A Message




I remember the day when my mother left me at the Children’s Home Society and never came back.

(◄ Click to enlarge.)


That’s why I always knew I was adopted. And as the years passed I often wondered about my birth parents – who they were; where they were; if they were still alive.

Several years after my first son Joshua was born, when I was 30 years old, I felt suddenly overwhelmed one day by the desire to find out as much as I could about my birth parents. I immediately sat down and wrote a letter to the Children’s Home Society. It was Friday, October 24, 1980. My emotions were flooded. I was seized by the need to take some kind of action, to begin the search.

After about two months, someone wrote me back, giving me as much information as California’s restrictive adoption laws would allow. It was not much, but it was something. It was important. My father had an extramarital affair with my mother, who had kept me for a little more than a year hoping he would leave his wife and children and marry her. When it became apparent this would not happen, my mother put me up for adoption. About six months later, I was adopted.

I searched for years trying to find out additional information without much success, until 2006. I’d posted my information on an adoption site online and a professional searcher quickly found out all my birth information and put me in touch with my two half-sisters, my birth father’s daughters.

My wonderful new sisters told me many things about my birth father, including where he was buried. He’d passed away twenty-six years earlier. When I called the cemetery to ask about the location of his grave, I also asked for the date of his death, something I’d forgotten to ask my sisters. I jotted down the date on my notes.

Every bit of information was gold to me, so long sought after, so long in coming. As I assembled and transcribed the vital statistics of my father’s life, I had all my records and paperwork spread out on my desk. I typed in the date of my father’s death. Then my attention was drawn to the letter from the Children’s Home Society, the response to my first letter of inquiry. The first paragraph reads:


Due to pressures at the CHS office, it is taking from two to three months to respond to inquiries such as yours dated 10-24-80.

My father had died on that same day, Friday, October 24, 1980, the day I was so overwhelmed by a surge of emotion, prompting me to finally begin the search for his identity by writing to the Children’s Home Society.

I have never heard a discarnate voice from beyond the grave. I have never seen a ghost. But clearly, on the day my father died, some kind of message was sent. Some kind of message was received.











~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

The Princess Marjorie



M y mother saved things.

She had $50 bills hidden in an envelope beneath a stack of unread magazines in the cupboard of an old nightstand.

She had a small box of Kennedy half-dollars inside a small safe, underneath stacks of envelopes bound together with rubber bands. There were $50 bills inside some of the envelopes.

There were lacquered jewelry boxes and plain cardboard boxes filled with necklaces, rings, pendants and pins in dresser drawers beneath undergarments, old mail, pill bottles, pens and a lifetime of assembled ephemera. There were some valuable heirlooms mixed without distinction among trinkets from the many countries she had visited with her late husband. Photos taken by her husband were collected in box after box of incredibly boring slides which were viewed once or twice when friends came over, then stuffed into cupboards and never seen again. Marjorie and her husband did not seem to enjoy their travels as much as they enjoyed accumulating them to be admired and envied by their friends.

My mother was 15 years old in 1929, when the stock market crashed, followed by years of economic turmoil. But her parents were wealthy and the family was protected from ruin. She was a spoiled, only child who was smart and talented. She was a top student, played the piano and the violin, and pretty enough to be pursued by legions of young men, her friendship desired by admiring young women. She was a small-town princess whose photo routinely appeared in the society pages of the local paper.

So many in her small town had fallen into poverty during the aftermath of the Great Depression. So she saved. Everything.

By the time I was a teenager, her garage had turned into a museum of the useless and obsolete. She had saved all my father’s old electric shavers, though they didn’t work very well anymore. But they had value, somehow.

She saved cookie tins, so handy for storing things, even though she had more than twenty empty tins stuffed into a cupboard beneath her dead husband’s cluttered workbench. You never know when you might need one, she thought, and if she threw them away, in just a very few days she’d suddenly have a use for them, and then it would be too late.

After her electric garage door opener had to be replaced, she would not let the repairman take away the old, greasy, rusty, 12-foot-long mechanism. There might be parts in it that would come in handy some day.

The garage was packed full of stuff like that: old corroded sprinkler heads, scrap lumber stored in the rafters, old magazines, cardboard boxes that had come with her televisions, her coffee maker, her microwave. There were cracked plastic buckets filled with tattered kitchen dish towels and rags. Boxes of old calendars, coffee cans full of nails and screws and other mysterious, hard-to-identify parts saved by her late husband.

Inside her house every drawer was packed full. Many contained unopened mail, solicitations she meant to review, stacks of envelopes bound with rubber bands. She kept every greeting card she’d ever received, every letter, all the way back to when she was a little girl.

One might guess she was a sentimental person. But sentiment was barely in evidence as she accumulated her way through life. Sentiment was, at best, a fleeting afterthought, a momentary pause in the pursuit of acquisition. She never looked at the things she saved. Much of it was packed away in places too difficult to easily access. Each card and letter she saved was a kind of honorary award, bearing testament to her worth. They were her small trophies; homage paid to the princess.

I could go on and on, describing in great detail all the unused kitchen appliances, the unread books, the cabinets full of figurines, crystal, ceramics and silver – so many things only the privileged could afford to own, things that were never taken out of their places and handled, looked at or enjoyed.

But even in this small accounting, my writing becomes a repetition of the compulsions that surrounded me as a child, the compulsions that infused my soul, against which I have fought every day of my adult life.

Inside my mother’s garage, inside her drawers, in her closets and cupboards, in her attic, in every empty space, a lifetime of accumulation gathered randomly, while on the outside, her splendid home was neatly decorated, her most expensive possessions on display, touched only by the housekeeper who kept them dust-free.

My mother married a successful salesman, too young and sheltered to realize she’d fallen in love with a sales pitch, not a man. They were far from soul mates. She was Lady Di. He was Homer Simpson. She kept her husband at arm’s length as the years passed by, in his appropriate place, untouched, on his side of the bed. After a few years, she accumulated two children. First my sister, then I were adopted – an appropriate pair to show off at the country club.

As time went by, her husband and her children proved to be quite troublesome. Instead of showering her with praise, devotion and servitude, we actually required love and affection. Since she could not put each of us in a display case, she entombed herself within a display case of her own making. She became untouchable, permanent, unchanging, unwilling to share her carefully constructed and accumulated life. Yet we were relentlessly human and asked for more than she could give, and grew to resent her.

She came to realize she’d made a mistake. Life had been perfect when she was the only child, the small-town princess, admired by all she knew. She could never become the supplicant, required to make an earnest entreaty for love. She was superior and would never admit any kind of emotional need. And so she accumulated things and pre-empted any emotional connection by treating those around her with cruel contempt.

She was known in the community as a rich and respected woman who lived in a grand house full of splendid possessions. But she was utterly impoverished in spirit, without those intangible things which are our true possessions, which are the true measure of our lives.

This was my mother, the Princess Marjorie, sovereign of a vast wilderness.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met

The List

(Names in blue are linked to short essays.)

(2nd part means the person is on the second half of the post.)


Bill Clinton: 42nd president of the United States.

Ray Bradbury: Author, screenwriter and winner of a Pulitzer Prize lifetime achievement award.

Sherwood Rowland: UC Irvine chemistry professor who won the 1995 Nobel Prize for discovery of man-made depletion of the ozone layer.

Alex Trebek: Host of “Jeopardy” ~ A brief question and answer period during taping of the show.

Rafael Mendez: Trumpet virtuoso.


Gary Owens: Radio and television personality.


O.C. Smith: ~ Pop "Little Green Apples" singer. (2nd part)


Ralph Humphrey: Virtuoso drummer who played and recorded with Frank Zappa.


Carlos Vega: Virtuoso session drummer who toured with James Taylor.


Tom Hayden: California state senator and activist at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.


Abbie Hoffman: Political activist at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. (2nd part)


Harlan Ellison: Science fiction novelist and television screen playwright.


Don Callender: Founder of Marie Callender’s restaurant chain.


Stan Wall: Pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.


Johnny Carson: 30-year host of "The Tonight Show." (2nd part)


Steve Allen: Original host of the “Tonight Show” and songwriter.


Marty Baron: Journalist and editor who hired me to work for the Los Angeles Times, later editor of the Washington Post.


Michael Chabon: Novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

Ken Jennings: Attended a Jeopardy! show in October 2022 and told him about my enounter eight years earlier with Alex Trebec. 

Carolyn Porco: Planetary scientist, leader of Cassini Imaging Team, member of Voyager Imaging Team and known for discoveries about Saturn and planetary rings.

Michael Dukakis: Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee.

Quentin Crisp: Author of “The Naked Civil Servant” and gay rights advocate.


Robert Bork: Solicitor General nominated by President Ronald Reagan for the Supreme Court in 1987.


Chang-Lin Tien: Chancellor of UC Berkeley.


Jack Peltason: Chancellor of UC Irvine and later of the entire UC system.


Oakley Hall: Author of “The Downhill Racers” and head of the UC Irvine writing program.


David Stockman: Reagan administration budget director.


Jack Kelly: Co-star of 1950s TV show “Maverick”


Joey Bishop: Entertainer and member of the “Rat Pack.”


Sonny Bono: Singer with Sonny & Cher, later congressman and U.S. senator.


Leslie Nielsen: Film and television actor in “Airplane,” “Naked Gun” and others.


Politicians: Dana Rohrabacher, Chris Cox, Bob Dornan, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Kathleen Brown, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, Dan Quayle, Ann Richards.


Oliver North: Ronald Reagan aide implicated in Iran-Contra Scandal and later NRA president.


Ed Meese: US Attorney General in the Reagan Administration.


Barbara Bush: Wife of President H.W. Bush.


Mamie Van Doren: “B” movie actress and sexpot.


Arnold Beckman: Inventor of the PH meter and philanthropist.


Duvall Hecht: Founder of Books On Tape.


Daryl Gates: Los Angeles police chief.


James Edwards Senior: Founder of the Edwards theater chain.


Chuck Jones: Animator and creator of Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and others.


John H. Dalton: Secretary of the US Navy.


Arthur Laffer: Supply-side economist who influenced President Reagan’s monetary policies.


C. Everett Koop: US Surgeon General


Boyd Coddington: Hot rod and custom automobile designer.


David Broder: Washington Post writer, political columnist and author.


William Kennedy: Novelist and author of “Ironweed” ~ mail contact


Patrick Stewart: Actor who portrayed Captain Jean-Luc Picard on “Star Trek.”


Ken Norton: Former boxing heavyweight champion of the world.


Adrienne Rich: Poet


Edward Albee: Playwright


Robert Hass: Poet


Seamus Heaney: Poet, playwright and translator.


Czeslaw Milosz: Poet


W.S. Merwin: Poet


James Roosevelt: Son of and secretary to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


David Harrington: Co-founder of the Kronos Quartet.


John Cleese: Actor and a member of Monty Python.


Robert Pinsky: US Poet Laureate.


W.D. Snodgrass: Pulitzer Prize winning poet.


Louise Gluck: US Poet Laureate.


William Rusher: Publisher of the “National Review” magazine.


Neil deGrasse Tyson: Astrophysicist, author, television host & many appearances ~ by email.


Henrik Drescher: Children’s books illustrator ~ by email.


James MacGregor Burns: Historian and presidential biographer.


Jean-Michel Cousteau: ~ Environmentalist, oceanographic explorer and son of Jacques Cousteau.


Frederick Reines: UC Irvine Physics professor awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995 for discovery of the neutrino.


[Many more who I've either overlooked or forgotten.]

[More essays to come.]

~ by Russ Allison Loar

© All Rights Reserved

Flying



I can’t remember the first time I dreamed of flying. But oh how natural it seemed, like becoming my true self once again, unrestricted by gravity. No more up and down, just here and there. Each altitude a sovereign space.


I was flying,
Swift and sure
With the lift of a hand,
A miracle on demand.

But more than the addictive bliss
Of flight,
Or the intoxication
Of height,
I was most proud
Of my position above the crowd,
Most proud
And most alone.
I was the only one.

Out of loneliness I descended,
And flew closely by,
Urging all to try.

But not one would leave the ground,
So sadly I ascended
And flew once more above them,
Unnoticed,
Without sound.


I flew over yellow gold meadows, lifetimes of oceans and mountains, lakes and forests, sometimes above the clouds and sometimes skimming the surface of the water.

Then I started flying closer to the ground in some of my dreams, more like hovering. I’d be walking down a city sidewalk and then lift slightly off the ground and slide along like a sailboat in a strong wind gliding over the water, angling my body in order to change speed and turn, like a freefall, only sideways.

In some dreams I felt possessed by the need to demonstrate this remarkable ability to others. I would be in a crowded room and lift myself up off the ground about three feet or so. It felt like something akin to proving that God is real and manifest in our everyday lives, proving that miracles are within our power. "Behold!" I would declare.

But in these dreams no one thinks my flying is remarkable. They are always busily engrossed in day-to-day activities and seem not to notice -- not to care.

When I awaken it takes me a while to realize I can’t fly. When I was younger I’d actually try to reach that certain mechanism in the back of my brain that could lift me off the ground, but alas, it never worked. I could not defeat gravity. Perhaps there are other ways.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Scene #19 by Cristian René
© All Rights Reserved

What I Learned In School ~ Part Two

Originally published May 15, 1986, in the Irvine World News.



Teaching must be a calling. I suppose many enter the profession with the idealistic desire to calm the little savage beasts, to salvage a few more candidates for an enlightened democracy, to do something that matters, something that counts.


Mrs. Voss was that kind of teacher.

She was an unusual lady. Every morning she stuffed her magnanimous frame into a dented, off-white golf cart and drove to the little stucco school where she taught fourth grade. She taught us object lessons.

It was cold as we sat at our twenty wooden lift-top desks, faced with the choice of a large black blackboard in front, and a wall of windows on the left, through which I watched the enviable freedom of little birds and wandering leaves. I was a malcontent.

As the blackboard steadily filled with sentences split into undecipherable parts, I filled and embellished my paper with a drawing of Mrs. Voss. It was a symbolic drawing. And, seeing as how my drawing skills were poor and her body shape was prone to satire, the drawing came out a bit unflattering, to say the least.

As the morning wore on, Mrs. Voss eventually noticed my unusual dedication to paperwork, and walked directly to my desk, perhaps to kindle this new spark of concentrated study. Seeing the drawing, she silently held out her hand. Not knowing nearly enough about the First Amendment to refuse, I gave it to her. "Russ, please see me after class," she said softly.

It was like a living death, waiting for the end of class. The picture was bad enough, but I had added some remarks I thought some of my more unrefined classmates would think clever.

Mrs. Voss showed no anger and continued her sentences and their diagrams as if nothing at all had happened. I was in hell. She worked that way. After my classmates bolted out the door, on their way to the freedom of recess and the challenge of foursquare, I stood before her large and bruised wooden desk in front of the blackboard.

She still had no look of anger, she actually gave me a sweet smile as she began to speak. Sinning would have been so much easier against a tyrant, but against a saint—I stood squashed by my tiny shame.

“Please read what you have written on your drawing," she said.

The shame of that moment has erased my memory of the captions I wrote, but I remember the ugly sound of their heartless intentions, how odd and foreign they sounded on my lips.

"Now you know what it means to eat your words," she said, smiling, letting me go.

Yes, now I know. She taught me. I learned.

And today, I cannot see a man push in front of a woman to get through a doorway, without hearing Mrs. Voss' intoned command, "Women and children first!"

It was not just an empty phrase, to be learned by rote. It was, she told us with dramatic calm, what the noble gentlemen aboard the Titanic said as that hallmark of gracious cruising edged lower into the sea.

"Women and children first," the heroic gentlemen said, knowing that when all else is lost, kindness is still possible, and necessary.

"Women and children first," Mrs. Voss said as we practiced filing in and out of the door.

I was one of her least rewarding students I suppose, and yet, somehow the best of what she was able to give found a place within me, lying in wait.

I suppose good teaching is like that. It finds its mark, long before the student is ready to use it, to fully understand it. Then, years later, the words, the voices, the lessons of old teachers are called into being by life's events, lessons saved like extra fuses to be plugged in someday when the lights go out.

So kind teachers of all ages who despair of their wayward students as I once was, do not dismay. Your best lessons are not lost, just waiting, percolating—they live!




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

What I Learned In School ~ Part One

















I  went to first grade in a little red schoolhouse, which was actually called The Little Red Schoolhouse. It was small. It was red. It was a school. What else are you gonna call it?

It was a private school. The public schools just wouldn’t do for my mother, who always demanded a certain level of exclusivity about things.

I was indeed an excluded kid. I did not play with the neighborhood children—definitely public school types—for I lived in a moderately wealthy home, next door to my grandparents’ even wealthier, immoderate home, surrounded by their acres of orange trees.

The neighborhood rat pack lived in more moderate homes on a modest street bordering the orange grove. Every day they saw each other come and go. If one kid came outside to play basketball on his driveway, all the other kids knew he was there. The ice cream truck drove down the street once a day during summer and the driver knew most of the kids by name. He had no idea who I was.

I had my own private orange tree forest to play in and large gardens to wander through, long driveways to ride my bicycle on. Even my older sister was not interested in playing with me. She was, after all, a girl and wanted to do girl stuff, but she also knew I was a misfit, not easy to be with.

When I began first grade, the other children were like wild animals to me. I viewed them with curiosity and trepidation. My unfamiliarity with the rules of first grade decorum branded me as outcast. I had no idea how to make friends.

One day at recess, I lifted up a little girl’s dress. I can’t remember why. I was probably just teasing her, the only way I knew how to interact with other kids. O yes, loneliness makes the best comedians. The little girl told a teacher who took me to an empty classroom for a little conversation about girls.

After trying to make me understand I had done something wrong, the teacher gave me an example:

When people watch ice skaters on television and the girls’ skirts fly up in the air, people don’t look at the girls’ underwear because they know it’s not nice.

Lesson learned.

Yet before too many years passed by, I would be looking at girls in magazines who wore no underwear at all. These were magazines my friends got from older brothers or sometimes found tucked away in the bottom of their fathers’ dresser drawers.

Less than ten years after I graduated from first grade I would be having eye-bulging sex with my busty blonde-haired girlfriend on the backseat of my hot rod. It was actually her idea.

So much for ice skaters.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Ten



Harlan Ellison ~ author & screenwriter



During my journalism studies at Cal State Long Beach, professor Larry Meyer arranged for several of his students to interview Harlan Ellison for the college magazine. It was the early eighties, 1981 or 1982 I believe. During our frenetic interview with this manic personality, Ellison felt the need to explain that his psychiatrist said he had a “distended ego,” but that it was not a serious problem.

Good to know.

If I remember correctly, he lived somewhere near the Hollywood area in a large house packed with books and LPs. He had semicircular, ceiling-high bookshelves stuffed with books, accessed by a sliding library ladder. In another room was a room-length shelf overflowing with hundreds of LPs.

    No mere mortal would live long enough to read all those books or listen to all those albums, but they were necessary companions for this very intense man and his very intense mind.

Interviewing Ellison was like drinking from a fire hose. He spoke with a kind of rapid-fire energy that intimidated the other students. But I was older, a returning college student on the path of a new career, so I had a little more resilience, a little more courage. And courage was required. When I prefaced a question by saying “As a science fiction writer. . . .” he exploded into a near rage about how he had written in many genres and how he hated being branded as a science fiction writer, even though he’d written stories for “The Outer Limits” and "Star Trek" television shows in the 1960s and the 1980s revival of “The Twilight Zone” and won numerous science fiction awards.

Ellison’s Wikipedia page calls him a writer of speculative fiction.

{Click Here For Harlan Ellison's Wikipedia Page}

The student photographer was shooting so constantly during the interview that when Ellison excused himself for a bathroom break, I advised the eager young man to back off a bit, as I could tell it was irritating Ellison. But the intrepid student photographer was undaunted and did not heed my advice. When Ellison returned, the student resumed his rapid-fire photographing and Ellison erupted: “If you don’t put that thing down I’m going to shove it right up your ass.”

    Clearly a man who could only be pushed so far.

Ellison was angry about the state of American politics, especially about Watergate and former President Richard Nixon who resigned from office in 1974 under threat of impeachment. President Gerald Ford had unjustly spared Nixon from criminal prosecution, according to Ellison, by issuing him a pardon. Ellison said Nixon should have been made to stand face to face with the American people who would each slap him in the face as they walked by.

Our interview with Ellison was during the time when the first video game consoles became widely available. Ellison was not a fan of the new technology. He objected to the games that could not be won, games in which the player could only advance toward inevitable defeat as each level became increasingly harder to complete. He believed those types of games were programming young people to expect defeat in the real world.

This prescient writer, who so often explored the future in so many of his stories, viewed the coming technological age with considerable apprehension. Like other iconic writers of science fiction and other genres, Ellison sounded a warning that so many in this age of smartphone addiction still refuse to hear.


~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Known ~ Part Three




Sherwood Rowland ~ Nobel Prize Winning Scientist

I first interviewed UC Irvine chemistry professor Sherwood Rowland in 1987 when I was a reporter for the Irvine World News, the first of many subsequent interviews. It was during the time of the Montreal Protocol On Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, a worldwide effort to limit and eventually ban the industry-wide production and use of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). 

Rowland, with postdoctoral research assistant Mario Melina, discovered that CFCs were destroying the earth’s protective ozone layer, a conclusion that was heavily criticized during the early years of his findings.

When I first interviewed him in his campus laboratory, he told me that global warming was the most imminent threat to the planet. To my surprise, he said that in addition to the man-made chemicals that were warming the planet were gas emissions from cattle—cow belching!

He was very generous with his time during that first interview, despite the fact that I was just a small-time reporter for the local newspaper. He even showed me his ice core samples.

Rowland and Melina were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995.


~ to be continued


~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Photo by Rick Loomis\Los Angeles Times
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Eleven



Don Callender ~ Marie Callender's founder


   I was always a rather small cog in the wheel of American journalism, yet I was lucky in meeting notable and accomplished people. I sought them out whenever the opportunity arose, wanting more than anything to hear the stories of how these extraordinary people succeeded and how their thought processes worked.

   I was lucky at the very beginning of my journalism career. I’d only written a few stories during my internship in 1984 at The Orange County Register when the editor suggested I write a story about a newly remodeled Marie Callender’s restaurant in Tustin, California, nearing completion. After contacting the restaurant manager, she mentioned that the founder of the restaurant chain, Don Callender, would be at the restaurant in a few days and I could interview him then. I jumped at the chance.



   When I walked into the restaurant for my lunch meeting with the 57-year-old Don Callender, he eyed me suspiciously until I told him I was the reporter from The Orange County Register he was expecting. He said, “When I saw your shiny shoes I thought: Oh no, here’s another one of these guys from the city." He said shiny-shoed city inspectors were making it difficult for him to open the remodeled restaurant.

   The luncheon interview lasted several hours. He was eager to tell me about the origins of his 112-restaurant chain, how it began with his mother, Marie, making pies for restaurants. “My mother was a good cook at home,” Callender said. “She made good pastries and she was working for a place that had a little lunch counter and she made pies.”

    Callender was generous with his time as we ate lunch, telling me how his parents, Cal and Marie Callender, began a wholesale pie business in 1947 to help supplement the trailer park family’s meager income. They operated out of a rented 20-by-20-foot Quonset hut in Long Beach. Callender delivered his mother’s pies on his bicycle.

   “I grew up on dirt streets and outhouses,” Callender told me. “We started with a rolling pin and 700 bucks. I used to go to work at 11 o’clock at night and work till 5 the next afternoon.”

   The first Marie Callender’s coffee and pie shop opened in 1964, in Orange. In 1986, Callender sold the chain of 120 restaurants to Ramada Inc. for a reported $80 million.

   Callender said his success was born of a strong work ethic and a close-knit family. “Every time you see a kid in a workplace with his parents, I guarantee you, you’ll see a happy kid. They’ve got a sense of worth.”


~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Photo by Mark Rightmire for The Orange County Register
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Four




My Afternoon With Alex

The charming and erudite host of Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek, is surprisingly sardonic off camera. The studio audience—about 100 split between members of the general public on the left side of the theater, friends and family of the contestants on the right—had plenty of opportunity to ask him questions during down times between segments, sampling his slightly snarky sense of humor.

I got in the first question, a technique I used as a reporter, knowing that even at a major press conference there is often a reluctance to ask the first question. So I prepared my question in advance, rehearsed it mentally and was ready to go when Trebek asked for questions from the audience.

I asked if he'd ever been a game show contestant; if he would ever be a contestant on Jeopardy! before he retires; and how did he think he'd do as a Jeopardy! contestant.

He said he'd been a contestant on a few game shows, but would not be a contestant on Jeopardy! because then someone else would have to host the show, and "he might be better than I am." How would he do as a Jeopardy! contestant? Trebek said he would probably do well against his "peers." Then, looking directly at me, he said, "I see by your white hair that you might be one of my peers. I would crush you!"

A middle-aged man in the mostly middle-aged audience asked, "How do you pronounce all those foreign words?" Trebek answered with overemphasized, drawn out speech: "W-i-t-h M-y M-o-u-t-h."

I also talked to crisp-toned announcer Johnny Gilbert, asking how many tapings per day the winners do. He said they tape five shows a day. For Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings to win seventy-four consecutive games, he had to win five games in a row, then get up the next morning and go win another five games. Whew indeed! The show tapes Tuesdays and Wednesdays, three weeks a month, nine months a year.

Gilbert introduced two of the three Clue Crew members who were at the taping—Sarah and Jimmy. When the pair stood up and waved to the audience, I saw that Jimmy was wearing a maroon hoodie with "HARVARD" emblazoned on the front in big letters. Yeah, OK. You're smart.

A Few Candid Moments

A fortyish woman asked Trebek what his favorite karaoke song was. He replied, "My favorite karaoke song?" then turned his head to the side and pretended to spit on the floor, saying: "I hate karaoke."

Another audience member asked him what he thought about rap music. As he began to criticize it, he seemed to pause and take a quick scan of the audience, then said he disliked most of it because of the bad language and negative references, adding that he thought it was a bad influence on youth. "Not all of it is bad, but most of it," he said, apparently not wishing to condemn the entire black youth culture.

Surprise! Trebek Doesn't Know Everything

When one of the contestants incorrectly answered "era" instead of "eon" in response to a science question requiring a three-letter word with two vowels, Trebek told the young man that "era" was not a scientific term. One of the fact checkers disagreed.

(Era can be generic, such as the era of horse and buggy, or scientific, such as the Paleozoic era.)

Trebek seemed to think "era" had only a generic meaning. But after the fact checker disagreed, he walked over to the front of the stage where a semicircle of fact checkers are located in a pit behind computer screens and telephones, and picked up one of their dictionaries. He seemed genuinely interested in making sure he had the correct information, although the staff photographer who took candid photos during the taping of the show moved quickly into position to take a few shots of Trebek studiously peering into the dictionary. He lingered just long enough to ensure a good publicity shot.

Trebek Is 73

When asked what books he's read, Trebek said he reads a lot of nonfiction, "political stuff," and also likes novelist "John . . ." and then couldn't think of the author's last name until an audience member called out: "Grisham." Then he mentioned finishing a book during a recent trip, but could not remember what it was. "It'll come to me," he said. It didn't.

So even the sharp-witted Trebek, adjudicator of all knowledge, cannot escape the symptoms of an aging mind. Or perhaps it was just overload, considering all the data that had passed through his brain by the last taping of the day. It was the fifth and last show during a day in which he'd already articulated 264 questions with but a very few misspeaks. Is this reassuring to those of us who worry about occasional memory loss? I don't know, but I'm gonna keep playing.



(Written March 2014)


~ by Russ Allison Loar
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