Real trivia buffs take notes during movies

The Appleton Post-Crescent, January 27, 1985.

“It’s a hobby turned into an obsession.” Remarked Mike Van Ryzin, 41 Eastfield Drive, host of Substation, one of 113 teams participating in the Midwest Trivia Contest at Lawrence University this weekend.

That is probably the understatement of the year. Trivia buffs are a rare breed of people whose commitment to unearthing the seemingly silly minutiae of movies, politics, history, the arts and sciences borders on mindless fanaticism.

The first thing you learn very quickly about these trivia enthusiasts is that their devotion to trivia is not something that they prepare for once a year for a contest.

It is a constant obsession, a consuming passion, an extension of their personalities and a part of their lifestyle – all year.

Take Laura Morgan, one of the team members, who normally works as a disc jockey for radio station WAPL.

She is so fascinated with trivia that she takes notebooks to movies to jot down things like license plate numbers on cars and street addresses. She views about 300 movies a year, in theaters as well as at home on TV with the aid of three premium cable channels and a VCR.

She is the recognized movie expert of the eight-member group. She has a set of filing cards and notebooks all neatly indexed for ready reference.

“Laura takes notes while she does the dishes,” said Bob Tinyhelgert of Amherst, a team member.

It was about 4 p.m. Saturday when a reporter visited the members of Substation in the basement of Van Ryzin’s home on the southeast side. They had been at it since 10 p.m. Friday, when the contest started.

They had each averaged about 1 ½ hours of sleep since then. Mark Helgert, Waukesha, who recently had surgery, said “I am indulging myself. I had four hours.” His wife, Gwenda, who is also on the team, said the contest “is a learning experience.”

The other team members are Karen Schwark, Milwaukee, a high school senior who is in charge of jotting down the questions and answers; Marie Sarnowski and her husband, Tom, from Milwaukee, who research answers from the pile of reference material.

There are dozens of reference books, magazines and newspapers on the tables and shelves, including Time, USA Today, The Milwaukee Journal Green Sheet, Information Please Almanac, the Encyclopedia of Music, one year’s collection of TV Guide, The Great American Sports Book and a Webster’s Dictionary.

Van Ryzin is the one assigned to make phone calls to Lawrence University radio station WLFM, 91.1 FM.

The team members wear ugly ties, a tradition that probably goes back as far as the contest (20 years).

They hurriedly page through reference books when a question is asked. While being observed by the outsider, they answered two questions correctly.

The questions were: “What is the name of the Inn at Notre Dame?” (Morris Inn) and this dandy, “Which composer did Johann Sebastian Bach’s brother study under?” (Johann Pachelbell).

The team members had one complaint about the questions. They didn’t get a set time to answer. “They just cut it off arbitrarily,” said Gwenda.

Is all of this worth it for a pink flamingo (one of the prizes given out in past years)?

“It’s the one time of the year where we make a commitment as friends to get together,” Morgan said. “Not all of us are athletically inclined and we don’t get a chance to participate in team sports. This gives us a chance to get to know the feeling of participating.”

Larry Page, station manager of WLFM, has strongly resisted any efforts to commercialize the contest, one of the most popular ones nationwide (“People came in from Maine to play it,” said Tinyhelgert.)

Van Ryzin agrees that if money were given as a prize, the competition would become “cutthroat” and it would attract greedy people who do it only for the money and not for the love of it.

“It teaches you to be more observant,” Morgan said. “You are sitting in a movie theater and you automatically look at things like license plate numbers, telephone numbers, clocks. People say how can you enjoy a movie while sitting there taking notes? Don’t you find that a distraction?”

She says not. “I liken it to scoring a sports game. It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the game.” Tinyhelgert said it enables him to spot flaws in movies, such as artifacts or inventions that were from a different period than the movie is portraying.

Asked what accounts for the tremendous explosion in popularity of trivia games, including the phenomenally popular “Trivial Pursuit,” Morgan said it is a reaction to the times.

“People think about nuclear war and they want to have something that they can have some control of,” she said.

At the WLFM studios, there were 11 students manning the bank of phones, and shouting “We want pizza.”

According to students at the station, there were 32 on-campus teams and 81 off-campus teams.

Substation? The team ranked in 14th place but was planning to move closer to first place by the time things conclude 47 seconds after midnight tonight.