Absurdity will reign

Trivia buffs descend on Lawrence this weekend

by Tom Richards
The Appleton Post-Crescent, January 19, 1995.

"There’s just something so delightfully absurd about it," Stan Erickson said. He was getting ready to play in Lawrence University’s 29th Annual Midwest Trivia Contest this weekend.

In the background at the New Frontier Record Exchange, which he operates in downtown Appleton, a tape of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was playing. The artist was William Shatner.

Clearly Erickson has a taste for the absurd.

“There’s nothing like being without sleep for 40 hours and trying to call a tavern in the Yukon to find out what’s in a Sour Toe Cocktail,” he said.

His team has done that. (The answer, by the way, is, typical of the contest, a little tasteless. On the back bar in this particular tavern, there is a severed logger’s toe in a far of formaldehyde. The toe is dipped in the cocktail.)

Erickson has been playing in the annual minutia marathon since the late 1960s, the first year that there was off-campus participation. He was in junior high school in Appleton then, and he finished ninth.

The event began in 1966 as a smart-aleck counterpoint to a heavy-duty academic encampment that the school held to discuss all the great issues of the world.

The first year, it was broadcast just over the campus AM station, which reached only the immediate Lawrence area. In 1967, however, it was moved to the FM station, now WLFM, FM 91.1.

The trivia contest has grown ever since, with an estimated 30-35 teams participating on campus and perhaps as many as 100 off-campus. The nature of the contest makes it difficult to know for sure.

If the contest is absurd, it also is delightfully pointless. The prizes are, well, of questionable value. Last year’s first-place trophy, for example, was a large rubber playground ball with a smiley face on it.

Erickson’s team members gave it to him, and, of course, he still has it.

He said there is a core of about 26 players on the team, though as many as 40 people may participate. This basic team has taken the off-campus first place title the last four years.

If you are a casual observer, you might not recognize the team, however, because the name usually changes every year. Team names always are part of the fun of the contest anyway.

In the beginning, Erickson was “Filboid Studge,” which is the name of a cereal in an H.H.Munro story, he said. Other years, the team has been “Gag Reflex,” “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” and last year was “Lousy With Brains.”

He said that on the first question, the team will answer with five different names. The one that gets the best response from the trivia contest operators sticks.

His favorite last year, “The Single Elvis Theory,” will be tried again this year.

The team rents quarters downtown for the weekend and installs three telephone lines. Players will bring a library totaling more than 1,000 books that will be arranged on shelves built specially for the occasion by one of the members. Among the members are experts on various areas of trivia, ranging from his expertise in music to others who specialize in film, science and death and destruction.

The members come from all over the country, from Massachusetts and Indiana, and heavily from Chicago, Minneapolis and elsewhere in Wisconsin.

Erickson’s team eschews including the name of a restaurant in the team name, as some do. “Everybody brings food,” he said. “We have a lot of good cooks.”

The contest begins at 10 p.m. Friday and runs for 50 straight hours, ending at midnight Sunday. Some 350-400 questions will be asked before it is over.

And if Erickson’s team wins again, this may be their last year. That could spoil the contest.

“We don’t want to dissuade other teams,” Erickson said.

That would be absurd.

Let’s get trivial
What: Lawrence University’s 29th Annual Midwest Trivia Contest
When: From 10 p.m. Friday to midnight Sunday
Where: Broadcast over WLFM, FM 91.1
First Question: Who was the first mailman to retire on pension in the city of Manitowoc?
Answer (for 100 points): Elton C. Gibson