The tryout for Tic Tac Dough six years later started to change me as soon as I got in my car to drive to Channel 39.
Once upon a time I sneered at game show contestants. I think I considered them to be vapid and shallow, and certainly to lack self-respect, particularly those who’d make fools of themselves for the mere chance of winning some money. But that was before I tried to become a contestant myself. Now, even when my channel selector takes me past The Newlywed Game or Let’s Make A Deal. I look upon the participants with respect. I know what it took for them to make it that far; they deserve their money, and I wish them well with it.
Out of the 400 people tested, thirty had been chosen for the final screening.
The only game show which ever really captured my heart was Jeopardy, which I watched as a teenager. It stood out amidst the other electronic quizzes like a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica on a shelf filled with cheap novels. Art Renting, the host, looked like the head of some chamber of commerce, and every day he'd greet contestants who always seemed to be mechanical engineers from Newark or accountants from Rochester. But the questions were tough. I’d watch, transfixed, and would stab the cloth button on our sofa, pretending it was a buzzer and trying to yell out answers like “What is a lily?” to clues like “Of genus Hemerocallis, this flower’s name is preceded by ‘day.’ ”
My successes in the living room so impressed my mother that she even urged me to fly to New York from Chicago to try out for the show, which I managed to do. Yet somehow the experience didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I remember climbing a dingy set of stairs in midtown Manhattan, taking a standard multiple choice test, being photographed, then receiving a polite rejection a few weeks later. In contrast, I think the tryout for Tic Tac Dough six years later started to change me as soon as I got in my car to drive to Channel 39.
I found myself worrying that my job as a writer might disqualify me, and I mentally began to concoct a phony name and identity. At the station, temporary signs directed would-be contestants to a side entrance. When a woman with short gray hair, holding a clipboard, asked me who I was, however, I totally forgot the alias and mumbled my own name. I explained that I hadn't made a reservation, unlike most of the other applicants, but instead had come on a whim after an aunt had called to tell me about the testing sessions. “No problem,’’ the woman replied cheerfully, waving me into the studio.
The room was one of those large, well-lit caverns which television studios seem to have in place of closets. People occupied all but a few of the folding chairs. I grabbed an empty one and began studying the application and answer form which lay on the seats along with a pad of scratch paper. The vast majority of the group surrounding me looked like housewives who’d primped themselves for an extra special coffee klatsch, and I began to wonder just exactly what I was doing there.
It wasn't long before the crew of young people who'd been milling around the front of the room started passing out pencils and pink-and-blue folders containing the questions. We’d have thirty minutes to answer the ninety multiple choice questions, explained the flippant group leader who introduced himself as Dan. He’d answer any questions after the test. On my left, a blond girl and her boyfriend started peeking into the question folders and whispering. I was pleasantly surprised when I joined them.
It wasn't to be the first time I'd feel like I was regressing to high school days. These questions weren't impossible, but some stumped me. (Who wasn’t at Potsdam? Stalin. Churchill, or Truman? And who was the god of the underworld? Pluto, Neptune, or Achilles?) I plowed through the easy ones (The character Bosley reports to John Forsythe on which television show?), then re-checked the hard ones, and in short order, Dan reclaimed the center stage and the tests.
“Now, what can I tell you?’’ he asked as his minions scurried away to score our answers. Just the slightest touch of condescension colored his smile. “One thing I have to start with — and you'll hear this a million times before you’re through with us — is that we never, ever guarantee that anyone will appear on the show. Even if you should make it all the way to the taping. we still never make any promises that you’ll be chosen as a contestant.”
He explained that Channel 39 was sponsoring the San Diego screenings to generate local interest in the syndicated Tic Tac Dough, which the station planned to air starting in September. “You people are being screened only for the syndicated version.” he warned us. “But there’s one good thing about that. The network limits the amount any player can win on a network show to $25,000. but you can win an unlimited amount of money on a show that’s syndicated.” The room brightened with the glow of about 200 eyes.
“Will the questions be multiple choice on the show?” someone shouted out.
“Absolutely — not. ” Laughter bubbled up. “We’re trying to make this show interesting to watch. I don’t know if many of you remember a show cal led Jeopardy." (An appreciative murmur stirred.) “It was probably the best in game show history. The only problem was that you’d find yourself dozing off to sleep when you watched, because the contestants were so incredibly boring. We’d like to see Tic Tac Dough become a Jeopardy, but with charisma.”
The proctors returned with the answer sheets, and Dan quickly read off about twenty names; with a shock, I recognized my own. While the eighty or so losers filed out of the room, the rest of us moved to the front. Now Dan would interview us, we were told, to separate those with charisma from those lacking it.
The composition of the group had drastically changed. Whereas it had been overwhelmingly female, most of those remaining were men: and the atmosphere in the room had subtly warmed. “Boy, some of those questions were a little tricky,” said the self-possessed young man wearing a three-piece blue suit who sat down next to me. “Like the one about the first man in space. Depending on how you define ‘space,’ it might have been John Glenn or it could have been Yuri Gargarin.”
“Oh, I didn't know that,” I whispered back, suddenly grateful for the companionship. “Hey, where did you say that the opera Aida took place: in Turkey, Egypt, or Italy?”
“I think it was Italy,” he and another person chimed in.
“Oh no, I said Egypt!” I groaned.
Dan began reading through the brief applications we had filled out, pitching questions at each person, then directing small groups over to have their pictures taken. One beaming young female college student described on her application the most exciting event in her life as “trying out to be a contestant on Tic Tac Dough. Dan made a vomiting noise, the rest of us moaned, and she blushed, her grin turning sheepish. My neighbor identified himself as a North County lawyer named Steve (“I knew you had to be a lawyer the minute I saw that suit,” Dan exclaimed.) Next I found myself answering questions about my job and education. “Are those glasses tinted?” the interviewer suddenly asked.
“Why, yes,” I said, confused.
“And you wear them all the time?”
“So you don’t have another pair?” Suddenly, I began to catch his drift.
“No, but I do have a pair of contacts,” I interjected, not mentioning the pain and the torrents of tears that they inevitably caused.
“Oh well, that’s even better,” he said. “The tinted glasses don’t photograph well at all.”
He moved on to an urbane gentleman who looked like he could pass for Sebastian Cabot’s cousin. He turned out to be a rabbi from Vista. Dan looked startled but pleased. “How is the rabbi business in San Diego?” he asked. “Fastest growing Jewish population in the country.” the rabbi shot back genially, in a New York accent.
The rabbi reeled off about a dozen fascinating hobbies. He had won the limit once before on a game show called Window Shopping.(“I never heard of it,” said Dan. “Very few people did.” grinned the rabbi. “It was canceled after only thirteen weeks.”) This guy will be on the show, I thought to myself with certainty.
Dan dismissed Steve, the rabbi, and me, and we whispered conspiratorially as an assistant directed our smiling heads together for a photograph, then cut up the Polaroid print and attached the appropriate face to each application. Out in the parking lot. the rabbi jubilantly declared, “Did you notice how many of the people who passed the test were Jewish?”
“Not really,” I told him truthfully. “Didn’t you listen to the last names?” he said, then trotted off to his car, wishing Steve and me good luck.
The call the next day from the station caught me totally by surprise. It was Nina, the gray-haired woman who’d been at the door, Channel 39‘s Tic Tac Dough coordinator. She sounded as excited as I felt. Out of the 400 people tested, thirty had been chosen for the final screening, an interview with the show’s producer in Century City. He supposedly possessed an uncanny talent for separating game show wheat from the chaff; if I got past him, Nina asserted. I’d have an excellent chance of going on the show. The interviews would start at five p.m. the next Wednesday and the station would charter a bus to take us up there. “I suppose I have to go then or not at all, huh?” I asked. “You bet, honey,” Nina replied. “They’ve got so many thousands of people who want to go on the show that they ’re not going to go out of their way for anyone. ” I mentally began rearranging my schedule.
I arrived at the bus shortly after one p.m., the last to check in. Nina fluttered around like a nervous hen. I sat down, and Nina once again ran over the plan. She had scheduled our early departure “because you know that L.A. traffic.” This way we should arrive in plenty of time to calm down before the Big Moment. Then, before the lumbering vehicle had even reached the “805 North” on-ramp, Nina began passing out blue-and-yellow Picnic ‘n Chicken cartons. “Oh no.” exclaimed the guy sitting next to me. “I already ate my lunch.” I had just consumed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but I kept my mouth shut. Maybe this was some sort of test, I figured; plus, nervousness made it easy to wolf down one of the greasy fried morsels.
Conversation was now bubbling like water boiling in a caldron. Half the passengers seemed to be studying for the upcoming state bar exam, and everyone else was eagerly confessing why he had turned out for the test. The short, bespectacled young man next to me, an accountant for a La Jolla computing firm, told me wistfully of how he’d always dreamed of competing on Jeopardy. I listened attentively, longing to get in on the conversation between Steve the lawyer and the good-looking radio announcer, which was going on two seats in back of me.
Distinct social groups formed quickly. Way in the rear, a voluble Jewish law student named Carol held court with two wise-cracking young men, one a strikingly handsome blond. All three, dressed to kill, were pumping out charisma like it was automobile exhaust. The rabbi floated throughout the bus like the social director on a cruise ship, alternately organizing a bridge game and regaling his fellow passengers with anecdotes. Up in front, Nina commanded the attention of a slightly more subdued-looking cluster, and I yearned to be closer to the game show gossip. But between us a slick-looking salesman lectured a row of four women on vegetarianism and the importance of dressing for success. “That’s why I chose this outfit today,” he said, flashing a brilliant set of choppers and gesturing to his brown and tangerine color-coordinated ensemble. “These are very warm colors and they indicate energy and vitality. And see these shoes that I’m wearing? You can’t tell them apart from Gucci’s, but I got ’em on sale for only $24.95.”
Anaheim traffic threatened to slow us down, but magically it cleared up and we barreled across central Los Angeles.
Heads craned when we reached Century City a little before four. Nina dismissed the bus driver and ordered him back by around eight. She explained that Dan Enright, Tic Tac Dough’s producer, had spent five to eight minutes with each person in the last group. Suddenly, one of the law students spotted a headline blaring the Bakke decision, and the group buzzed around the newsstand. Debate filled the sidewalk as most of us headed for Harry’s Bar.
In the dimly lit lounge, the group intimacy thickened. Nina nursed a margarita and patiently answered each picayune question. How soon would winners get the prize money? How could you deal with the taxes? How could one alert one’s relatives as to which show to watch? Across the table from her, the rabbi and I gobbled down homemade potato chips and chattered like old college chums. The handsome blond, who’d hung around Carol on the bus, turned out to be a social worker from Kearny Mesa name Mike. He was into his second Martini when Nina began clucking for us to reassemble. While she scurried around her brood, I broke down and bought my first pack of cigarettes in a year and a half.
When the elevator doors deposited us on the second floor of the Century Park East Building, Nina led us to an unmarked door which opened to a simply furnished office.
Dan, who’d interviewed us in San Diego wasn’t there; instead, Phil and Byron greeted us warmly and ushered us into a small inner room filled with folding chairs. Unlike Dan. who had seemed vaguely insulting. Phil and Byron exuded brash good will. Enright would begin calling groups of five up to his office, they explained, and he might spend from one to ten minutes interviewing us. Byron advised us that we’d do best to make every second count. “You have to understand, he’s been doing this for a thousand years. He doesn’t have to spend a long time to figure out exactly what he’s looking for. So when you go in there, don’t sit back and wait for him to draw you out. Your energy level should be up from the moment you walk in that office.”
Another be-suited and curly-haired aspiring lawyer piped up. “Can’t you tell us what order you’re going to call us in? Then we wouldn’t have to all wait in this room the whole time.”
“You won’t know what order you’ll be called if you get on the show,” Byron said coyly. “So we’re not going to tell you now.”
“I really don’t see the point,” the questioner said peevishly.
“I think he just blew his chances,” whispered Rick, the radio announcer, from somewhere behind me.
Phil led off the first group like lambs to slaughter, while Byron stayed behind to watch over us. A handsome, effervescent black man, his energy level blasted out more strongly than a Las Vegas performer’s. We warmed to him quickly, particularly when he told us how he’d won more than $20,000 on High Rollers two years ago, then had come home with nothing but a Mr. Coffee when he played on Gambit a year after that. Most recently, he’d won $24,000 on The Joker's Wild. “So I can really empathize with you guys,” he told us. “I’ve been through it every step of the way. I know what it feels like to win big and also to lose. And we’d like to see every one of you get on the show. We really would.” We believed him.
A second group of five received the summons from on high. Still, none of the first had returned. The group’s attention shifted to those among us who’d appeared on other game shows. A new mother from the North County told how she’d just returned from a Caribbean cruise which she’d won the year before; a large, talkative woman named Loma, who sported a towering, elaborately curled hairdo, also was a Password veteran.
Then every head in the place swung to the front of the room. Gary, an amiable fellow with one arm in a cast, one of the first who had ascended to Enright’s office, walked through the door and shuffled in a daze to his seat. He looked as if he'd just seen an automobile accident. Close on his heels came a white-haired young woman, a veteran of two previous game shows, who sank into her chair with a pinched expression on her face.
"How did it go? ” someone asked Gary.
“It was short. Unbelievably short,” he muttered. Undaunted, Byron at the front of the room continued explaining the Byzantine rules of the “bonus round.” “What was he like?” I whispered to the white-haired. white-faced blond.
“ ‘Hello. How many kids do you have’ ” she mimicked in a monotone. “ ‘Why don’t you get that hair out of your face; you’re such a pretty girl. Would you come back again? Thank you. Good-bye.’ He never smiled,” she said tersely.
More of Enright’s victims began straggling into the room, like the survivors of some catastrophe. A third group of five was dispatched; then a fourth, and Nina looked around. Each person in the previous group had chatted with the producer for at least five minutes, she reiterated. At this rate, our group would finish an hour and a half before our bus returned.
Finally, Byron called my name and merrily led the five of us through the twisting corridors. My body felt increasingly numb with each step. The glass-fronted office where he deposited us in Phil’s hands seemed much fancier than the other rooms; “Barry-Enright Productions” adorned the outside walls. The last person in the previous group was just filing out of Enright’s inner sanctum, so Phil ushered in an agonized-looking young man who appeared even more terrified than the rest of us.
He returned quickly and Loma went next. Less than a minute later, she emerged. Confused, she reeled toward the elevator. Betsy, a blond mother and part-time social worker from El Cajon, went before me, and Phil turned his attention in my direction.
“Okay, you did very well on the test,” he declared, looking down at a file containing my score sheet.
“National Merit Scholar, you know,” I blurted out brightly, grinning like an idiot.
“Really?” He look dubious. “Now, is your energy level up?”
“It’s up, up, UP!” I bellowed, Flapping my arms like a chicken.
“Okay, okay,” he said hurriedly. “I see you don't need any more coaching. But that’s fine. Don’t be afraid to gesture. Do whatever you need to keep yourself going.”
Betsy returned, looking disappointed. She mumbled that she’d forgotten the name of the book she was currently reading, and Enright had asked her about it. "The Thornbirds! Now, why couldn’t I remember that?” she said bitterly.
Phil already had me in tow. Suddenly I found myself standing in a glass-walled office, staring at a tanned, dried-up man sitting behind a huge table.
“Mr. Enright, I’d like you to meet Jeannette De Wyze,” Phil said graciously, then backed out of the room.
“How are you, dear?” Enright asked.
“Very fine, thank you, Mr. Enright.” My words rang with all the sincerity of a used car salesman.
“Yes, but how are you really?” he shot back at me with a touch of what I detected to be malevolence.
“My energy level is about to leave the atmosphere!” I cried. “Your assistants have really done a number on me.”
I felt frozen to my chair. Worse still, every molecule of saliva in my mouth seemed to have dried up the moment I entered the office. When he asked me about my hobbies, the words stuck to my mouth like cotton candy.
“Well, my husband and I like sailing, and I’m also trying to train an unruly six-month-old puppy,” I said, straining to keep my tongue from crackling too audibly.
“So you sail and train your dog.” He looked at me as disdainfully as if I'd said my hobby was sleeping.
“Oh, I forgot. I also just started taking Japanese lessons.”
I suddenly realized that my grin had faded from my face. I yanked up the corners of my mouth like someone jerking open a curtain.
He asked a few more desultory questions, then tossed me the inane finale which had signaled each person's dismissal. “Would you be willing to come back to Los Angeles if we wanted you on the show?” I assented heartily, only yearning now for escape. Then he added, “Domo arigato.'’
Blankness filled my consciousness. Here I’d had two lousy Japanese lessons, and now a fortune might be riding on the right response. But how could I remember it when Betsy hadn't even remembered what book she’d been reading?
“Arigato gozaimashita," I blurted out desperately as I fled the room.
“Well, I guess you must know more Japanese than I do,” he said with his first and only touch of friendliness.
Downstairs, Nina, who'd lived in Japan, asked me what the hell I had said. ‘‘You’re supposed to say, 'Do itashimashite” she crowed. I didn't care. It was an immense relief just to sit and commiserate with the other would-be contestants. Rumors flew. Someone said that a tough-looking former owner of a topless bar in our group had contritely volunteered to cut off his beard for Enright. “Maybe I should have lied about my hobbies,” someone else groaned. The only person who seemed to have hit it off with the producer was the irrepressible North County rabbi. Yet he fretted that Enright might not want any Jews on the show.
We rode back to San Diego wearily and didn't pile out of the bus till almost ten. The rabbi, planning to go see A Chorus Line that weekend, commented that he felt like he'd just tried out for one. When I waved goodnight to the group, I figured I’d never hear from the station again, so Nina’s voice on the phone the next day came as a shock.
The group of twenty-nine had been narrowed down to eighteen, she said, and she thought the chances of our all getting on were now excellent. We had to do only one more thing: return to Los Angeles to play a mock version of the game. This time we’d have to carpool, she said, so the next Wednesday thirteen of us drove up in three cars (the others went separately). Once again, we had a drink together and then reassembled in the small second-floor office, where Enright himself greeted us.
Other would-be contestants also helped fill the room. The producer seemed almost affable as he quickly described how one would play the bonus round. He pointed at one young man and told him to try a demonstration. The young man won; then Enright pointed at me. Amazingly, I won three Xs in a row in about five picks. “Okay, I assume you all understand the game. Nobody else wants to play, right?”
“Well, I’d like to try it,” interjected Steve, my lawyer friend. The room broke out into giggles at his effrontery.
Unfortunately, he picked a dragon square for his second choice, thus instantly losing the bonus round. He blushed scarlet, and Enright put the board away and began to solicit comments about the new show. I hadn’t yet seen it, but several other members in the San Diego contingent had, and our camaraderie seemed to loosen up the group. “Wink Martindale is really bad news,” Carol offered. Enright listened sagely, then dismissed us, ten minutes after we’d entered the room.
Loma was outraged. “We were supposed to play the game!” she wailed. Someone else thundered, “You mean you people had us drive two hours to get up here, and that’s all you’re going to have us do?” Helplessly, Byron and Phil shrugged their shoulders. Off to one side, Steve’s face still blazed red. “I think I just blew my chances,” he lamented.
“Why?” I demanded.
“I should have kept my stupid mouth shut and not volunteered to play that last game. ”
That was the last time I heard from Barry-Enright Productions, and I’ve resigned myself to never getting on the show. It wasn’t the last I heard about other members of the group, however. Elaborate chains of communication developed almost instantaneously, and Carol seemed to be the best conduit. No matter who else I called, she always seemed to have gotten the news first.
She heard almost immediately when Betsy, the El Cajon housewife/social worker, made it on the air. “They rehearse everything they’re going to say on the air with you,” Betsy told me later. “They really prepare you well at that stage. ” She won $3800 in cash and about $3400 in prizes. “That whole week, it was just like Christmas around the house.”
Carol also informed me when Mike, the handsome blond, went up for a taping, and she was the first to hear how he had come away empty-handed. But Carol received no call herself, nor did Rick, nor Steve, nor Loma, nor even the rabbi; and Carol still sounds puzzled when she talks about it. “I’m amazed, because I really thought we had a good group. I'd really gotten the impression that we’d be on. You know, first it was just kind of a lark for me. but then I got excited about it. I was a big celebrity at work. Now everyone keeps asking me when I’m going to be on. They really shouldn’t do that to people.”
I’m disappointed, too, in spite of myself. Mentally, I even spent part of the money. But curiosity more than anything else drove me to call Barry-Enright Productions one last time. I got Phil. I didn’t remind him that I’d tried out for the show, but only told him that I was writing a story about it. And I asked him what they look for when they select contestants.
“Uh, I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth,” he said. “I’d better go check on the answer to that. ”A long minute later he returned. “We’re looking for outgoing, personable, intelligent people. There's really not much more you can say than that. ” He refused to generalize about how many of the 1500 people screened for the show in Los Angeles every week actually make it on the air. “All I can say is that the chances are really good if someone knows enough about trivia to pass the test — and if he really wants to be on a game show.”
So I still wonder why Carol and the others and I didn’t make it. By the end, we wanted like hell to get on. Maybe I should have said "Do itashimashite" and maybe Steve shouldn't have volunteered to play the bonus round, and maybe Carol shouldn't have criticized Wink Martindale. Such madness begins to seem plausible. When I called Channel 39, Debbie Kenton (Nina's successor) offered one more tidbit of information. Of the 2000 or so applicants whom the station has tested since May, twenty-four have made it to a taping. The biggest winner won $11,600; the biggest winner so far in all Tic Tac Dough history won $124,000. Debbie says the station is very pleased so far with the promotion. There’s another testing tomorrow, as a matter of fact.
But if you go, don’t say I didn’t warn you.