My 15 minutes of fame

In late 1988, back when The Nashville Network was on cable, I drove to Nashville and tried out for “Top Card,” a new game show on the network. This was a great deal of fun for me, a life-long game show geek. I got picked for the contestant pool, and on my second day in the contestant pool I wound up on an episode.

The show was originally hosted by Jim Caldwell and had a general entertainment-trivia format. Later, the format would be narrowed to just music trivia (it was on The Nashville Network, after all), and Dan Miller would replace Caldwell as host. This was not Dan Miller, the longtime Nashville news anchorman and “Pat Sajak Show” announcer/sidekick, but a different Dan Miller who hosted several different shows on TNN.

The play of the game was based on the card game blackjack, a scoring system that’s been used for several game shows over the years, including “Gambit” and the notorious “Twenty-One.” There was a big board with category names on it. If you answered a question correctly, the category name would be turned around to reveal a playing card. You could either take that card, a known quantity, or gamble on taking the top card from an oversized deck held by the show’s spokesmodel-dealer-cohost. You were trying to get closer to 21 than your opponents without going over. As in blackjack, the strategy was in knowing when to freeze.

It was a fun experience. I still remember, on my first day in the contestant pool, the creator and executive producer, Alan Reid, giving us our orientation speech. We were sitting in the audience bleachers, where the studio audience would be seated during the actual tapings. Alan made us stand up and yell, at the top of our lungs, “What happens here today don’t mean s**t!”, as a way of getting us to relax and not take things so seriously. He also pointed to an imaginary line between the bleachers and the set. He called it the “line of stupidity,” and said that once we crossed that line — once we were on the set, under the lights, under pressure — we would almost certainly do or say something stupid.

Like most daily half-hour game shows, they taped five episodes in a day’s time. We were supposed to bring a change of clothing so that if we were lucky enough to win a game and come back the next day as returning champion, we would be wearing something different, and it wouldn’t be so obvious that it was all happening on the same day.

The contestant pool was larger than what would be needed for all five of that day’s tapings, although Reid said that it was not nearly as overbooked as the contestant pools for the big network or syndicated game shows in Los Angeles. But if you didn’t make it on the show one day, you could come back for a second shot the next day. I think they taped three or four days that week — a month’s worth of shows.

As I wrote earlier, I got onto the show in my second day in the contestant pool. I won my episode but did not win the big prize (a car) in the bonus round. I came back the next day, and lost. But I had a great time. I won several prizes, the best of which was a set of Cutco knives that I still use on a daily basis, 30 years later. I also have a nice wall clock that stopped working maybe 20 years ago and which I keep meaning to get fixed. I also won a film camera and an expensive fishing reel, the latter of which I got a local fishing shop owner to sell for me on consignment.

You did not get your prizes on the day of the taping — in fact, you didn’t get them until after the show aired, and if there was some technical problem that prevented the show from airing you would not receive the prizes at all.

My show was taped in late 1988 and aired a few months later in 1989.

Three years later, I got a postcard from the show pointing out that a three-year deadline had passed and that I was now eligible to re-apply as a contestant. I did not figure they would bother to send out such postcards unless they were in need of contestants, and sure enough I reapplied and made it onto the show a second time. My outcome was identical — won my first game, lost the bonus round, lost my second game. I don’t remember my prizes from this go-around, strangely enough; I don’t think I won as many prizes.

By my second appearance, the show had gone to the all-music-trivia format, which I didn’t like as well, but which I managed to survive. It had also gotten its new host. The scuttlebutt in the green room was that Caldwell had been kind of hard to deal with and that everyone on set got along with Miller much, much better. Since we were, for propriety and legality’s sake, kept away from the host until the actual taping, I didn’t really have much experience with either; both were nice to me in our limited interactions.

I had, at one time, all four of my episodes on video tape. I was going through some boxes in the storage room a few months back and found only the tape with my original taped-in-1988, aired-in-1989 appearance. I eventually sent that tape and a couple of others to my brother in North Carolina, who digitized them for me. So here, for your viewing pleasure ….