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Final Answers

What dotcom bust? Millionaires in the making, right here.

By Will Harper

TEN MINUTES AFTER OPENING the phone lines to audition for last week's San Jose tryouts of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, switchboard attendants had already received nearly 50,000 phone calls. Only 375 of those 50,000 callers would actually be lucky enough to earn a chance to participate in the audition at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown San Jose.

Not exactly great odds, but they're better than winning the California Lottery or Regis Philbin saying how much he misses Kathie Lee.

Once someone makes the audition, the show's producers further whittle down the field with a 30-question test that auditioners must finish within 12 minutes. (Millionaire publicists insist that reporters be barred from the testing room or asking people anything too specific about the test.)

At around 2:20pm, would-be contestants slowly begin to emerge from the banquet/testing room, making the pilgrimage to the restroom.

After questioning, it quickly becomes clear that many of these people at the afternoon audition--there are three separate sessions during the day--have auditioned for Millionaire before. Some, like Doak Fairey, a 44-year-old media consultant for the Democratic Party, have actually made it to The Show before, but didn't get to the so-called hot seat and have Regis ask them, "Is that your final answer?"

Fairey, who boasts that he's been on three game shows, including Millionaire, flew all the way out from Sarasota, Fla., to audition. Fairey justifies the trip by saying that live auditions are better than the phone auditions.

"In my opinion, right now, this is the only way through the audition process where [you're] actually taking a test and they're actually assessing your ability," Fairey reasons. "The phone game is pretty much a lottery. This way, at least I've got a bat in my hand."

Betsy Slakey, a schoolteacher from Santa Cruz wearing leopard-print eyeglasses, was also on the show before, in November 1999. She was on air all of 10 seconds--during her introduction--with her name and hometown listed for all to see. Two days after the show ran, she recalls, she got a phone call from a total stranger who had seen her 10 seconds of fame.

"I got my first call," she says, "from some guy from Bakersfield saying, 'I looked you up in the phone book and I know you're going to think this is weird, but I saw you on the show and I haven't thought of anybody but you since I saw it.'"

Nonetheless, here she is today looking for another shot at a million bucks and the stalker of her dreams.

After about an hour, two designated test-scorers return with the results. First, they read off the names of the "passers" (identified only by an assigned number). Afterward, they'll announce not the "failers," but the "nonpassers," the human equivalents of "preowned" cars.

As the show's staff read off the passers' numbers, someone occasionally clutches their fist or high-fives their neighbor. After all the numbers are read, the "nonpassers" slowly file out the door and do the Walk of Shame. A show staffer guards the door and makes sure the failers drop their tests in a box before they go. One of the nonpassers is a 31-year-old marketing consultant from San Francisco I interviewed earlier who watches the show every week and owns the CD-ROM version of the game. She quietly walks by without looking at me.

But nonpasser Jane Patton, a retired schoolteacher from San Diego who drove up with her son the day before, stops and talks to me. She seems remarkably cheerful and says she plans to stay in town through the weekend. "We decided to make it a vacation," she shrugs. "We looked at it as if we'd got in, we'd be lucky. If we didn't, well, we had a nice vacation."

The passers, meanwhile, move on to the next phase of the audition: the mock game and interview, which is videotaped. "This is the personality test," producer Jennifer Specht tells the 50 or so remaining millionaire wannabes. "It's just as important as the written part."

Would-be contestants go to the front of the room four at a time, holding cardboard signs with their names and ID numbers for the video camera. They must answer deep intellectual questions like, "What would you do with a million dollars?" "What are your unique talents?" "If you could name a holiday, what would you call it and what would you have people do?"

After this final humiliation, it will be days or weeks before the passers will find out which 10 among them will go to The Show and earn a seat across from Regis. And a chance to win $1 million. Or the chance to blow the $100 question in front of 30 million viewers.

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From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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