.
A few minutes later, my group is ordered to turn off all cell phones. We’re herded through the doors, scanned by a metal detector and led into the cafeteria, which is decorated with 4x8 foot posters of ABC TV shows.

Stern Brunette, one of the show’s producers, and her assistants gives each of us a numbered manila envelope containing the test (mine was #188) and assigns us to seats. I’m seated at a table with Wisconsin Guy, New Jersey Guy and a new comrade, Massachusetts Guy.
We’re told that these auditions are for the 30-minute version of the show hosted by Meredith Vieira and also a special 10th anniversary show to be hosted by Regis Philbin.
The producers explain the rules to the computerized test. Like the show, each question has four multiple choice answers. But they won’t say what a passing score is and they don’t tell you what your score is.
With 10 minutes to answer 30 questions, we have 20 seconds per question, which are EXTREMELY difficult. None of those fluffy, lightweight questions on this exam. These are real stumpers – the kind a “Millionaire” player would expect for $100,000 or more.
I raced through the test, skipping those I was totally clueless about. Then I went back and tried to figure them out, but ended up guessing on at least six, including:

• “Who are the members of Gnarls Barkley?” (Guessed wrong – Did his momma really name him Danger Mouse?)
• “What two states encompass the Great Smoky Mountains?” (Guessed right with North Carolina and Tennessee)
• “What artist was in a major motion picture before having a hit record – Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah or Ice T. (Guessed JLo, but still don’t know)

“Time’s up – pencils down,” shouts Stern Brunette, whose staff picks up the exams and quickly runs them through a scanner. In less than five minutes, they announce the numbers of those who passed the test.
“36, 55, 87, 117, 181…”
“C’mon, 188,” I whisper to myself.
“and 187.”
So I join 96 out of the 102 auditioners in failing the exam. New Jersey Guy, also known as 36, has passed for the fifth time. Wisconsin Guy, Massachusetts Guy and I wish him luck on the interview. “Be more interesting this time,” advises Wisconsin Guy.
We’re told we can audition again tomorrow if we want and are led out of the ABC Building, past the line that is waiting for the 6:45 auditions. Their faces are full of hope and I wish several of them luck as I trudge down 66th Street toward Central Park West.
My “Millionaire” dream has been temporarily derailed.
But at least I have a new pencil.

Al Parker is a freelance writer based in Traverse City.

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