A Day In Hollywood
By Tom Nussbaum
Although not remembered my many, Broadway musical A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine won several Tony Awards in 1980. A few years later, a touring production came to Seattle. The 5th Avenue Theater and a local radio station, to promote the run, held a Win a Day in Hollywood Contest. It was based on Hollywood and filmdom trivia.
I was “in” before they finished the announcement, before the opening credits rolled.
Trivia, particularly entertainment and pop culture trivia, is an area in which I am rather adept. I know who won the first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. I know what Bruno Mars’s real name is. I know who ZsaZsa Gabor’s forty-third husband was. I know crap. Therefore, I felt I had a shot at going to Hollywood.
I arrived at the theater early on contest Saturday. I stepped into the classic lobby, ornate and stately, to find, to my surprise, more competitors than were dogs in 101 Dalmatians, animated and film versions combined. I milled about assessing my competition, categorizing them by age and nerdiness. I spotted two chairs and a table where the stairs to the balcony split. The table was covered in 3X5 cards, clipboards, and a microphone. A man and a woman, hovered near the table, eyeing the crowd.
Several minutes later, the man picked up the microphone and introduced himself and the woman. He was a disc jockey representing the radio station and she represented The 5th Avenue Theater. Neither was from Hollywood nor the Ukraine. The winner of the contest, he explained, would win air-fare for two, a stay at a well-known hotel, a “Homes of the Stars” bus tour, and dinner at an elegant, famous Hollywood restaurant. The woman then explained the rules.
We, the 200-plus competitors, were to line up. The line would pass in front of the table where each of us would be asked a question. Those who answered their question correctly moved to one side of the lobby, those who did not, moved to the other. With the rules explained, the contest began. The initial questions seemed rather easy. I, however, did not answer my question correctly. I was shocked and humiliated and, as a result, do not recall what that stupid,unfair question was.
“Do not lose faith,” the male emcee announced looking at me and the other incompetents. “That was only Round One. You get a second chance.” Sighs and audible whews surrounded me. I fell to my knees in prayer and thanked George Burns, Morgan Freeman, Charlton Heston, Whoopi Goldberg, and the other actors who have portrayed God on film for my good fortune. “But the questions will be harder,” he added.
We, the first-round losers, lined up and paraded by the table again, and, as promised, the questions were more difficult. Most of the people ahead of me were eliminated. But I was not. Those of us who remained went through two, perhaps three more rounds of questioning. Contestants young and old were eliminated. But I survived. Eventually, perhaps ten, maybe 20 contestants remained.
“OK,” the DJ announced, “the format now changes.” He motioned to the two curved stairways leading to the balcony. “Would half of you sit on that side,” and he pointed to the left, “and would half of you sit on the right. Space yourselves so you are unable to see your neighbors’ answers.” I, of course, chose to sit on the left. As we passed the table, we were handed a small clipboard holding one sheet of paper. We were also given a pen.
Once we were settled on the stairwell, the woman spoke. “Write your name at the top of the paper,” she instructed. She waited a moment. “Now, you will have five minutes to write down as many films as you can that won the Oscar for Best Picture.” She paused a beat. “Go!” she shot.
As fate would have it, I had, at that time, a book—tome would be a more appropriate word—commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Academy Awards. Each year had a two-page spread listing nominees and winners, and featuring pictures from classic films and of Hollywood legends. I knew that book like I know the dialog from Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie. And, as fate would have it, the last category I studied before leaving for the contest was Oscar’s Best Picture winners. I had all the early ones, the more obscure ones, fresh in my head, winners like Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front, Cimarron, Grand Hotel, Cavalcade, and It Happened One Night. Therefore, while my competitors were scribbling the names of the most recent winners, I was listing the older ones.
But most of them got stuck after going back perhaps 20 years and began drumming their pens on their clipboards trying to remember any older films. I, on the other hand, moved on from my list of oldies to the more-familiar movies of my lifetime and continued writing until the time was up.
The crowd and, more important, the contest organizers were stunned at my margin of victory. I don’t recall how many films I listed, but I do remember the gasps from onlookers as the judges named the forgotten classics from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that I had included.
I decided to take the trip to Hollywood in late June to coincide with West Hollywood’s Gay Pride Parade, something I doubt contest organizers considered the winner would do. I have long forgotten the name of the hotel at which my roommate and I stayed or the restaurant at which we ate, because they weren’t as well-known or elegant as we were led to believe. But I have a photograph of Pride Parade Grand Marshal Martha Raye waving at me from her car.
I waved back. But I did not tell her that I was there because I had won a trivia contest in which one of the questions had been, “Which comedic film actress and singer was known as The Big Mouth?”