IT IS MID-MORNING on a tape day, and the atmosphere in the "Jeopardy!" contestant room at Hollywood Center Studios is dawn-before-battle tense.
Susanne Thurber, the show's contestant coordinator, skillfully begins talking her 14 charges off the ledge. In soothing, maternal tones, she invites the prospective players, most of them middle-aged men in business suits, to have a muffin or a bagel. The would-be players make nervous jokes. "I hereby promise to name my first child Merv," one says with mock solemnity, alluding to "Jeopardy!" creator Merv Griffin, who developed the quiz in which players provide the questions, not the answers.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 29, 1989 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Due to an editing error, the story "Backstage at 'Jeopardy'!" in today's Los Angeles Times Magazine gives an incorrrect date for the start of the annual "Jeopardy!" Teen Tournament. The tournament airs beginning Feb.6.
The edgy chatter stops and the candidates are as still as jacklighted deer while Thurber advises them on how to behave if they are picked to appear on one of the five shows--a week's worth--that will be taped today.
"No swearing if you can help it. We had a lovely lady the other day who kept saying 'Dammit.' We can bloop it out, but people are usually very good lip-readers."
Thurber warns the contestants not to think of the dollar amounts they will accumulate during the game as money in the bank. "They're really points. They call them dollars, but the only person who is going to go home with any money is the person who wins."
Most of the people in the contestant room are locals. But a few have come from as far away as Atlanta and Baltimore. The out-of-towners have invested their own money to fly here (though on rare occasions a local TV station foots the bill), and they will pay for their own motel rooms tonight if they are asked to return tomorrow. "Jeopardy!" offers would-be contestants no material inducements beyond the odd bagel and, of course, the chance to win money. As five-time winner Sandra Gore says: "I went on 'Jeopardy!' because I wanted to win cash. I didn't want to go home with a ceramic Dalmatian and parting gifts."
Thurber guides the players-to-be through a stack of paper work that has evolved in response to the quiz-show scandals of the '50s and the litigiousness of the '80s. Candidates swear, among other things, that they are not related to or conspiring with anyone connected with the show. If they are members of the Screen Actors Guild or other acting guilds, they declare in writing that they aren't making more than $5,200 a year at it. They promise not to run for public office until after their shows, if any, have aired. They promise not to sue.
Most of the people in this room will lose on "Jeopardy!" They don't realize that yet, but Thurber does. Part Mom, part psychiatric nurse, she gives their egos a preliminary boost. "We see 15,000 potential contestants a year, and only 400 get to sit in this room. It's something you should all be proud of.
"It's a game," Thurber says, trying once again to reduce the palpable anxiety in the room. "You should play it like a game and not as if it were a life-threatening thing.
"Have a good time," she says as she leads her charges downstairs to the studio.
IF GAME SHOWS were universities, "Jeopardy!" would be Harvard. As a video commodity, it is the second-most popu lar syndicated series in the country, trailing, but gaining on, Griffin's other wildly successful game show, "Wheel of Fortune." An estimated 25 million viewers tune in nightly, their numbers peaking during the show's annual two-week Teen Tournament, which will air in Los Angeles starting tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. on Channel 13. The annual Tournament of Champions, during which the year's top money winners compete for $100,000, and the Seniors Tournament, for players over 50, also draw big audiences.
As a cultural phenomenon, "Jeopardy!" stands alone. Since the demise of "General Electric College Bowl" in 1970, it is the only game show that a person with a Phi Beta Kappa key can appear on without a detailed explanation to his or her friends. In a nation that mistrusts its grinds and eggheads, it is the sole public forum for Americans who can do the intellectual equivalent of a slam-dunk.
"Jeopardy!" draws a diverse set of fans. Billy Crystal, Laker forward James Worthy, Frank Sinatra and Madonna tune in, along with virtually everyone who ever bragged about his or her SAT scores. The original "Jeopardy!"-- hosted by Art Fleming, aided by the mellifluous Don Pardo--ran from 1963 to 1975 and was briefly revived in 1978-79. The new "Jeopardy!" premiered in 1984 with debonair French-Canadian Alex Trebek as host.