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Summer Work for the Mind : Students Apply to Compete for Prizes on TV Game Shows--and Some Win Big

September 09, 1988|JOANNA BROOKS | Joanna Brooks, 16, is a senior at Foothill High School in Santa Ana. She is the editor in chief of the school newspaper, Knightlife, and a member of the cross-country team

Summertime, and the winning was easy.

Despite not having to face nightly homework and daily tests over the summer vacation, many teen-agers submitted themselves to be quizzed again--only with the stakes much higher.

They applied to be game-show contestants on TV, where the right answers could win them money and prizes.

Mike Shepard, 18, and a June graduate of Foothill High School in Santa Ana, won $11,954 in cash and prizes during his appearance on "Sale of the Century." He won a trip for three to Hawaii, a stereo system, a computer work station, two bicycles and $5,190 in cash.

The road to fleeting fame and substantial fortune was easy, said Shepard, who will attend UC Davis.

"It's not like I studied or anything," he said, explaining that his preparation really began when he was a child. "My grandma would never let me watch cartoons, so game shows like 'Jeopardy' became my television staple."

Impressed by the simplicity of many of the questions and the grandeur of the prizes, Shepard leaped at the chance to appear on "Sale of the Century's Varsity Week."

"They said you had to be a varsity athlete or cheerleader, and I figured competing against a bunch of knuckleheads would be easy," said Shepard, a former varsity football player.

Foothill senior Jennifer Samuelson, 17, was also attracted by newspaper ads for "Varsity Week."

Ever since her father had appeared on a game show, Samuelson had hoped that, one day, the wheel of fortune would turn her way. As a varsity cheerleader, she too made the trip to Los Angeles to try out.

More than 200 other potential quiz kids had the same idea.

"First, we had to take a test to detect basic brain activity," Samuelson said. "It was really easy, like 'Where does the President live?' "

Shepard agreed that the 36-question placement test was "simple."

"They asked us what Shakespearian play featured the Montagues and Capulets," he said.

The test cut the group from 200 to 50. The next round of tryouts required that candidates introduce themselves before a panel of people. Finally, mock rounds of "Sale of the Century" were played and the field was narrowed to 17.

Casting personnel looked at the remaining contestants for broad general knowledge and enthusiasm. According to Robin Atlas, contestant coordinator for the show, the teen-agers who tried out were "excited . . . they were there to have a good time."

The 17 finalists were treated to a backstage tour of the studio's sound stages as well as a dosage of game-show insider's gossip.

"Summer Bartholomew (hostess on 'Sale of the Century') was great," Samuelson said. "She was really nice and made us feel at home."

"But (the game-show hosts) look much older in person," Shepard said. "The makeup people do a great job."

When it came time to be under the lights and in front of the cameras, Shepard and Samuelson reacted differently.

Samuelson said: "It was nerve-racking. . . . Four or five cameras and so many lights. I thought drama was bad."

But Shepard, naturally outgoing and a bit of a ham, said he was hardly aware of the cameras. By the end of the "speed round" he and the show's host had become friends.

"Jim (Perry) and I were cracking jokes, and he gave me a discount on that trip to Hawaii," Shepard said. "Down from $11 to $5."

With or without a discount, Shepard grabbed as many prizes as possible.

Although Samuelson left with just $60 and men's and women's gold watches, she said she was pleased.

After seeing himself later on TV, Shepard said, "You never know how much of a fool you are until you see yourself on TV."

Samuelson said she avoided such embarrassment by refusing to watch the broadcast.

Both contestants said their game-show experiences were exciting. "I'll definitely wait my one year and then go back," Samuelson said.

Shepard also plans to make another appearance soon, perhaps on "College Week."

"Hey, even if you go on and win a year's supply of popcorn and a pair of binoculars, it's great," he said.

Sure, but winning more than $11,000 isn't bad summer work, either.

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