Diary of a Would-Be Millionaire
by Matt Dacey
Matt Dacey’s air date for Who Wants to be a Millionaire was this past Sunday, May 13, 2001. He’s been a contributing writer at Ace since the mid-90s, and prior to that, he was the seminal host of “Matt’s Metal Mortuary” on WRFL.
It starts with a phone call. Or in my case, a message. My girlfriend, Kim, and I were at my apartment getting ready to leave for her house when I decided to check my messages before I left:
“Hello, Matthew, this is Greg Tufaro from ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” It was too late to call him back, so I had to wait until Wednesday and try not to think about it too much in the meantime.
Greg from ABC said in his message that I needed to call him back between 9:00 and 5:00 today. I waited until 9:04. After about 20 minutes of explaining all of the rules to me, which I had to confirm that I understood, he told me “Matthew, I’m happy to tell you that you’ll be one of ten contestants competing for $1,000,000 next Wednesday, May 2.”
Oh, shit. Fast forward to…
After flying to New York, my friend Peter and I are driven to our hotel, the Empire, nestled between the Lincoln Center and Central Park. Our arrival time at the hotel was high noon. We got to the room, left our luggage, and set out on a mission. Pizza. And Pete wanted a knish, too. We succeeded. After lunch, it was back to the room so that I could conduct my initial phone interview with a show staffer.
Ultimately, there were several calls from people affiliated with the show over the course of the day. After the last call, confirming a 6:30 meeting at the hotel for the contestants, Pete and I wandered aimlessly around Midtown Manhattan for a while. The meeting itself was brief. We were told to introduce ourselves to the other contestants, were given our per diems, and had our wardrobes checked by staffers from the show.
The main cause for concern was the fact that the taping time had been changed. We had initially been told 4:00 to 7:00, but it had changed to 12:30 to 3:30, and we had to be in the lobby of the hotel at 6:45 in the morning. Ouch.
6:45 in the lobby. I was the last one down. We were herded onto a bus to take us to ABC studios for the whole deal. The staffers on hand allowed us to wake up, and we were fueled by a decent breakfast spread. Coffee and danishes, juice and bagels. The usual. After breakfast, each contestant was taken aside for a couple of interviews. We were each interviewed alone by one staffer, then interviewed with our companion by another. It was these interviews which determined what Regis would talk to us about on-camera should we make it to the hot seat.
For me, they had more than a dozen topics from which to choose.
After all of the interviews, it was time to go to the studio for rehearsal. We occupied the same seats we’d be sitting in later in the day, while the show’s producer walked us through what it would be like when the cameras were rolling.
We had several “fastest finger” practice rounds, and each of us also had to practice getting into the hot seat.
After rehearsal, it was lunch in the cafeteria. The room was festooned with the images of Joy Behar, Barbara Walters, Norm McDonald, and their ABC compadres (weird, I didn’t notice Regis anywhere), but none of those folks were actually dining there that afternoon. We did get to meet Jason Thweatt for the first time, though. He would be the contestant in the hot seat when the show began, the carryover from the previous day..
After lunch, it was back to the dressing rooms for wardrobe and makeup. Wardrobe was nothing unusual, just clothes we had brought from home. We weren’t allowed to wear our stage clothes prior to this time. We changed, then waited for makeup. And if sitting in a chair having foundation dubbed on my face wasn’t surreal enough, when the makeup artist was finished with my face, she started on my hands. Then we were each miked and wired for sound, lined up, and led through the bowels of the building to the studio. Now it was real.
Unlike our morning visit to the studio, this time the audience was in place. We were lined up and introduced one at a time as we made our way to our seats. As we idled, the last minute preparations were made. A photographer took head shots of each of us, and we had our makeup retouched and our microphones double checked as the clock ticked down to the zero hour.
While all of this was going on, a comedian entertained the audience by singing various sitcom theme songs and tossing T-shirts to the crowd.
Then it was time for Regis.
He entered, and as might be expected, the audience went nuts. I got the distinct impression that a good portion of the audience had no interest whatsoever in the game they were about to watch.
They just wanted Regis.
After a few jokes, Regis made his way around and introduced himself to each of the contestants. We were told ahead of time “When Regis comes around, say your name and NOTHING ELSE.”
Wouldn’t want to give ol’ Reege too much information to process all at once.
Regis left, to return in a minute with Jason. Now it was REALLY real.
As Regis and Jason entered, and began playing the game, I tried not to pay any attention to what was going on around me. Not the game, not the audience, not anything except the little monitor in front of me. To try to keep from getting nervous, I told myself, over and over, “Think of it as a video game. Think of it as a video game.” This worked pretty well, but the occasional “Your little brother always kicked your ass at video games,” creeped in there, too.
Before I knew it, Jason was gone. I barely noticed the question he missed, I was still focusing on my monitor. We had a short break for the commercial, and it was our turn. “Put these TV doctors in the order of their debut, starting with the earliest.”
I wasn’t even listening to Regis at that point, still staring at the monitor. The names popped up and I scanned them. Quincy? Cool. Heathcliffe Huxtable? Cool. Sydney Hansen and Mark Greene? Uh…next question. At this point I wanted to kill those people in college who had successfully convinced me that TV is mindless, vapid entertainment (with the exception of ol’ Reege, of course). The last medical drama I had paid any attention to was Trapper John, M.D.
As Andrew made it to the hot seat I resumed my “video game” mindset. And here I was torn. I was simultaneously hoping for Andrew to do well and hoping that he’d get the hell out of there so I could have my turn. I must have hoped too hard for the latter, because before I knew it, he was gone with just $1000.
Next question. I’m ready this time. I’m gonna nail it. “Put these islands in order, starting with the northernmost.” It took me a second or so to remember that Cuba is further south than Bermuda. But that second was enough for Jean Ann to beat me and make it to the hot seat. So now the people on either side of me had made it to the hot seat, and their chairs were emtpy. That made it even easier to stay in the “video game” mindset.
Jean Ann was over and done with even faster than Andrew. She’d gotten flustered on a Roman numeral question where choice B stood for letter “C” and choice C stood for letter “D”. It was obvious that she became confused by the question and didn’t allow herself to settle down before giving her answer. She was visibly upset as she left the stage. Two contestants in a row, out with only $1000. A sense of dread began to creep into the room.
Well, not just yet. There was a 20 minute delay while the tape of Jean Ann’s last question was reviewed by show officials.
Twenty minutes is a long time to try to stare at a monitor, while ignoring a way-too-happy guy throwing t-shirts all over the place. It didn’t help matters that he nailed me with a shirt while I wasn’t looking nor that the girl sitting behind me in the front row of the audience felt compelled to grab it from my shoulder before I was even aware it had hit me.
The delay was over, and NOW it was time for the next question. “Put these movies in order of their first theatrical release, starting with the earliest.” As soon as I saw A Hard Day’s Night pop up on that screen, I knew I was in. And I was.
If I thought things had been bizarre before, I was totally unprepared for what was to come. After greeting Regis and shaking his hand, I was taken backstage to have my makeup retouched (again!) and Regis disappeared. In fact, I realized that every time there was a break in the action, Regis immediately disappeared, and didn’t show back up again until right before taping was to resume.
Where does he go?
What does he do?
Sadly, this was one of the great secrets of Millionaire which was never revealed to me.
I was taken to the hot seat, and a couple of staffers prepped me on what to expect. “In this segment, Regis is going to talk to you about what you do for a living and how much money you’d like to leave with. The last two contestants were kinda disappointing, and we’re counting on you to do better.
And GET EXCITED!” Okay. Cool, here comes Reege.
Things got underway smoothly enough as I got the first few questions. They ‘re supposed to be “easy” to calm the contestants down before the more difficult questions come along. In my case, they weren’t too bad. But as I answered the first few questions, I found myself getting more nervous with each new question.
I have no clue who Christopher Lowell is. I find myself thinking I’m going to vandalize the next car I see with a Kill Your TV bumper sticker on it. If only I had spent more time in my life watching TV. I have no choice but to ask the audience. Luckily, more than half of them knew that Christopher Lowell is an interior decorator. Cool. Come on Regis, ask me something easy, like Ozzy Osbourne’s real name.
Nope. No such luck. “What author’s detective novels follow the adventures of Easy Rawlins?” What? No Daisy Buchanan? No Lennie and George (or even Lenny & Squiggy)? Easy Rawlins. Damn.
Time to make a phone call, but to whom?
After mulling over each name on my “phone-a-friend” list, I decided on the editor of this publication
The phone call was made, and Rhonda told me that she was 78% sure that the correct answer to the question was Walter Mosley. I had already eliminated Robin Cook and Steve Martini, so I felt confident that Mosley was the right answer. It was. $32,000. Mine. Cool.
At that point, we broke for another commercial, and Regis disappeared again. The commercial breaks last a LOT longer in the studio than they do when the show airs. Staffers came back out again and prepped me on what Regis would be talking about during the next segment. This time it was my affiliation with WRFL while attending UK. No makeup this time, thank God, but someone did come along to refresh my water glass. I wasn’t able to catch him fast enough to see if he could bring me a beer instead.
Before I knew it, Regis was back. I was calmer than I had been, but more nervous, too. I was hoping it was about time for a music question, something I would know. Instead, I got “What is the tallest man-made monument in the United States National Parks system?” Great. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the Statue of Liberty, and positive that it wasn’t the Lincoln Memorial, but I was unsure about the Gateway Arch or the Washington Monument, so I took the 50/50, my last lifeline. And it left me with the two choices I wasn’t sure about. Uh oh.
This particular portion of the show actually transpired a lot differently in the studio than it did on the air. To viewers at home, it appeared that I only took a few seconds to make my decision and go with the Washington Monument. Not so. Regis and I actually talked about the whole thing quite a bit. When I mentioned that I had visited the Arch as a youth, Regis told me to try to remember what I had seen when I was there. I also mentioned never having visited DC, and never having seen the Monument up close, so it was hard to compare. I then told Regis that when you’re short like I am, they both seem pretty tall.
It was only after getting out of the hot seat that I realized that I am taller than Regis. Wonder why that comment didn’t make the final cut?
Ultimately, I went with the Washington Monument, using the logic that since it is dedicated to our first President, it would make sense that it would be the tallest National Monument. Wrong. Sayonara.
And home, but with $32,000 more than I had started with.
And, for the record, the Gateway Arch is 630 feet, and the Washington Monument is 555.
78 percent sure!!!
from the Editrix
I’d never seen the show – and I didn’t even know what a “lifeline” was – but I frankly figured my assent was sort of a moot point.
Then the call came. Or more precisely, the email.
Dunno if you remember this or not, but I asked you about a year and a half ago if you would be one of my ‘phone-a-friends’ if I ever made it on to ‘Millionaire.’
Today, I got the call. My tape date is Wednesday, May 2, with the possibility that it may roll over onto the 3rd.
Also, if Jim Shambhu is around [Ace's Art Director], I would appreciate it if he might be able to help me out here also. If you could ask him for me, that would be great.
If either of y’all are keen to this, please let me know ASAP. I gotta call the guy back today.
And of course the first thing I’m thinking is, “Don’t these Millionaire clowns know that Wednesday is PRODUCTION day?!!!”
But naturally Jim and I both said “Yes.”
Matt’s been a faithful freelancer here since the mid-90s, and before that, we both knew him as the legendary force behind “Matt’s Metal Mortuary” on WRFL.
We couldn’t let him down!
To that end, I actually remembered to tune in to the show the Tuesday night before the big day.
I caught about five minutes of it; sent Jim a text message on his phone that said “Millionaire sux,” and flipped over to Skinemax.
May 2 arrived, and we went about the usual chaos of deadlines – never straying far from our phones.
We both completed our “information” interviews with an ABC representative before lunch, and learned the drill. If Matt needed us, we’d get the call. We should answer our own phones, and wait for the third ring. Then we were to say, “Hello.”
My call came after lunch.
I am, of course, pretty tightly wound on a GOOD day, and national television was a lot of pressure (combined with being on a press deadline).
So I mindlessly answered on the first ring, with my name (as I usually do), and listened politely while the ABC rep patiently berated/reminded me to wait for the third ring, to say “Hello,” and then the next voice I’d hear would be Regis’s.
This gave Eloise time to page the entire building to come to my office (where we managed to stack about $750,000 worth of liberal arts education into one room).
I’d like to pretend like I was all cool and calm, but I was a TRAINWRECK. Eloise says I was shaking from head to toe as I said, “Hi Regis.”
What I WANTED to say was “Hey Doll,” which is how I greet most everyone who calls in on my extension, but I was afraid to, because I didn’t really understand when my 30-seconds would start, and I didn’t want to be some chatty jerk who used up Matt’s time trying to be all clever while I cost him $32,000.00 (which is what was on the line).
I could just see him storming back into my office after his trip, “Hey Doll? Hey Doll? That’s real #$@#$% funny!! You just cost me THIRTY @#$@#$ THOUSAND dollars!! I HATE YOU!!!!”
So Regis told me Matt needed my help, and then Matt came on the line with a question… about detective fiction.
Now, I have a LOT of guilty pleasures, but detective fiction is not one of them. (If it’d been anything related to 70s television or Stephen King for example, I would’ve been far more confident.)
This was about the time I gave the staff the universal signal for “CHOKE” and started to frantically type, but even with digital, I quickly realized 30 seconds would not be enough time to get the answer from Google.
Fortunately, it was multiple choice, and I began my answer with “my…. best….. guess…. is…… Walter Mosley…”
This was Matt’s cue to ask me how sure I was (the staff had prepped me on this point).
And my answer was “Seventy…. eight…. percent…. sure…..”
Why 78? (I was asked later)
Because I was STALLING FOR TIME and “Seventy” has MORE SYLLABLES in it than MOST OTHER NUMBERS between one and 100.
I was hoping I’d have an internet answer, and I could stretch that out to “Seventy…. eight….and 100… percent sure.”
No such luck.
The ABC rep came back on the line to tell me she’d let me know the outcome. Within a few seconds, I heard Regis say, “Rhonda didn’t let you down Matt!” just as the rep was saying, “Matt went with your answer, and it is correct.” (By then, I knew this.)
This was the cue for everyone in the office to go crazy – jumping around, high-fiving, doing their touchdown dances. Even I was possessed by a sudden urge to leap into the air and bump bellies with somebody. Instead, I sent out a press release.
Then I called my parents – who promptly informed the entire North American continent via an intricate combination of everything from email to mule train to smoke signals to tom-toms to cans attached to string with wires.
The level of pride and attention they devoted to this 30 seconds (while flattering) eventually got sort of embarrassing and made me feel like a Big Loser who’d really never done anything they’d want to tell their friends about.
Some people get 15 minutes of fame; I guess I’m getting 30 seconds.
I can’t even count the number of emails and phone calls I’ve logged this week that begin with, “I’m 78 percent sure you were a lifeline on ‘Millionaire’!!…”
My college buddies, my relatives, long-lost friends… all have weighed in (after prefacing their comments with “I don’t normally watch this show, but….”). It was ALL anyone could talk about at Investment Club last night (of course, this was after I LOUDLY and CONSPICUOUSLY asked my pal Steph, “HEY, did you hear me on ‘Millionaire’??!! Didja??”
I can’t speak for Matt, but I’m pretty sure the show changed my life.
And we now know he’s the ONE guy in this city who can honestly claim that he’s RICHER for having known me.