On the way to our first ever game-show tryout today, we saw what we took at the time to be cosmic encouragement. Competing for space in Airline Drive's forest of signage was the Moonlight Inn marquee, which spoke to us: "You are awake. Don't dream it -- do it."
Of course, if you're at a motel like the Moonlight Inn, you probably are awake -- high on meth, having sex with a prostitute or both. (Legal note: We said "like the Moonlight Inn," not the Moonlight Inn itself.) Nevertheless, it set a good tone for the Who Wants To Be a Millionaire audition we rolled out of bed at 6 am and drove all the way to Tidwell and Airline for.
The show, now nearing a decade on the air, holds regular auditions in New York. Occasionally, the producers will deign to bring the tryout machine on the road to give us simpler folk a shot at possibly being selected to be part of a contestant pool where, if you have faster fingers than your peers, you earn the chance to have a very slim shot at winning an annuity that totals significantly less than $1 million after taxes. (Not nearly as catchy a title for a show: Who Wants To Be a Hundred-thousand-aire?)
By our guess, more than 1,000 people showed up to audition in Houston. This requires standing in cramped quarters at the Pavilion Royale ballroom for a couple hours and earning a certain, unspecified score on a 30-question test. Those who pass are called back for an afternoon interview with producers and notified a few weeks later -- by postcard -- whether they made it or not.
The crowd included grandmothers, retired teachers, a baritone saxophone player, one guy still in his EMT uniform, college students, bikers, numerous people who were dressed to head to the office immediately after the big event, and studious types scanning almanacs and presidential-trivia books. We happened to run into Jason Bargas of houstonist.com and staked out a place with him in the snaking line. The Pavilion employees wouldn't serve us booze from the full bar at the facility's concession stand -- seriously, not a single damn High Life to jump-start the brain -- but there were plenty of people to watch and eavesdrop on.
Best thing overheard while waiting to get rich: "I always wanted to be on Wheel of Fortune." (Isn't that like standing in line for Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and talking about how you'd rather be at home watching the Leonardo DiCaprio version? For Christ's sake, lady, this is Millionaire!)
Runner up: "This is like playing the lottery." (Yeah, like a lottery where to win you have to know who wrote The Lottery, and also the secret password in the Da Vinci Code and Mariah Carey's favorite brunch food.)
If that last one sounds bitter, it's probably because we failed.
Here's how it happened: After two hours of waiting, a production assistant herded the group into an auditorium-style room, seated everyone and distributed scantrons for two tests. One assistant ordered us to put any outside materials under our seats. (This reinforced the yearbook-photo-day-meets-bizarro-SAT feel.) A team of young girls passed out the general trivia test and the 10-minute timer started. We breezed through questions about politics and geography but got tripped up on subjects like Girl Scouts (entry level Girl Scouts are named after what flower?) and Dutch baby accessories (is the Frog a crib, a high chair, a stroller or a play pen?).
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The second test was film trivia for the movie-themed week of Millionaire. So we got knocked off our high horse twice -- we know the name of the paper Charlie Kane inherits as a young man, but we still have no idea what Drew Berrymore movie is based on Cinderella. There were enough questions like the latter to disqualify us once more.
Of the 400 or so people in our testing group, about 25 passed the general test and 15 the movie one. (Bargas beat us out and passed the first, probably thanks to his love of Girl Scouts and Dutch baby accessories. Maybe he'll write a Houstonist post about what it's like to be a winner.)
As we joined a procession of also-rans cast back out into the near-north side, we realized the best advice we have for a Millionaire audition is to accept that you may take a slight ego bruising. Even if you're smart, you better have an excellent ability to recall crap and a range of knowledge that includes the important and the irrelevant. (We'd like to note that one guy we met in line, a Rice Ph.D. candidate who had only days earlier defended his dissertation on statistics, was not among the winners.)
We're actually kind of happy -- when some people are just getting out of their interviews with the producers later today, we'll be heading home for a post-work nap. Fuck you, Moonlight Inn.