Who would ever have guessed something so silly would have such staying power?
Since 1966, the Lawrence University Midwest Trivia Contest has been turning thousands of minutia mavens into guessers — intelligent and otherwise — with its annual 50-hour salute to the obscure and inconsequential.
Lawrence’s 39th edition of its test of useless knowledge hits the airwaves of WLFM (91.1 FM) at 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 23 and runs through midnight, Jan. 25. In addition to being broadcast on WLFM, the entire contest will also be webcast at www.lawrence.edu/sorg/wlfm. Untold hundreds — thousands??? — representing more than 50 off-campus teams and a half-dozen or more on-campus squads will match wits over questions ranging from the Minnesota state muffin (blueberry) to which U.S. president once played Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello (Ulysses S. Grant). All in the name of fun.
Bill Martin, an “adolescent fortysomething” will be competing in his 30th trivia contest this year. He’ll throw out the welcome to his Appleton home for upwards of 40 friends and relatives who will arrive from as far away as Chicago and Dubuque, Iowa, to spend all or at least parts of the weekend engaged in matters of unimportance.
“It’s a real pain in the butt to get ready for every year and you wonder why you do it, but afterwards, when it’s all done, you say, ‘that’s why you do it,’” said Martin. “It’s really an excuse to get together with people you haven’t seen much in the past year and have a great time.”
While Martin can boast of a being a one-time trivia champion — his 1976 team, “Hungry Chuck Biscuit” earned the first-place prize, a salt block — he says these days it is more about camaraderie than it is competition.
“Play trivia…have fun, that’s our philosophy,” Martin said. “Playing the trivia contest is like climbing Mount Everest. You play because it’s there.”
Martin’s contest history includes a mix of tradition and not. He always cooks a turkey the weekend before the contest and turns it into turkey soup — “trivia fuel” as he proudly calls it — to keep his teammates nourished. And “really, really, really cheap beer” is a contest staple. But where some teams are beholden to a team name or slight variation thereof, Martin relies on last minute brainstorming to produce a calling card, the likes of which have included “Mental Floss,” “Bored of the Rings” and “Dumber than Ditch Carp.”
Much like Martin, John Brogan’s trivia baptism started out innocently enough in the mid-1990s, gradually evolving into a great excuse for a party.
“When our team started, most of us were sophomores in college,” said Kaukauna native Brogan, now a law clerk for the Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. “But as we’ve all started to assume, or avoid in some cases, the responsibilities of getting older, our chances to get together have become fewer and fewer. Trivia is one of the few times a year that I can convince all of my eclectic friends, and their friends, to spend some time together.”
Don’t be fooled, though. Brogan’s collective Bank of Kaukauna braintrust isn’t sitting around waxing nostalgic all weekend. He’s assembled the equivalent of a cyborg trivia terminator, winning three straight off-campus titles and five of the past seven. And it doesn’t appear they will be surrendering their crown without a fight anytime soon.
In turning his parents’ home into trivia headquarters for the weekend, Brogan is expecting some 50 team members from eight states armed with 30 computers, seven land lines and more than 25 cell phones poised to defend their 2003 title.
“Our real strength is the people on this team, which includes four doctoral candidates in a variety of fields, computer gurus, opera singers, medical students, economists, philosophers, photographers, psychologists, bakers, junior high students and more lawyers than you can shake a stick at,” said Brogan.
The Lawrence trivia contest has produced more than its share of unexpected events and memorable moments over the years, including an on-air wedding proposal by one of the contest’s male trivia master’s (she said “yes” and they were married in 2002). This year’s grand trivia master, senior Phred Beattie of Klamath Falls, Ore., said that is what makes the contest so much fun.
“Everything we don’t plan, usually happens,” said Beattie.
What kind of zaniness will occur over the course of this year’s contest is a tougher question to answer than any actually asked during its 50 hours. One certainty, though, will be Lawrence President Rik Warch upholding tradition by once again kick-starting the fun. He’ll ask the first question — which is always the last question of the previous year’s contest — at exactly 37 seconds past 10 o’clock Friday night.
No one was able to answer last year’s 100-point “Super Garruda” in the allotted time (although Brogan’s Bank team did come up with it 15 second after time expired!). But come Friday night, nearly everyone will know that “No Picnic. Why? No Woods. Prevent Forest Fires” was the saying on the entry Frank Zappa designed in the ninth grade to win a fire prevention week poster contest.