Commentary: Brush with fame, and the 'Jeopardy! host

Pam Cottrel
Pam Cottrel

The passing of “Jeopardy!” Host, Alex Trebek, this last weekend has saddened many of us. He and his show have been watched by young and old for decades.

On top of his being a pleasant host, we’ve been following his battle with pancreatic cancer. Like an old friend he shared his struggle with his fans and we mourn his passing.

I was reminded today of the time I saw Trebek in Los Angeles more than 25 years ago.

Since we were only in LA for two years I figured I needed to see as many of the entertainment, game shows, and movie sets as I could.

My timing was perfect to see both Johnny Carson and Jay Leno when they hosted the Tonight Show and it was well worth the effort arranging tickets and standing in line for hours.

Then I decided to try some game shows. After passing the Tic Tac Dough written test I was invited to play a game on the stage set. Patrick Wayne was there that day and added to the excitement. He was, after all, the son of The Duke, and movie star handsome.

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Behind the brightly colored contestant spots on the stage, the unpainted plywood and bare floor was a bit disappointing. I was nervous and I didn’t think it went that well until I got a call and a date to show up for taping.

My show was to tape on a date in December that made me want to cry. I already had tickets to fly home for my sister’s wedding and they were non-refundable. And the show would not reschedule. Boo.

Months later when I learned that “Jeopardy!” was looking for contestants I moved quickly. I was feeling kind of confident from my success with Tic Tac Dough. This time I was going to be better prepared.

On the show Opera was my very worse category, so I studied. I got out the World Book “O” and read.

On the big day I was ready. Wearing my perfectly studious “Jeopardy!” outfit, I drove down “The 5” to the Ventura Freeway and exited on Alameda in Hollywood. It was well into the 80s that day and the line formed on concrete in the sun. So much for looking fresh.

When we entered the darkened room, all eyes were on the brightly lit “Jeopardy!” set. This was the first time that I’d seen the new wall with rows of television monitors for each subject.

The audience area was a large theater with dusty old seats and a floor that needed sweeping. Approximately 150 potential contestants sized up the competition as we waited in the coolness of the room.

I felt quite intimidated. Many had dressed for success; three piece suits, studious glasses, big watches. Half of the people had important looking briefcases. They gave the impression of lawyers or professors taking a long lunch. Some people sat reading thick books they had brought to impress. And they all had that look of intellectual superiority as if taking the “Jeopardy!” test was just a mere formality until they would be invited up to the stage.

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That is when Trebek entered stage left and welcomed us to try outs. We were all given mimeographed pages with about 200 numbers and a space next to each. He pointed to an unimpressive small television that sat in the middle of the stage and told us the answers would be shown for only five seconds. There were no repeats, and no holds.

Trebek added that we didn’t need to answer in the form of a question. We laughed self consciously. Then he wished us good luck and retreated.

The test started immediately. The rapid fire sequence of the answers drove me crazy. The subjects were random and it was hard to think. A short few minutes later it was over and the forms were collected. I noticed others left blanks so I didn’t feel so bad. I was proud, however, to know I at least got the opera questions right.

Half an hour later the staff returned. In the auditorium 150 possible contestants held their breath. I figured I didn’t have a prayer, but those folks with the suits, and briefcases, and thick books were ready to “come on down” (oops wrong show).

Trebek came out and with ceremony read three names. Only three names.

He thanked us and said to try again.

We sat there in stunned silence.

The stage manager tried to hurry us out the doors in the back. He didn’t say scram but it felt like it.

My favorite part of the afternoon was watching the suits with the briefcases sit still for a few moments to let their failure sink in then they blended with the rest of us as we returned to the parking lot with the Hollywood sign in the distance.

So out of around 150, only three of us got to actually meet Trebek. However he was as always a gentleman waving to us as we departed. In spite of it all, I had fun. And I had a new appreciation for those who passed that crazy test and actually got on the show.

I already knew that Hollywood was an illusion and I had gotten to see it up close. The various dusty sets I did get to see at different studios confirmed that. The active movie sets with perfect scene in front of the cameras and lights and sloppy crew behind the cameras finishing off a burrito as they filmed made it all so apparent.

But in that fake world, a genuinely nice person had welcomed us and thanked us for taking the “Jeopardy!” test. And he encouraged us to try again.

I think we will miss entertainment professionals like Alex Trebek. He was real.

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