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The Time Alex Trebek Beat Me At My Own Game

As America mourns the loss of pop culture icon Alex Trebek, who lost his brave battle with Cancer on November 8th at age 80, Manopause is republishing one of our recent articles about him. It is a funny, fond and personal remembrance of the beloved game show host in his early days and at his best. 

Back in 1989, my family took a vacation to Hollywood to see the glitz and glamour for ourselves. We were like a New England version of the Griswolds, and we figured Hollywood would be an exciting tourist destination like our prior vacation to Disneyworld in Orlando. Well, 1989 Hollywood was anything but. At 10 years old, on Hollywood Blvd., I saw my first street “performers” (i.e., drug dealers and hookers), and one of these “performers” was a man dressed innocently enough as a clown who happened to be making balloon animals and offered to make me one. After some blowing and tugging (not that kind, you sicko) he delivered me his large, pink product (grow up). Not sure exactly what it was, I thanked him and skipped off to show my dad and older brother. As soon as they saw his creation, they doubled over in laughter – this “clown” had made me a giant balloon version of a cock and balls. Welcome to Hollywood.

One of the items on our jam-packed agenda was to attend a taping of a live television show. Didn’t really matter which one – whatever we could get tickets to and whatever aligned with our daytime schedule.  Somehow, we decided on a gameshow called Classic Concentration, hosted by none other than Jeopardy’s much-loved Alex Trebek. It was a show that ran from 1987 – 1991, where two contestants match prizes in order to uncover and solve a picture puzzle for the chance to win a car in the “Winner’s Circle.”

Photo by UzumakiPavel on markgoodson.fandom.com/wiki/Classic_Concentration under CC-BY-SA

We lined up outside the Burbank Studios and waited for what seemed like forever. When we purchased our tickets, we were told that there was a minimum age limit for the audience members, and that age was 12. Understandably they didn’t want crying, whiny toddlers in there giving the poor boom operators fits and distracting the players and contestants. However, I was only 10 years old at the time and we had already waited forever in line. This is when my parents came up with their diabolic plan.

Now granted, my parents are two of the straightest people I have ever known. Both are highly educated and full of integrity (which at the time was just annoying). My father, being the problem-solving engineer, took us aside and told me that just for today, I was going to be 12 years old. My brother, who was 14 at the time, was going to play the role of a 16-year-old. My father, in his Belichick-ean style, had thought of everything. I was an undersized 10-year-old at the time and my brother was quite tall for his age. If we didn’t alter his age as well, no one would believe that there was only a 2-year difference between us. Our plan was hatched. I stood in line puffing out my chest acting the part of the much more mature 12-year-old. When we finally got to the entrance, the female audience coordinator asked me very nicely, but also very pointedly, “How old are you?” I answered, “Look sweetie, old enough. How about when this is over you and I get outta here and grab a drink?” (I didn’t say that.)  “I’m 12.” I said, trying to lower my voice. She looked at me (and also my parents) a little suspiciously and said, “Okay, well we do have a strict minimum age policy.” I guess she was trying to get me to crack, but instead I just stared at her with a dumb, blank stare (my grifter muscle was not yet developed by then). With no way of proving that I was lying, she let us pass. Eventually we settled into our front row seats and enjoyed the warm-up act, which all talk shows employ to get the crowd pumped-up in the moments just prior to the cameras rolling.

The show begins taping and it’s fun as hell. None of us had ever seen anything like what goes into the making of a television show. We’re having a blast. Between takes, the warm-up comedian comes back out and plays with the audience some more. We’re laughing, smiling and just having a ball of a time in this magical land of make believe.

Photo by IanH1993 on markgoodson.fandom.com/wiki/Classic_Concentration under CC-BY-SA

Then at one point during one of the commercial breaks, Alex Trebek leaves the stage to come over to the audience to chat and yuck it up with his adoring fans. As he starts walking over, and the crowd is getting excited, I notice he’s walking directly towards ME! He comes right up to the railing, separating the set from the first row of the audience, and starts talking to me in a very matter of fact tone. “Hi there,” he says. “What’s your name?” he asks. “Jon!” I answer. (Holy crap! My first celebrity encounter!) He then asks me several general questions like where I’m from and if I’m enjoying California. The rest of the audience is taking all of this in and is now probably a bit jealous that he is spending the entire commercial break talking to this one kid. After a few more questions, he’s got me totally at ease. He and I are best buds. I feel like we’ve known each other for years. And then he pops the question – “How old are you?”

Immediately forgetting our plot to undermine Burbank Studios, NBC and the entire Hollywood system I blurt out immediately, “I’m 10.” Within nanoseconds I recognized my error. I immediately turned to my right and looked at my mother, and then just as quickly turned to my left to look at my father. Both were staring straight ahead as if they weren’t even paying attention to the conversation, although they were probably thinking of how their plan had collapsed like a house of cards and we were going to be immediately ejected from the studio and blacklisted from Hollywood forever. However, fate intervened and as soon as I answered, the stage manager started calling him back to the stage. 

            Alex spotted his mark, approached, and after dismantling my guard with his charm, his softball questions and his sexy moustache, he had exposed me for what I was: a little liar and a cheat. You won this round Trebek, but I’ll be ready next time.

Check out these other selections from Manopause:

The Day I Got High With Dan Aykroyd by Richard Basis

My Photo Shoot With Kenny Rogers by Marc Serota

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About The Author
Jon Tognacci
Jon Tognacci
Jon is a native New Englander who has been an L.A. resident since 2005 and is an entertainment finance professional. Raised on early '80s MTV and Saturday morning cartoons, his passions are in music, film, history and overall pop culture. He holds a B.S. in Business from Northeastern University and really likes PB&J sandwiches and Fig Newtons. He credits his love of reading to his parents who consistently read to him as a tyke. Jon can be reached at [email protected].
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