By Doralisa Pilarte
In February 2010, while most of the DC region was digging out of Snowmaggedon, Dr. Silvio Menzano, director of Marymount’s Counseling Center, was hunkered down in front of his home computer, taking an online test that he hoped would make him a contestant on what the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted official status as “America’s Favorite Quiz Show.”
A few weeks later, as patches of ground began to peep through the snow and ice, an e-mail delivered the news: He had surmounted the initial hurdle and was invited to an in-person interview with the Jeopardy! contestant-search team in Washington, DC.
A lifelong Jeopardy! enthusiast, Dr. Menzano had vied for a spot twice before, for the Teen Tournament and the College Championships. This was the closest he’d gotten to his goal.
In early June, he found himself in a room with 25 other DC-area residents who had scored high online. The day included more testing, a mock game with buzzers, and a personality interview. At its conclusion, Menzano was told that he had made it into the pool of possible contestants and could expect to be called sometime during the next 18 months! As it happened, he didn’t have to wait long: The muchanticipated phone call came in mid- July, inviting him to come to the Sony Studios in Los Angeles on August 23 and 24 to be on the show.
Menzano explains, “The contestants pay for their own flight, lodging, and food. But even if you end up in second place, you get $2,000. Third-place contestants get $1,000. So the worst you can do is break even.”
The show films five episodes per day, Monday through Friday. Contestants can be eliminated on their first try or go on to challenge Ken Jennings, who remains the record-holder for winning the most consecutive games – 74. (Jennings took home more than $2.5 million in the show’s 2004-05 season.)
Silvio Menzano arrived at the Sony Studios in Culver City for make-up and preparation at 8:30 a.m. on August 23. Taping began at 11 a.m., but he wasn’t called. On the second day, his chance to play finally came.
Dr. Menzano’s two competitors were up and down throughout the game, which he notes is not solely about intellect. He says, “During a break, one of the handlers came up to me and said that I was buzzing a little too fast, to hold back a bit. What viewers don’t see is that there are lights that come on when it’s OK to buzz. Jumping the lights locks you out for a quarter of a second. That’s the thing: Half of what you see on the show is knowledge and memory, and the other half is how well you time your buzzer. And that’s something you can’t really prepare for.”
Menzano went into Final Jeopardy dead last, with just $5,200, while each of the other contestants had over $10,000. The final category was “Business Pairings” and the clue was “The names of two men, one born in Germany in 1834, and one in Kansas in 1875, were joined in this company name lasting from 1998-2007.”1
The other contestants bet nearly everything they had, and they both got the answer wrong! Dr. Menzano says, “I was in third place and I’m like, ‘These two have about twice as much money as I do, so I need to bet it all. Go big, or go home!’”
The strategy paid off, and Menzano progressed to the Winner’s Circle, the Valhalla of Jeopardy! enthusiasts, with winnings of $10,300. He says, “I was pumped! The adrenaline was rushing. I got it right, but it was divine intervention.”
Menzano adds, “The second show was taped almost immediately after the first. They give you just enough time to freshen up and change clothes, and to interview you on camera for what they call ‘Hometown Howdies,’ where you get to say hi to the folks back home.”
In his “Hometown Howdy,” which was posted on the Jeopardy! website, Dr. Menzano acknowledged MU’s Counseling Center staff, saying, “Thanks for holding down the fort. I wouldn’t be here without you!”
On his second show, Silvio Menzano swept the “Italian Words” category, thanks to his cultural heritage, and arrived at Final Jeopardy in third place, with $4,400. The clue, in the “Characters in Novels” category, was “Debuting in a 1960 novel, this character dies following a heart attack on a basketball court in a 1990 book.”2
None of the three contestants knew the correct answer. Unfortunately, Dr. Menzano had bet his entire winnings of $4,400. Still, he walked away from Jeopardy! with $10,300 from the first day’s win, plus great memories of what he laughingly calls “my 15 minutes of fame.”
So what’s he going to do with his windfall? Simple, he says: “The windows and roof on my house need replacing.”
With nine million viewers every night, Jeopardy! gives contestants terrific exposure. Dr. Menzano notes, “After the episodes aired in November, I got lots of calls from people I hadn’t heard from in years. The best story was when I went to vote. The little old lady behind the table at the polling place looked up and said, ‘Weren’t you on Jeopardy! last night?’ Another poll worker jumped up and said, ‘Yes! I saw you, too!’ For that moment, I was a celebrity.”
1 Answer: What is Daimler-Chrysler?
2 Answer: Who is Harold “Rabbit” Angstrom?