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Jewish World Review March 6, 2001 / 11 Adar, 5761

Curt Brown

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Consumer Reports

Confessions of a
'Millionaire' lifeline -- When my phone rang - with the dulcet voice of Regis Philbin calling from New York on the other end - I had been as relaxed as a house cat in a shaft of sunlight. But my 30 seconds of fame as a phone-a-friend on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" suddenly turned into a tongue-tied quagmire of confidence.

Yes, I was the lifeline the other night who needed the Heimlich maneuver.

My oldest brother, Mitchell, thrilled the family with word that he had somehow navigated the call-in labyrinth to qualify for the popular ABC quiz show. At 50, Mitch has picked up more degrees than a heat wave. A master's in business from Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania. A doctorate in theology from Notre Dame. He's also a truck-driving minister. Smart, well-rounded, calm in front of a crowd.

He deftly doled out his five phone-a-friend assignments before flying to New York for taping. (If you're among the 74 people who haven't seen the show, in which individual contestants answer multiple-choice questions for multiplying wads of cash, phone-a-friends are one of three "lifelines" that stymied hot-seaters can use for a bailout.)

Mitch had lined up a brain researcher, a music Ph.D, a physician and our other brother, David, a sports and pop culture aficionado who loves reading mysteries. Mitch asked me to join the quintet for a couple of reasons: He figured his kid brother, the newspaper reporter, would have a fast computer and erudite colleagues. And he was right on both counts.

The show was taped 10 days before it aired, early in the afternoon. I carefully transformed my desk into an information war room.

I had an almanac opened to a list of the world's rivers and lakes. (Caspian Sea, although salty, trumps Lake Superior.) I knew the tallest skyscrapers were on the next page (Kuala Lumpur overshadows Chicago).


My computer mouse was ready to pounce into a database. I had a dictionary and an atlas. A blank legal pad. A couple of pens.

Bring it on. And please, God, let the question be about the geographic center of North America. I knew Rugby, N.D., like the back of my hand.

The phone rang.

"Hi, this is Taryn, a producer from 'Millionaire,' and your brother is in the hot seat," she said.

I began to sweat like Albert Brooks in "Broadcast News," armpit stains spreading like dark clouds.

"The next time your phone rings," Taryn instructed, "let it ring three times and only answer with the word 'Hello,' OK? And don't mention any business names."

Co-workers gathered around and, after about 10 minutes, the phone rang again. I tried to wait for three rings, but jumped the gun.

"Hello," I said to the static on the other end. "Hello, hello, hello. ... '

Then I heard him, off in the distance: "Hello, Curtis, this is Regis Philbin calling from New York. ... "

"Hello, Mr. Philbin."

"Your brother Mitchell needs some help. He's on the $64,000 question and when I put him on, you'll have 30 seconds, OK?"

As my brother asked the $64,000 question, my brain froze and his words blurred.

"In 1998, who recorded an album called 'Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You?'"

Huhh? He sounded like the inaudible parents "wa-wa-waing" in a "Peanuts" cartoon special, and the whole moment began taking on a Charlie Brown aura.

I tried repeating the question to my co-workers, who had circled around me with wide eyes.

"A 1998 record called Vincent, um, uh, Da Vicci?" I uttered to the puzzled looks of my office mates. Mitchell, meanwhile, was rattling off the four possible answers: Paul Sorvino, Joe Pesci and a couple of other Italian actors I couldn't remember.

"I have no idea," I told the nation.

I had typed "1998 record" and 'Daveche" into a database search field, but got no further. My co-workers tried frantically to pull the question out of me as if I were choking on a piece of hot dog. The clock ticked.

"Nobody there has any idea?" Mitchell asked.


Time's up. They put me on hold as Taryn hollered at me for picking up before the third ring, adding editing work for the folks at ABC. In the background, I heard Mitchell opt for the 50-50 lifeline, whittling his choices to Sorvino and Pesci. He guessed Pesci.

"That's right," Philbin said before the line went dead.

Mitchell had cashed in his ask-the-audience lifeline on an early question about the cost of postage for a postcard. (Twenty cents, 90 percent of the audience voted - correctly.)

But despite his little brother blowing his last two lifelines, Mitchell nailed the $125,000 question. He knew that the spot on a domino is called a pip. He then opted to take the money instead of guessing on the $250,000 question about which layer of the atmosphere produces clouds. Not even his brain-researcher friend, it turned out, would have known the difference between the troposphere and the thermosphere.

After the taping was over, our brother David said he was 75 percent sure that Pesci recorded the "Vincent LaGuardia Gambini" disc, which describes as not quite as "sublimely horrible as the work of, say, William Shatner."

But David admitted that wasn't his final answer.

"I might have said Sorvino," he said. "So don't worry about it."

After all, what's the big deal? I only squandered my older brother's trust, became a laughingstock at my office and humiliated myself in front of nearly 20 million viewers from Anchorage to Zumbrota.

If only Regis had asked about Rugby, N.D.

Curt Brown is a writer with the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS