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Confessions of a ‘Millionaire’ reject

Juggling all that pop-culture trivia is tougher than it looks
/ Source: The Associated Press

The guy sneaking out of the cemetery should’ve been a sign to me.

I’d parked my car “somewhat illegally,” shall we say, at a nearby community college. But this guy was so desperate to get to our destination that he was willing to duck cemetery security — and a few thousand dearly departed souls — to get there.

All of this just to audition to be a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Clearly, I had misjudged how many geeks like us were out there.

By the time we hiked to our destination — of all things, a medieval-themed dinner theater in suburban Chicago — already, there were hundreds of people lined up, a few of them flaunting portable chairs with umbrellas to block the sun while they dined on doughnuts and studied trivia books.

One would-be contestant left in a huff. “They say it’s going to be a six-hour wait,” he said, disgustedly.

Heck, I thought, I’ve got all day. I was there for the duration, no matter how long it took.

Date with destinyIt was, after all, my destiny to be on “Millionaire.” That’s what I liked to tell myself, anyway. And I don’t say that as one who’s particularly bowled over by anything to do with fame.

Of course, winning a million dollars, or even a couple thousand, would be lovely. But for me, there was more to it than that.

“I’ve finally found a purpose for all the useless information that’s stored in my head!” I told my friend Maria when she happened to called my cell phone as I stood in the line, which was now four city blocks long.

As one who’s tolerated my affinity for random facts since our college days, I knew she’d understand what this meant.

So did two others standing in line with me, strangers with a common goal who became my pals for the day. One of them was the guy from the cemetery, a movie buff who works in the airline industry. The other was a business executive turned screenwriter who wondered about the chances of an “older hair-challenged man” making it onto the show.

Indeed, there were a lot of middle-aged white guys in khakis milling around.

Others varied the theme a bit, wearing jeans and T-shirts with slogans such as “Runs With Scissors” and “I Love Hot Moms.”

The whole circuslike atmosphere was only accentuated by the location’s medieval theme (including a sign on a women’s room door that read “Wenches”). But having restrooms — and $2 bottles of water, even if sold by a theater employee wearing sparkly knight’s pants — was cause for mild thanksgiving.

We might’ve been there to prove how brainy we were. But my two buddies and I seriously began to question our intelligence when we realized that the closest thing to food any of us brought was a tin of mints.

By the time we moved into the building and started filling out applications, it also became apparent that the sun must have fried our brains because we were a little too giddy when we heard we got to keep the “Millionaire” pencils and magnets they were handing out. It’s the little things, right?

When one question on the application asked me to describe my most embarrassing moment, I was thinking this particular day might rank pretty highly.

Undeterred, nonetheless, the three of us shook hands, wished one another “Good luck!” and took our seats in the bleachers around the dinner theater’s jousting pit, ready to do battle.

It’d been nearly five hours since we’d first gotten in line. And in about a half-hour, it’d all be over, with only a handful of us moving on to the next level.

All that stood between us and a one-on-one audition were two tests, each with 30 multiple-choice questions. And while the “Millionaire” staff wouldn’t reveal what score they required, we only had to pass one test — a cinema-focused quiz for the show’s “movie week” or a general test for the regular “Millionaire” show.

We had 10 minutes to complete each one.

I knew the movie quiz would be a long shot. But I still got a kick out of the questions, including one that asked us to identify the move that “Legally Blonde” character Elle Woods teaches women in a salon: “the bend, and snap.”

After the test, my hair-challenged friend, who was sitting next to me, revealed that he, too, knew the answer to that question — and I started to realize what I was up against.

Now my smarty-pants confidence was really starting to wane. And while I did better on the general test — by my estimates, 26 right out of 30 — I still botched questions related to solar energy, the Jewish holidays, “The Bernie Mac Show” and English literature (the latter goof-up particularly humbling as that was my undergrad major).

In the end, 12 out of our group of about 400 moved on to audition for movie week, while about 50 made the regular show interview.

The rest of us, my two buddies from the line included, filed out of the “loser” side of the theater, looking a little stunned.

As we exited, we passed a glass encased animal stable within clear view of a horse’s behind — and I had to laugh.

I wouldn’t be flying to New York and get my chance in the hot seat.

But I’d have a good story to tell: I was a “Millionaire” reject.