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On Thursday, May 12, it is almost painfully bright in front of the State of Illinois Center at the kickoff ceremony for Illinois Tourism Week. Once in a while, a breeze starts a string of balloons or a flag swinging lazily.
There has already been a balloon launch, accompanied by the loud strains of “Illinois, you put me in a happy state”; there are dozens of booths advertising tourist attractions; there are strolling Disney characters from Great America; there is a lifesize hot dog with all the trimmings handing out Gold Coast Dogs menus; and there is a line for free Gold Coast hot dog halves that stretches along the perimeter of the crowd of several hundred.
A powerful sound system is set up on a raised wooden stage under a striped yellow-and-white canopy. The stage suddenly becomes the focus of the audience’s attention when Carey Weiman, the master of ceremonies, introduces the first round of the Illinois trivia game. Weiman asks for volunteers from the audience, then randomly picks two people as the first-round contestants.
While they’re making their way toward the stage, Weiman introduces Greg, “Don Pardo,” who is in charge of playing the Jeopardy theme music that will fill the brief empty spaces in the program. He also introduces the “lovely Roberta”–he calls her “Vanna White”–who is wearing a long black dress, and the “lovely Jeannie,” who’s wearing a long red dress. They will keep score by flipping through large pads of numbers.
Greg announces the first-round prizes: tickets for two to Nunsense, tickets for two to the Omnimax film at the Museum of Science and Industry, two passes for a Wendella sight-seeing cruise, two tickets to the gospel festival, and a T-shirt. By the time he finishes, the contestants are onstage: two young women in suits, both wearing dark glasses. Terry is from Chicago; Leslie, from Oak Park.
Weiman explains that each correct answer is worth one point; each incorrect answer loses the contestant one point. “And audience, if you know the answer to a question, don’t say it,” he says.
“We’re gonna give you a chance to win some prizes later.”
Weiman reads the first question. “Who is the governor of the state of Illinois?”
“Jim Thompson!” yells someone in the crowd at the same time as Terry activates her flashing red revolving light. “James Thompson,” she says, and Roberta flips her pad to indicate one point.
Terry whips through the answers to a couple more questions: what river forms the western boundary of Illinois (the Mississippi) and did Lou Boudreau play basketball for the University of Illinois (he did). She’s building a lead over Leslie, who is slow to activate her green flashing light.
Neither player can answer a question about where the first basketball all-star game was played, though audience members shout the names of every sports arena in Chicago. A woman in the audience yells out “Comiskey Park” and wins a prize.
By the time Weiman asks where Rock Hudson’s hometown was (Winnetka), the audience is starting to be a problem. There are two young men in the front of the audience who shout out the answer to virtually every question before the contestants have a chance to switch on their lights. One is tall and shabbily dressed. He has a perpetual squint and grin, and he’s wearing every promotional button handed out at the booths: “Official Springfield Explorer,” “State Street,” “Illinois Salutes National Tourism Week.” The other man is short and wears a leather jacket with a chain, padlock, and red plastic heart hanging from the right shoulder.
“These guys are geniuses,” says Weiman. ‘They know every answer.” Then he goes on with his next question. “What artist–Now please don’t say a word. I know all of you are gonna know this, but this is for these two ladies up here, and Leslie hasn’t been doing so well. She needs a lot of help here. What artist made the sculpture which stands in–”
“Picasso!” yells Leslie, quicker than the audience.
“Picasso! Yes, you got it.”
The audience jumps in again on questions about the Nutcracker suite, Harry Caray, and Playboy. When Weiman reaches the final question, Terry has a four-point lead over Leslie. The last question is worth five points.
“Now audience please. This could determine the winner,” says Weiman. “Don’t say a word. Don’t say anything. We got some geniuses hanging out here.”
“What is the Illinois state tree?” (The white oak.)
The man in the leather jacket hops up and down as if stung, his padlock and plastic heart bouncing wildly. He makes exaggerated motions of biting his tongue. But he lets both contestants guess incorrectly. Terry wins, 12 to 8.
The next round begins about half an hour later. Weiman picks Robert, the tall man who had been blurting out answers. The little guy has taken his leather jacket off and is hopping around trying to get Weiman’s attention. Weiman ignores him. He picks a bearded black man in a suit as the second contestant. Kenny says he works for the state. Weiman wonders aloud if this makes him ineligible, but decides to let him stay.
“And what do you do?” Weiman asks Robert.
“I sell the world’s greatest newspaper.”
“And that is?”
Weiman looks out over the audience. “Now remember, audience, if you know the answers, don’t say them. We’re gonna give you a chance in a little while, because these guys gotta do it fair. I gotta tell you, this guy here knew all the answers from when we did it last time. He’s a sharp guy. He knew all the answers. We’re gonna see if he can do it again.”
Greg turns on the Jeopardy music.
“Our first question is: this comic-strip detective first appeared in the Tribune in 1931.”
Robert switches on the red light, grins wider, and says, Dick Tracy!
Kenny quickly comes back with the right answers to a couple questions: Siskel and Ebert and Mr. T. But Robert takes the lead with the Baha’i temple, Great America, and Chicago’s three airports. They both miss the Illinois state flower (the wood violet). When they reach the final five-point question, Robert leads Kenny five to two.
The audience quiets down.
“At what Illinois hotel was Allen Dorfman shot in 1983?”
The two are silent.
“I’ll give you a hint,” Weiman says. “It was at a Hyatt. But what town was that Hyatt in?” (Lincolnwood.)
The audience guesses, but neither contestant can figure this one out. Even the short guy seems stumped. Robert wins, five to two, and walks off with a variety of tickets, a poster, a T-shirt, and a bag of gourmet coffee beans. During the third round of the game, he stands on the edge of the crowd, clutching his prizes to his chest, still grinning.