Saturday, June 7, 2008

Ms. Altman, my ankle and Agatha

I'd never heard of Sophie B. Altman before I saw her obituary on The New York Times' Web site..

But when I found out about her main claim to fame, the phrase "Altman Productions" leaped to the front of my alleged mind.

For I used to see that phrase every week at the end of the TV program that Ms. Altman started in 1961: "It's Academic."

In case you've never seen it, "It's Academic" is a quiz show featuring three teams of high school students representing their respective schools. A number of local stations produce their own versions of the show, probably under some kind of franchise agreement with the company, which is based in Washington, D.C.

According to the show's Web site, contestants on the show over the past 47 years have included Washington Post CEO Donald Graham, New York Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer; political commentator George Stephanopoulos; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon; and best-selling mystery author Laura Lippman.

Conspicuously absent from this list (OK, maybe not so conspicuously) is yours truly. This is an especially outrageous omission because Hillary, Chuck, George, Michael and Laura, famous as they are, did not have to play with a handicap. ...

It's the middle of a week in January 1972. My brother Martin and I are walking in a parking lot, toward the spot where a friend and his father are going to pick us up and take us across town to school. The weather isn't bad, but there's some left-over "black ice" on the lot, and this kind of ice is particularly treacherous if, instead of wearing real boots with decent treads, you are sporting a much flimsier pair of overshoes that have slightly more traction than a fresh roll of wax paper.

One moment I'm walking along, perfectly fine; the next, I'm on the ground, spouting all sorts of words that my brother will later swear he had never before heard me utter.

Our ride comes, and on the way to school I notice my left ankle is swelling. Just a sprain, I think. My friend, a basketball player, seems to think differently.

We get to school, and I'm stupid enough to climb two flights of stairs and walk all the way down a hallway to homeroom, where the nun in charge immediately figures out that something's very wrong with me.

Eventually I wind up home, my ankle in a cast.

Thing is, the following Saturday I'm to appear on "It's Academic." I'm incompetent with crutches, but luckily the cast has a rubber heel that I hope I can get used to.

On the morning of the show -- one of several episodes to be taped that day -- my folks take me to the TV station, which is part of a shopping center. I'm still wobbly on the rubber heel, but my mother has cut a hole in a ski hat and placed it on the bottom of the cast, and my father helps me up what I remember as a (wouldn't you know) tall flight of stairs that leads to the studio.

I get situated on the set with my two teammates, a guy and a young woman, with the woman at the center. I notice that some stagehand has apparently left an empty pack of smokes on our desk.

The host shows up. Before doing the show, we tape a promo, with the host doing all the talking, but he manages to botch one of the other school's names, provoking a heartfelt and very audible barnyard epithet from somewhere behind us in the hidden control room.

We're finally into the show, which includes several rounds of questions for each team. The questions and long and involved; they're apparently written that way in the hope of tricking you into giving an early -- and wrong -- answer.

The final round is more like "Jeopardy!" All nine students can press a button, attached to a light, to answer a question.

Going into the final round, our team is in second place. At one point, the hosts says something like, "This movie, about a mode of transportation, stars Burt Lancaster --"

I hit the button!

"'The Train'!" I say.

"No, if you'd listened to the entire question, you would have found out that the movie was 'Airport'!"

We're now in third place. Good one, Murph.

But a little while later comes my big moment, my shining hour, the nerd's equivalent of the last-second jump shot from halfway across the court that goes into the hoop and wins the game.

"Celebrating her 80th birthday with her 80th book --"

I hit the button again! "Agatha Christie!"

The host, a note of incredulity in his voice, confirms that I'm right. Somewhere from the audience I hear a gasp. A swooning cheerleader, I hope.

We're back in second place, and my teammates correctly handle two other questions, and when the buzzer goes off, we're the winners.

Some weeks later we return for the semifinals. The producer tells me not to lean too far into the microphone. She doesn't really have to tell me; when I'd seen the previous show at a family friend's house, I'd noticed that if my mouth and the mike had been any more intimate, we would have been officially married under the laws of 16 countries.

We're blown out of the water by an aggressive team from a nearby city who apparently spent the previous night finishing a new translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls while munching on steroids.

Maybe if I'd broken my arm earlier that week....

1 comment:

Judy Berman said...

Another homerun, Mark. Glad you're busy, but hope you're not too "busy, busy, busy" to entertain us with more great stories.