This is Jeopardy: Remembering Art and Alex

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12/20/2020

Neighborhood: Bronx, Park Slope, Rockefeller Center

Alex Trebek, who hosted Jeopardy for thirty-seven seasons, died on November 8th. My connection to him and the show was through Art Fleming, a prior host of the show, who got Alex the gig.

Let me explain. As a child, I was quite the nerd. I could recite the U.S. presidents forward and backward at age eight, along with the names of their wives. State capitals were no challenge. Back in the days of Art Fleming, who hosted Jeopardy on NBC from 1964 until 1975, it was not that hard to get on the show. 

It was 1973. I had recently returned from eight months of travelling abroad. I had hitchhiked around Europe, slept in youth hostels, stayed on the southern coast of Crete for a month in a house without running water, and spent the winter picking fruit on a kibbutz. I suppose most would have called me a hippie at the time. 

When I got back to New York City, I moved into a rather shabby apartment in Park Slope, a Brooklyn neighborhood that was slowly gentrifying. My two roommates, both male, smoked way too much marijuana. I was working as a secretary in a large pharmaceutical company, drearily typing away, and planning on applying to law school. 

One day I came home from work and found my roommates in an excited state. They were going to try out for Jeopardy. Back then, I would guess that the ratio of male to female contestants was about seven to one. This made the challenge of getting on the show especially enticing to me. I had been raised as a feminist and if the guys were doing it, I would too. I had delivered mail the summer I was sixteen, drove a yellow cab out of a garage in the Bronx when I was nineteen, and sporadically drove an ice cream truck during college. There was no way that my roommates were going to 30 Rock without me. All I needed was a subway token.

We got on the F train the next day, and it took us right into the basement of Rockefeller Plaza. Back then there were no security guards. We just took the elevator right up. The first thing the Jeopardy staff had us do was take a written test. I assume the three of us all did well enough, because we were then herded into the oral exam room. From the first question asked, I could tell my roommates were going nowhere. Years of substantial dope-smoking had reduced their elocution (or lack thereof) to mumbles that were occasionally punctuated by “yeah, man.” And neither of them was even trying to make eye contact. 

Taking my clue from observing their floundering, I sang out my answers and made sure to keep the tester in an eye lock while I kept smiling. She handed me over to Art Fleming. He was tall, handsome in a WASPy way, and spoke in stentorian tones. As we chatted, it turned out that he had grown up in the same crummy Bronx neighborhood that I did. And he had attended James Monroe High School, just like my father. I could tell that Art got a kick out of that. And I simply could not feel intimidated by someone who graduated from Monroe, just around the corner from my childhood home. The school had deteriorated by then into a place where a short girl with thick glasses could not survive. I had been privileged enough to attend the prestigious Bronx High School of Science where short girls with thick glasses thrived. 

The Jeopardy staff told me to come back the next day and bring three different outfits since they would be filming three segments. What to wear? I was your typical counterculture twenty-one-year old in 1973—long hair, overalls, earth shoes, etc. But I was also a secretary in a conventional corporate office with a strict dress code. When I had started working there, women were not allowed to wear pants. They modified the dress code during my tenure to allow pantsuits, so long as the jacket was cut from the same fabric as the pants. I had three pantsuits, all made of polyester for easy machine washing. One of them was plaid and the color of dried blood. 

Would Art Fleming have suggested that I come back the next day if we hadn’t had the Bronx, not to mention James Monroe High School, in common? Who knows? I do know that I was relaxed speaking to him. Looking back, perhaps I was so steeped in early seventies hippiedom that I viewed this experience as a big goof. 

I came back the next day toting my polyester pantsuits in a shopping bag. Everyone on the staff was super-friendly, and I don’t remember being at all nervous. Don Pardo, who had a seventy-year run at NBC, was the announcer. And he spoke in tones even more stentorian than Art Fleming. 

I can’t recall any of the questions I got right; only some of the ones I got wrong. Two of them were Final Jeopardy answers (technically in the form of a question). I remember both. The clue on the second day was as follows: Modern government buildings in its capital are based on ancient Persian architecture. This was years before the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, and hardly any Americans, including me, had ever even heard of Tehran. I knew that Brazil had a relatively new capital, so I figured Brasilia was a good guess. None of us got the right answer, but by that time I was a two-day champ. 

I went down on the final question the next day. The category was Republicans. I don’t remember the clue, but I do remember that I guessed Dwight Eisenhower when I should have guessed Barry Goldwater. The guy in the middle got it right and had bet a lot on it. He was the new champion. Off camera, he turned to me and gloated. “I’m a Goldwater Republican,” he said. “Really?” I answered. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a Republican before.”

Oh, well. I was far from crushed. I had spent the day filming three episodes and hauling in about $1600, which exceeded my expenditures for eight months abroad, including four airplane flights. I was euphoric and ready to get out of there.  Besides, I had run out of pantsuits.

In addition to the cash, I won “valuable prizes”—a waffle iron, a polyester blanket, and Z-brick to put on my wall. I turned down the Z-brick, explaining that as a renter, I did not own a wall. I did, however, have to pay taxes on the useless items I took home.

Back in the pre-VCR days, there were no tapes or CDs of Jeopardy episodes. In order to see myself on the show, which aired weeks later, I went to E.J. Korvettes on 39th Street and ascended to the eighth floor where the television department was located. Fortunately, Jeopardy aired at noon, which coincided with my lunch hour. The polyester pantsuits didn’t look that great, and my glasses were a bit askew. But I thought the whole thing was a bit ridiculous to begin with.

By the following year, I was in law school. Jeopardy contacted me and asked me to come back for something new that they were trying out—a nighttime Tournament of Champions. I had to schlep in from Boston for the event and don’t remember whom I played against or who won. I do remember that I lost and that Art Fleming wore a ludicrous silver lamé tuxedo jacket. He asked me, on camera, what I had done with my winnings from the previous year. “I lived,” I said. “Okay,” he said.

Years later, when Google entered our lives, I was able to find out more about Art. He was born in 1924, which meant he was pushing fifty when I met him. He looked much younger and was what we would call a hunk back then. His real name was Arthur Fleming Fazzin. His parents had emigrated from Austria to the Bronx and were a popular dance team. Art attended Colgate and Cornell, starring on both football teams, and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II as the pilot of a patrol bomber. He had a postwar career as a radio announcer and was the first person to deliver the slogan, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”  He was spotted by the creator of Jeopardy, Merv Griffin, in a TWA television ad. Art was skeptical about auditioning for the role of a host for a quiz show, but his agent encouraged him to “act like a game show host” at his audition and he was hired. 

The show was on hiatus from 1975 until 1983, when Merv began developing a revival of Jeopardy. Art was offered the chance to reprise his role as host in Los Angeles, but declined. He explained that he was partial to his native New York and felt that the Hollywood setting made the show dumber and less realistic. As a result, Alex Trebek took the position.  

Art died of pancreatic cancer in 1995 at the age of seventy. Alex died of pancreatic cancer at the age of eighty. I had no idea Art and Alex had been friends, and that Art had recommended Alex as the new host. Somehow that warms my heart and makes me feel better about…well, about everything.                   

R.I.P. Art and Alex.

***

Marissa Piesman recently retired after practicing law for forty years. She is also the author of The Yuppie Handbook and the Nina Fischman mystery series.

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§ One Response to “This is Jeopardy: Remembering Art and Alex”

  • It seems like a galaxy of stars came through The Bronx. I never knew Art Fleming was among that list. It’s both strange and sad that both Art and Alex were struck down by Pancreatic Cancer.

    I don’t know if this appropriate, but I found a sample opening to the original Jeopardy! (featuring TWO women in pantsuits) If Mr. Beller allows it, it’s here: https://youtu.be/AhmFyAuK_hg

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