Trivia Reigns: Weekend Forecast Calls for Fun During Lawrence University's 50-Hour Minutia Marathon

APPLETON, Wis., Jan. 15 -- One part "Survivor," two parts "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," Lawrence University takes to the airwaves Friday, Jan. 19 with its own unique contest that will challenge the mental dexterity and physical endurance of hundreds of players over a 50-hour period.

Although the winner of this game won't have to endure any dramatic tribal council votes and no one will walk away with so much as a buck, much less a million of them, the ultimate champion will be required to survive sleep deprivation and know significant amounts of insignificant things.

Welcome to the 36th edition of the Lawrence Midwest Trivia Contest.

Starting at 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 19 and running until midnight Sunday, Jan. 21 -- yes, that's 50 straight hours -- Lawrence University hosts its annual tribute to the obscure and inconsequential.

The country's oldest ongoing salute to matters of minutia, the contest features questions that are as charmingly off-beat as they are difficult. On-campus and off campus teams, with names ranging from carefully creative ["Triviagra"] to those that tickle the underbelly of good taste ["Touched by an Uncle"], vie for meaningless prizes by phoning in answers to questions with varying point values. The contest is broadcast on WLFM, 91.1 FM, Lawrence's student-run campus radio station.

John Brogan is typical of the hundreds of trivia fans from far and near who ritually circle the January weekend on their calendar on which the contest falls. He will be one of a handful of members making a pilgrimage from Iowa City, Iowa, to his parents' home in Kaukauna, which will serve as his team's "Information Central" for the weekend. Joining him will be teammates arriving from Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, Maine and Florida, all of whom will venture to town to hunker down for a weekend of serious fun.

"My parents conveniently take a vacation in January and they're kind enough to let us use their house while they're gone," said Brogan, a computer consultant and first-year law student at the University of Iowa.

Brogan and his friends first dabbled in Lawrence's Midwest Trivia Contest in the early 1990s as sophomores in high school -- answering one question the whole contest. But after that dubious debut, they dove in head first in 1997, winning the off-campus title in their first real effort. They repeated as champions in 1998, but have reluctantly settled for second place each of the last two years.

"We found out there are some incredibly good players out there, which means we'll have to turn it up a notch," said Brogan, who plans on having 15 computers hard-wired to the Internet, one for each player, at his team's disposal this year. "We have a pretty technically savvy group. We're aiming to be bigger, better and smarter."

In the early years of the contest, the burden on Lawrence's telephone system by teams calling in answers was so heavy that the adminstration tried to get the station to abandon the contest. And the year just before the introduction of touch-tone phones in Appleton, there were so many calls that an entire block of some 1,000 city phones were knocked out of order, including a local hospital's emergency room and some business phones. Lawsuits were threatened, but nothing ever came of it.

Through the years, the Lawrence Midwest Trivia Contest has nurtured friendships, sparked romances -- at least one marriage has resulted from a couple who first met as trivia teammates -- and spawned second and even third generation devotees addicts from among the original players. Even as the contest settles into middle age, its magic and magnetism remains strong, still luring players from both coasts back to America's heartland in the dead of winter.

"It's a mind-expanding experience with few of the side effects of normal drugs," jokes Mark Hembree, who first got addicted while playing the trivia contest as a teenager. He missed it for several years while living in Tennessee, but since moving back to Wisconsin in 1989, he and his wife, son and daughter have returned to Appleton regularly to play. "The first time you dig into your subconscious and come up with an answer to a question you don't have any idea how you knew it, you're hooked."

For Todd and Debbie Kunstman, regulars in the contest since the mid-70s and perennial title contenders aomong off-campus players, it's the camaraderie the contest fosters that keeps them playing.

"There's something special about making the impossible happen with a houseful of people," said Todd Kunstman, a professional photographer who annually transfroms his Appleton portrait studio into trivia headquarters for the weekend to accommodate the 30 or so family members and friends, many of whom come from out of town, who comprise his team. "For us, the trivia contest is a very communist operation -- everyone has different strengths and each contributes to the best of their ability."

Since its inception in 1966, fun has always been at the heart of the Lawrence trivia contest. What started as an alternative for students who didn't participate in Lawrence's annual academic retreat to discuss esoteric issues of import, the contest has evolved into a mecca for otherwise normal and sane folks who take temporary leave of reality to spend a weekend in a short-lived fit of obsession with the obscure.

The contest features some 350 questions, copiously collected througout the previous year by diligent student "Trivia Masters," who work the microphone and answer phones in shifts during the 50-hour marathon. Special theme segments, such as "Death and Destruction" with questions geared specifically toward those topics, pop up throughout the weekend.

The final hour of the contest is devoted to extra difficult 100 point "garruda" questions, including the contest's last question -- the virtually unanswerable "Super Garruda," which by tradition, becomes the first question asked the following year. The answer to the Super Garruda is widely circulated, however, assuring most teams an easy 100 points right from the start.

Through the years, the lengths some teams have gone to answer questions has become legendary, all in the hopes of winning an equally trivial prize such as package of chicken Ramen noodles, a pink flamingo lawn ornament or a squirrel pelt. In 1992, two off-campus teams ended up tied after the 50-hour marathon, so the Trivia Masters did the equitable thing: they split the first-place prize. A used violin case was cut in half and each received six months off a calendar of Paul McCartney art.

"We'll call just about anywhere in the world," says Appleton's Pat Branson, who did just that in 1998, waking an unsuspecting Ray Boldt in Birmingham, England in the wee hours of the morning to ask him what he did on an unnamed BBC program on April 19, 1979. With 100 points at stake, an international phone call was a small price to pay for the notoriety that comes with answering a Super Garruda. Calling England was nothing new to Branson, who had previously dialed up Buckingham Palace and London's Hard Rock Cafe in search of answers [both successful].

"We got Mr. Boldt out of bed," recalled Branson. "He didn't have any idea what we were talking about, but he was pleasant enough. We kept him on the line until the answer time period expired so other teams couldn't reach him. It was all very exciting."

In 2000, Brogan's team earned trivia contest notoriety by joining just the handful of teams that have managed to answer the Super Garruda question in the history of the contest.

Registration and a primer on the contest rules begins at 7 p.m. Jan. 19. At 10 p.m., Lawrence President Richard Warch will open the contest and uphold tradition by asking last year's Super Garruda question: In the James Bond movie, "The World is Not Enough," name the work of contemporary sculpture, and the artist who created it, that appears in the beginning chase scene.

Doesn't everyone know that it's "Puppy" by Jeff Koons?

More on the history, rules, past champions and other stories related to the Lawrence Midwest Trivia Contest can be found at: