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TBO.com reporter appears on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"

NEW YORK - I'd like to think it was a loose bolt, not paralyzing anxiety, that caused all the useless trivia I've absorbed over the years to suddenly evaporate when I needed it most. In my first 15 seconds sitting in that teetering Hot Seat, I blanked out on the very first question of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." (The show aired today and will repeat Tuesday at 4 p.m. on WTSP, Channel 10). Host Meredith Vieira asked me what completes the lyric "goes with jam and bread" from the song "Do Re Mi." I considered several options, none helpful: A) Mom loves "The Sound of Music." If I get this wrong, she'll kill me.
B) If I lose now, the story I'm writing about the show will be reduced to a caption under a photograph. Or a Facebook status update. C) I don't want my name to come up in a Google search of contestants who tanked on the first question. D) I can't believe I'm on this game show. It's so surreal. Um, how much time do I have left? "Six seconds," Vieira said. Months of anticipation boiled down to those crucial six seconds. Cue obligatory flashback sequence: the long hours in June spent at the Tampa auditions; waiting for word to see if I was in the contestant pool; the many phone calls with a producer for additional interviews; and the 12-hour wait that day to play the game. My run at $1 million began at 7 a.m. on Sept. 16, outside the studio on West 67th Street near Central Park. I arrived early and brought the required signed release forms and other documents to appear on the show. I also had two different sets of clothes suggested by producers that had no name brands or logos, small patterns or narrow vertical stripes. While waiting to get in, an image popped in my head of the door opening and Vieira floating down on beams of light as a choir of angelic voices sang. I passed the time by meeting other contestants. Some, like me, auditioned on a whim. Two others had made it no further than the fastest fingers rounds in previous seasons. We all had hopes of taking home prize money, but a few needed to win big. "My family is having a rough time right now," Tony Westmoreland, a rural mail carrier from Camby, Ind., said after the taping. "My wife and I have lost about $1,000 a month in income. With four kids, that makes things very rough." Once inside, I and the 10 other contestants was immediately placed in what a producer called "contestant isolation." Until just before show time, the only places we could go were the green room and the dressing rooms. The only people we had contact with were show staffers and the other contestants who would become my new best friends for the day. Associate producer Kevin Thompson said it's typical for contestants to form immediate friendships and root for each other. That's what happened to my group after we learned that Shawna Edwards, a waitress from Flint, Mich., brought along friends and coworkers wearing shirts with "Shawndog Millionaire" printed on the front. So Thompson dubbed us the "Dog House," solidifying the camaraderie. "We were such a diverse group stuffed into that little green room and we ended up being a tight group of friends," John Wickham, a software developer from Greer, S.C., said. We toured the set before taping. It's a lot smaller than it looks on TV. It's also elevated about eight feet from the studio floor, so you actually walk under it, then up a short flight of stairs to get to the Hot Seat and the monitors. A note on the famous Hot Seat: You're asked to practice getting in and out of it. It's trickier than it looks because the seat's not bolted to the floor. And there are extra chairs in the back in the event of a Hot Seat meltdown. Minutes before show time, you're introduced to a cheering audience while the opening licks of The Who's "Baba O'Riley" plays and an array of stage lights blaze. The sensory overload from the introductions stop once you're back in the green room, waiting for hours more. One by one, producers call you down to the set in random order for your shot at the loot. One by one, our group was whittled down. By about 5 p.m., it was my turn. So what word completes the line "goes with jam and bread" anyway? I asked the audience. The majority said "Ti," which was the right answer. It's funny how the difference between oblivious and obvious is two letters. "I just saw words and couldn't form coherent sentences out of them," Erica Rubin of New York said about sitting in the Hot Seat. "I swear I will never judge game show contestants for missing something obvious ever again." I kept playing until the $10,000 question which was-I'm paraphrasing-"The iPhone's Runpee app does what?" I used the Ask An Expert lifeline and talked to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He guessed that the app lists lulls in films informing moviegoers when it's best to use the restroom. DeLay was right and he doesn't even own an iPhone. I went against his guess and said the app is used on road trips. Upstairs, in a locker across from the green room, I imagined my iPhone buzzing at my wrong answer. I still won $5,000. Winning $1 million would've been nice. But my group realized we took home something extra. Wickham said win or lose, he had fun playing the game. Westmoreland, who won $50,000, said he'll sleep better once he gets the check. Edwards said she was grateful for being on TV and winning money. Rubin said it was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I agree. From taking the tests at the audition to answering questions on the Hot Seat, it's an experience you can't buy. Even with a million dollars.

Reporter Ray Reyes can be reached at (813) 259-7920.

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