The security guards on the seventh floor of the Marriott on Michigan, near the end of their 18-hour day, were sick of getting yelled at. At 6 PM in the banquet hall behind them, employees of ABC TV had begun administering an aptitude test to the day’s third and final flight of would-be contestants for the new syndicated version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Now it was 6:05, and the guards were facing ten tardy pilgrims who had just straggled in. “Legally, we can’t let you go in there after six,” one security staffer repeatedly told an agitated man in bright white socks and sneakers. Then the guards spotted an ABC representative, sicced the latecomers on him, and leaned back in their sharp, sweaty black suits to laugh. “These people are fanatics,” one said. “I swear I saw the lady in the blue hat trying to get on to Springer last week.”
Said lady was the first to pounce on the ABC guy. “I called three times!” she said. “The only information they gave me was nine, two, and six. I had the impression that these were starting times.”
“Your news person should say you have to be there by six.” She rephrased that point a few times, then changed her tack. “Well, I’m going to write a letter to somebody.”
“You can’t sue them, can you?” asked a cohort.
“I’m not suing, I’m just saying–this is public relations. Very bad public relations.”
“What does it take to give a piece of paper to somebody?” said the guy with the white sneakers. “What if they take the test and they really excel?”
The ABC guy helpfully offered to fetch some addresses they could write to, and ran off.
“They should’ve given a cutoff time, like 5:30,” said a woman with stringy blond hair. “I had to take the day off work to come to the city.” Her mouth hung open.
“Me too!” said the blue-hat lady. “I live in Aurora. I had to take a train and a bus to get here!”
“All right, everybody out of here,” said one of the security workers. “We’re closing off this floor.”
“But the guy said–he’s getting us–”
“We have to close this floor.” The guard shepherded them into the elevator.
Meanwhile, friends and relations of the lucky ones inside the banquet hall lounged on comfy couches in the corridor, waiting for the results to be announced. “My wife’s in there. I hope she passed,” said Rich Foss, a PhD student who teaches a community-college writing class and who failed the exam in an earlier flight. He claimed he was a poet. So what on earth brought him to try out for a game show?
“Student loans,” he said. “I’ve got like $50,000 in student loans. I would feel really silly being on the damn show, but if I could make a hundred grand for my family–I’ll be silly. I’m a poet, so I’ll never make any money.”
Finally the banquet hall doors opened. The people who flunked were sent the way of the angry mob, while finalists were squashed into a different elevator and sent to the sixth floor for interviews with the producers–they’d proved they were smart enough to be on TV, but pizzazz had yet to be indexed. After a briefing, they lined up in the hall to fill out questionnaires while awaiting interrogation. Most grinned nervously and swapped pop-culture trivia in too-loud voices.
Jenny Mamajek, a Mensa member who works at a home for abused teenage girls, was particularly anxious, though quieter than most. Draped in her boyfriend’s Day-Glo orange Hawaiian shirt, she fretted over the questionnaire. The boyfriend, Mike Terhune, was down on Michigan dealing with their parking situation; they hadn’t expected the test to take so long, and it looked like they would wind up blowing an extra six bucks on the garage. That’s nothing to a millionaire, but Terhune, a typesetter, doesn’t make much more money than Mamajek and has loads of credit card debt. It wasn’t even their car, and the friend who drove them in from their Bensenville apartment needed to get home to her family. Mamajek was especially vexed by one item on the questionnaire: “What do you think Meredith [Vieira, who’ll replace Regis Philbin as host in syndication] would find interesting about you?”
“I just don’t know. Maybe that I have hair down to my waist and my boyfriend’s hair is longer than mine?” She briefly considered noting Terhune’s penchant for latex clothing, but the guy ahead of her said that was a little much for TV. “You gotta jump through their hoops,” he said.
Trisha Miller, the show’s publicist, said she doesn’t think it’s undignified to try to solve your financial problems by appearing on a game show. But what if a contestant misses a simple question or gets nervous on camera? Most people don’t know how to present themselves the way celebrities are trained to do, and this might be a person’s sole TV appearance for a lifetime. “We provide contestants with hair and makeup,” Miller said, shrugging.
Mamajek finally wrote that she loved going to science fiction conventions, but continued to fidget until Terhune came stomping down the hall. He looked ready to break things after coping with the car, but his eyes lit up at the sight of his girlfriend. “You thought I was going to be the big winner, but here you are being interviewed!” he said, hugging her and jumping up and down. He wore a green Hawaiian shirt even brighter than her orange one.
“I’m nervous,” said Mamajek. “You only get to talk to the producer for one minute and they judge your whole personality!”
“You’ll do fine,” said Terhune. “I’ll tell some stories to distract you.” He began telling of a recent tangle with Bensenville’s finest. “I get off the bus and these three guys are being chased across the parking lot by Dominick’s employees. I think: shoplifters, right? So I do my civic duty.” The first guy was too fast for him, but he tackled the second, at which point the third shoved a gun in his face and he was swiftly handcuffed. “How was I supposed to know they were police? One of them was wearing a leather vest and a Harley shirt! Maybe that’s the way cops dress in Boys Town, but not in Bensenville! They were like, ‘We were just about to catch the guy when Mr. Captain Wonderful here had to jump in and save the day.’ I’m Mr. Captain Wonderful now! Hee hee.” Mamajek had heard the story before, but she laughed anyway. Finally she was called in.
When she came out she was grinning. “I think she liked me! She asked if I liked the show and I was like, yeah, it’s one of the best game shows on TV–you can test your knowledge against the contestants’. And she said, ‘So how do you usually do?’ and I said, ‘Uh, pretty well.'” Terhune hugged her again, but there was no time to celebrate–their ride was leaving.
Within 15 minutes the other contestants had cleared out too, and the producers packed their rolling suitcases onto the elevator. Charles Walker, the Marriott employee who had to “reset” the rooms for the next conference (he made it clear that the actual cleanup was not his job), put his hands on his hips and surveyed the debris. “Look, free Who Wants to Be a Millionaire pens,” he said to his coworker, digging into a huge box of discards. “You want some? You might get the pen of the man who signs the check!” Walker said he bet half the test takers had skipped work to try out. “Who Wants to Lose Their Job Trying to Be a Millionaire!” he snorted, taking candy from a dish the producers left behind. “‘Hey, honey, I got a good idea–let’s blow all our money on the boat gambling and then win it back on TV!’ Shit.”