Obsession meets resourcefulness at a marathon of
insignificant yet stunningly arcane facts
by William Hageman
The Chicago Tribune, January 30, 2002.
APPLETON, Wis. -- There are trivia questions: What is the name of Dagwood Bumstead's dog?
And then there are trivia questions: In 1951, the St. Louis Browns had a midget appear for them in one game. Who was the only major-leaguer to attend his funeral?
Last weekend, hundreds of people wrestled with that question and 392 others on similarly obscure topics at the 37th annual Lawrence University Midwest Trivia Contest.
The event was a 50-hour marathon, starting at 10 p.m. Friday and concluding at midnight Sunday.
Each year, a dozen students, dubbed Trivia Masters, spend 12 months compiling questions that are read over the air at the campus radio station, WLFM. Contestants have 3 1/2 minutes to call in their guesses - seven phone lines are dedicated to off-campus teams, three for on-campus teams - after which an annoying beeper sounds and the correct answer is announced on the radio, along with the names of all the teams that got it right.
Questions are generally worth 5 points. A few "Garrudas" - the word was coined by a long-forgotten Trivia Master years ago and is believed to be the name of either an Indonesian airline or a Seattle restaurant - are worth a little more, and a 100-point Super Garruda is saved for the last question. The Super Garrudas are virtually unanswerable (no one got it this year), but even the 5-pointers are a challenge.
"They're not going to ask who was a character in a movie," said John Brogan, whose Piggy Bank of Kaukauna team was crowned the off-campus champion early Monday morning, its second title in a row and fourth in the last six years. "They'll ask what was the license plate number on a car [in a movie] . . . or what movie was listed on a marquee in the background in a scene, or what was the number of the train that Harry Potter took to Hogwarts."
(If you guessed 5972, give yourself 5 points.)
Appleton residents and former residents, Lawrence grads who come back to town for the weekend, and their friends and families set aside the last weekend in January every year to be part of Trivia Weekend, sort of a combination of "Animal House" and "Revenge of the Nerds."
But this is no trivial pursuit. Teams set up anywhere in Appleton or the surrounding area where they can pick up the 3,000-watt radio station's signal. People turn their homes into contest bunkers, hauling in hundreds of books, magazines and DVDs to use as reference material. Extra phone lines, speed dial and high-speed Internet connections are installed. Computer programs are designed. Businesses close their doors so employees can participate.
And the determination of some teams is legendary. Four years ago, the Super Garruda asked what Ray Bolt of Birmingham, England, did on an unidentified BBC program on April 19, 1979. One team called all the Ray Bolts in Birmingham until it found the right one. They woke him up and got his answer -- he constructed a life-size origami elephant for the show "Pebble Mill at One" -- then kept him on the line so other teams couldn't reach him.
In another instance, a team called the Hard Rock Cafe in London to get the words on a T-shirt in a glass case near the kitchen.
And there was another team that called the White House to get an answer from an usher.
All this for some fabulous prizes.
"One year one prize was a bunch of cigarette butts in a mayonnaise jar. Then there was the used salt lick," said Kevin Brimmer, a player since 1985 who this year headed the 20-person The Lord of the Iowans: The Fellowship of the Corn team, which finished third.
"I think last year or the year before, the grand prize was a beat-up old mattress with TRIVIA painted on it," said Hannah Trobe, a Lawrence senior from Grayslake and the station manager for WLFM.
"You don't do it for the prizes, obviously," said Brimmer, a native Iowan who now lives in Appleton and works as an actuary. "But if you do win, you display them proudly."
With that, he led a visitor to the mantel in his living room, where some of the Iowans' past prizes were exhibited -- a cassette tape of Sesame Street songs, New Kids on the Block and Vanilla Ice comic books, and a pornographic Italian pamphlet.
Brimmer's first year of competition featured a rotary phone in a one-bedroom apartment and more dart playing among team members than question answering.
"This originally started out as an excuse to pretend to be 18 again and drink beer all weekend," he said. "Then we figured, hey, we can do this."
Making of a winning team
Although some traditions remain -- chili cheese dogs are a must for Saturday lunch, and, of course, there's still beer -- Brimmer's team and its approach have evolved. This year's roster includes two members with PhDs in computer science. A college-age nephew has recruited some friends to bring young blood onto the team. And no longer do they make lattes with caffeinated water and wash down No-Doz with Mountain Dew.
The contest itself has changed, too, especially in the last few years.
"Till about five years ago, it was how good a library you could put together," said Pat Sajbel of Mt. Prospect, who much prefers to be referred to by his contest name of Otto. "Now it's all Internet. I didn't like it at first. Before, it was more of a scramble; everybody would scurry to the books to look things up. But you go with the times or you perish."
The team that has adapted to the times best may be the one captained by Brogan, a University of Iowa law student who returns to his parents' home in nearby Kaukauna each January for the contest. His parents go on vacation and Brogan and his two dozen teammates -- some from as far away as San Francisco, Seattle, the District of Columbia and Sarasota -- move in.
With extra phone lines installed, 15 to 20 computers and laptops and the search engines that they designed, it's an impressive high-tech operation. Not exactly what one traditionally associates with a trivia contest, but it's a sign of the times.
"We personally think that everything is out there. The Internet is so big, such a depository for junk, human detritus, that we'll find anything," said Brogan, whose team's full name this year was The Piggy Bank of Kaukauna: The Snout with Clout.
"If you have people who can work the Internet, you can do it."
Minutes later, his sister Shannon proved it.
The question asked for the cost for a seat in the lower boxes in Kings Theatre in 1908.
Shannon hit the Internet. Less than 20 seconds later -- with at least one person in the room still trying to figure out where Kings Theatre was located -- she called out the answer: A half-guinea.
Thanks to the Internet
A miracle of modern technology. One that was repeated over and over by the Kaukauna team. A question was broadcast, team members attacked the Internet via a variety of search engines, and more often than not the answer was shouted out in less than a minute.
Then the other half of the equation -- team members with telephones -- would come into play. They usually would be dialing the radio station as soon as the question was broadcast, hoping to get through and keep the phone answerer on the line until a teammate came up with an answer.
Phone people are also a key part of one of the stranger elements of this strange weekend: the "Jam Team."
Teams often keep calling after they have already answered a question correctly, just to tie up the lines and keep other teams from getting in before time expires. The idea is to keep the phone answerers on the line. Talk slowly. Try to engage in small talk. Ask questions. Sometimes they'll throw out incorrect but reasonable-sounding guesses. Sometimes they'll get goofy ("The name of the barbershop quartet? Was it the Pink Floyd Boys Choir?"). And occasionally they'll even answer a question correctly, then make up a team name and get on the board with some points. (At one point Saturday, a couple of the fictional jam teams had more points than most legit teams.)
And sometimes, phone savvy is more important than knowing an answer.
Question 99 asked what director Alfred Hitchcock didn't like about a certain scene in "Spellbound." Members of 101 Damnations had no idea and couldn't find it on the Internet or in their research materials. But they kept calling in guesses.
Ingrid Bergman's accent. Background noise. Someone sneezed. The lighting was bad. The shot was out of focus.
After some cajoling, a phone answerer gave a hint: It had something to do with the audio. A little more cajoling, and it was narrowed down to a problem with music.
Mike Hembree, a high school senior who was playing with his parents, called in and started rattling off guesses.
"The background music was too loud. . . . It was too quiet. . . . It didn't go with the scene. . . . Too much brass. . . . Oboes! . . . Too much bass. . . . There were problems with the strings. . . ."
Finally, the Trivia Master on the other end surrendered and gave him the points.
"I don't know what the right answer was," Hembree said after hanging up. "But I guess I was close enough."
(Turns out, Hitchcock thought the violins started playing at the wrong time.)
The answer: Kent Palmer
The 5 points that 101 Damnatians got for the answer helped it to a fifth-place finish in the off-campus division behind champion Piggy Bank of Kaukauna. The winning on-campus group was the Yuais, who slipped past the defending champion Der Uberteam 1,302-1,300. (For the record, and for those planning to play next year, here's this year's Super Garruda: Who knocked in the winning runs in the 2000 Busch Tournament of Champions in Madison, Wis.? The answer: Kent Palmer.)
For their effort, the off- and on-campus winners received, respectively, a ceramic male figurine holding a lute, and pair of old pants.
But like Jason Maxham, a member of the Bank of Kaukauna team who flew in from San Francisco, pointed out, there's more to this contest than prizes. The hunt is the thing.
"People like to have answers. . . . And most of the time, we do. There's a big appeal in that," he said.
And as a bonus, you can actually learn things.
"Definitely," Maxham said. "But not that you can apply it anywhere."
Then again, the next time someone at a cocktail party brings up the subject of Eddie Gaedel's funeral, Maxham and anyone else who was in the contest this year can throw out the fact that Bob Cain was among the mourners.
Test your trivia talents on these teasers
Traditionally, the first question in the Lawrence University Midwest Trivia Contest is the last question from the previous year -- dubbed the Super Garruda -- giving teams a chance to pick up a quick 100 points.
This year, university president Richard Warch kicked off the competition by asking Question No. 1:
If the longest home run ever hit at Wrigley Field had traveled 3 more feet, what is the name of the person whose television set would have been destroyed?
The answer, of course, was Naomi Martinez.
Last year, two teams had that answer, according to Rick Peterson, Lawrence's associate director of public affairs. The question came from Trivia Master Curtis Dye, who got it out of "Essential Cubs," a trivia book by Doug Myers. Two well-prepared teams had the same book and each picked up 100 points.
(The homer, incidentally, was hit by Dave Kingman in 1976 as a member of the New York Mets. It traveled an estimated 550 feet and hit a house on the east side of Kenmore Avenue. Three feet higher and it would have crashed through Martinez's window and hit her TV.)
Not all the questions are as tough as the Super Garruda. Then again, even the common questions are a challenge. Here are a few from this year's contest:
1. In the book "American Psycho," what perfume does Patrick Bateman's girlfriend wear when flirting with his best friend Price?
2. On what date did the construction of the Pentagon begin?
3. How long were the original skee-ball lanes?
4. In "Jughead Jones Digest" No. 66, there's a costume party at Veronica's. What does Jughead go as?
5. What was the Volkswagen bug originally called?
6. In the movie "Brain Candy," what is the patient number for Mrs. Hurdicure?
7. Which English soccer club has no letters in its name in common with the word "mackerel"?
8. What Indian festival is celebrated by hanging self-immolated victims on iron hooks?
9. In 1965, how many people participated in the U.S. food stamp program?
10. When Saigon fell during the Vietnam War, what was the signal for all Americans to evacuate?
2. Sept. 11, 1941
3. 36 feet
4. A can of bug spray
5. The KDF
6. No. 957
10. Bing's Crosby's "White Christmas" was played on the radio.