Assignment: Wisconsin

Which Midwest city has an annual trivia contest?

by Rogers Worthington
The Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1987.

Appleton, Wis. – The plague of trivia that each year grips this town for 50 non-stop hours has come and gone again.

Heaps of ravaged pizza boxes, crumpled coffee cups and empty cola cans have been hauled away. Members of the Big Lie, Good Company Turned Bad, Info Maniacs, and less mentionable teams, have stumbled off red-eyed, stubble-bearded and bathless to make up for lost sleep.

Like or not, Appleton, home of the 22nd Annual Midwest Trivia Contest, is the unofficial trivia capital of the United States.

Appleton is an attractive community of 63,000, nestled in Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley, where paper is the main industry.

Newsweek magazine chose the town last summer for a 32-page paean on sports in the average American city.

The pursuit of sports here is far more widespread than the pursuit of trivia.

Appleton, while not shunning the publicity trivia brings, does not exactly rush to embrace it.

“I think people are proud this is the trivia capital of the world for one week each year,” said Mayor Dorothy Johnson, striving for equanimity.

“But some people could care less. There are trivia buffs here, and they exclude most of the population. Most are oblivious.”

Still, at a time when national sales of the game Trivial Pursuit have long since peaked, in Appleton trivia is older than the Super Bowl (by one year), and getting bigger – 200 teams registered this year – and tougher all the time.

Question: “What was elderly actress Edith Webster singing when she collapsed and died during a performance at the Moose Lodge in Towson, Md.?

Answer: “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.”

One year, contestants were asked to name the two girls on either side of Margaret Thatcher in her junior high school yearbook picture. Nobody could.

It took a spate of long distance telephone calls to learn the answer to, “How many drinking fountains does the Pentagon have? (685)

Audio questions also can be tough. “We thought we were clever because we knew all five songs in a Cole Porter medley,” said Info Maniac member Terry Dawson. “But what they wanted were the names of the saxophone players on each one.”

A team of 14 trivia masters spends the year dredging up hundreds of questions from obscure sources worldwide. Larry Page, who oversees the contest, urges them not to use books.

“If the question can be found in a book, then the answer can be found in a book,” said Page, who is broadcast director for Lawrence University’s 10,500 watt radio station, WLFM.

The station is trivia headquarters for the contest. Questions are read over the air – eight and hour for 50 hours straight. Shifts of 11 telephone answerers record the teams’ responses, but sub teams try to block the station’s switchboard once the main team has entered its answer.

Phone lines have been known to be cut. One team was the victim of a box of chocolate chip cookies loaded with Ex-Lax. And there are rumors of attempts to deliver a pizza sprinkled with sleeping pill powder.

Falling asleep can be fatal for a team. A group of nine students from Appleton West High School dozed off on Sunday morning of the contest and missed 40 questions.

Participants represent a wide cross-section of society; students from junior high school up, families and single adults, some who travel from out of state; some want to party; others like to show off memory and research skills.

Team members prepare year round, clipping obscure facts in newspapers and magazines, stocking up on books on arcane entertainment, scientific, sports and travel subjects.

“In Appleton, the sight of someone with a notebook and clipboard at a movie is not that strange a sight,” said Robert Goldsmith, an Appleton elementary school teacher and veteran trivia contestant, who said he watched 400 films last year. Movies are a mother lode of trivia questions. “What is Dirty Harry’s badge number?” (2211)

Goldsmith remodeled his attic to accommodate his trivia reference materials and the annual 50-hour siege of his team, High Eshelon.

The Big Lie, which came in second this year, is one of the most organized teams. Besides an abundant library of reference books, a television monitor and a VCR are available to review cassettes of movies and commercials. And three computer terminals are loaded with indexed and cross-referenced trivial information that team members spend weeks feeding into it.

Four-time winner Good Company Turned Bad prides itself on the percentage of top-pf-the-head answers it produces. When the trivia masters asked for the order the fruit fell on a bowl covered with plastic wrap in a television commercial, Robin Christopher, an unemployed bookseller, knew the answer.

When the trivia masters asked the name of a man who committed suicide by drilling eight holes in his head, Harold Annen, the team’s specialist in the macabre, knew the name (William G. Hall, 1971, Shrewsbury, England)

The Info Maniacs, a group of Appleton librarians, have been top contenders for several years. At first they set up shop in the reference room of the Appleton Public Library. But that led to an outcry among other groups.

“We protested,” said Shawn Grant, team captain of the Big Lie. “We didn’t feel it was right for them to rise to victory on the backs of the taxpayers.