For 41 seasons, Mac McGarry and thousands of smartypants students have played cutthroat mind games on It’s Academic.

Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

“Eddd-mund! Eddd-mund!”

The taunt starts low, slow, a church-hush heckle intended to unnerve even the steeliest of 4.0 brains.

“EDDD-mund! EDDD-mund!”

Edmund tries to shake off the psych-job, a twitchy grimace fighting the weight of his suddenly sweaty upper lip. He runs a shaky hand over his bright white sweater vest and shoots a nervous smile at a Suitland teammate. She, however, forgoes eye contact with her team’s captain out of fear that the mob—as mobs are wont to do—will turn on her. It’s a wise move: That sweater vest is nothing but trouble.


Oh, man: They got him. They nailed him. Edmund’s toast. The troublemakers upped the volume softly enough to avoid the grown-up tsk-tsking of producers and directors—but loudly enough to cut through the brassy chatter of marching bands warming up and giggly cheerleaders stomping out practice steps.

Edmund probably thought he’d be safe from ridicule today: safe to unload his cranium-swelling bounty of minutiae involving reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic; safe to excel not with his football arm or his soccer foot but with his smartypants power. This was supposed to be his day.

But he thought wrong: The show hasn’t even started yet, the show’s pro-squares host is nowhere to be found, and Edmund, poor Edmund, that genius-in-the-making, looks ready to puke.

You generally don’t hear a lot of heckling on the set of It’s Academic, the local high school quiz show now entering its 41st season on NBC. Whether the cameras are on or off, this long-running phenomenon of low-budget television is usually a proud celebration of all things brainiac, a coming-out party for honor students, debate teamers, and the oft-ridiculed locker-stuffing who value the power of integers over the importance of interceptions. In this blissful, isolated universe, the geeks are hip, the boneheads aren’t invited, and the warm boing! of a buzzer can make even the most popular kids take notice (well, at least for half an hour).

And sure, it may not sound like sparkling television, but on Saturday mornings at 10, It’s Academic is just about the most addictive wake-up ritual there is, especially for viewers who once knew—or still know—exactly what it’s like to be an Edmund.

But on this particular Saturday morning in early November, in the cozy confines of Studio A in WRC-TV’s Northwest Washington compound, an Outsiders-looking band of teens in the bleachers, here under the dangling lights to support the team from Landon—not to mention get a little air time to brag about to their buddies—has successfully re-created the nasty realities of the schoolyard. These Landon roughnecks may not know the square root of 322, but they sure as hell know how to mess with the minds of the pocket-protector set. The boneheads, it seems, have crashed the party.

So it is much to Edmund’s big-sigh relief when the guffawing, snorting Landonites—many of whom are shirtless, with school-spirit paint smeared across their bony chests—eventually decide that the sweater-vested Suitland captain has been sufficiently razzed. This, however, does not bode well for Bishop Ireton’s Christian, who, in his sausage-casing maroon jacket and Reagan-era regimental tie, just knew this crap was gonna come his way sooner or later.

“Chris-tian! CHRIS-tian! CHRIS-TIAN!”

Then: Just when the Landon guys are getting into a nice rhythm, just when Christian’s beet-red head is about to pop straight off of his shoulders, a hero appears. That this shuffle-strolling hero looks like a grandfatherly blend of Jimmy Stewart, Bob Barker, John McLaughlin—and maybe even a little Montgomery Burns thrown in for good measure—matters to Christian not at all. Because when the Landon guys spot the program’s venerable host, they forget about Christian, drop to the scuffed black studio floor, and bow we’re-not-worthy-style at the well-aged announcer’s gleaming black shoes. One bare-backed youth in ripped Levi’s and holey shoes even sticks out his tongue and starts hopping around on his hands like a Jim Rose Circus freak.

The Landon guys now fire up a chant of a different sort, a chant that catches on with cheerleaders and tuba players and mascots and all those friends and family members huddled close in the standing-room-only studio audience. If Edmund and Christian weren’t so busy wiping flop sweat from their foreheads, they’d probably join in the Jerry Springer-esque salute, too.


That’s right: Mac McGarry—cackling, waving, strutting—is in the house.


It’s showtime.

In the middle of the bustling Chevy Chase Clyde’s, in the swarm of the lunchtime rush, Maurice “Mac” McGarry is singing up a storm. In fact, the forever host of It’s Academic breaks into snippets of song more often than Dean Martin. And if you think he barks out questions to students in attention-grabbing capital letters, well, when the man kicks into a croon, his voice is capitalized, italicized, and underlined.

So, ladies and gentlemen, diners and waitstaff, without further ado:


That brief patriotic flourish is followed by one of McGarry’s exclamatory cackles, a cherry-bomb heh-har-ha! that stops just as quickly as it starts. Just about every face in this crowded restaurant is gawking at him with dropped-fork puzzlement—and don’t you know he just thrives on these minor-celebrity moments. Plus, whether these diners dig his Dino impression or not doesn’t really matter: He’s just warming up.

“You know,” McGarry says with Ted Baxter braggadocio, “I’ve sung the national anthem at Montgomery County Swim Club meets. I’m not that good, but I can do the Irish tenor parts. I can hit those notes.”

Just before McGarry warbles out another oldie-but-goodie, a waiter approaches the booth. The clean-cut college kid announces himself with a voice like Barry White’s, and when McGarry asks him to repeat the soup du jour, the guy can barely get out “cream of brocco— .”

“Oh man, what a sound!” McGarry says, slapping down on the table. “You should be on the air! Are you on the air? Heh-har-ha!”

Dressed in a blue turtleneck, green slacks, and a beige tweed jacket adorned with a red handkerchief folded crisply in the pocket, McGarry proceeds to ask the waiter the Three Questions, a trio of queries that all the kids get when first meeting the man: “Where are you from?” “Where do you go to school?” “How many years have you lived in Washington?”

McGarry is playfully shifty about his tally of years—”Let’s just say I have some mileage on me”—but the math says somewhere in the ballpark of 75. Despite his age, however, he never tires of asking, or hearing the answers to, those Three Questions that are deeply rooted in good old local pride.

When the waiter, not expecting an interrogation this Thursday afternoon—and not quite realizing whom he’s dealing with here—replies in a variety of hems and haws, McGarry says, “Oh, I’m just gassing on. I’m good at that.” McGarry pauses, then…wait for it….wait for it…launches a shameless plug in the explosion of yet another cackle: “Do you watch It’s Academic? Saturdays at 10 a.m.! Check it out, check it out! Heh-har-ha!”

For almost as long as he’s stood behind the quizmaster’s podium—he’s hosted the show since its 1961 inception, a full three years, he enjoys noting, before the debut of the original Jeopardy—McGarry has been the Don Pardo of D.C.’s NBC affiliate, WRC-TV, providing voice-overs for all occasions. Although he doesn’t do vocal exercises, he brandishes his showboat pipes the way a cocky fencer weaves his foil, constantly dropping low, soaring high, paying steadfast attention to cadence, enunciation, and speed. Ted Baxter is not such a stretch after all.

“My mother hammered the Southern accent out of me,” says McGarry, who was born in Atlanta, raised in New York City, and summoned to D.C. when Fordham University classmate Vin Scully (yep, the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers) helped him get a radio job at WRC. “She [would not allow] me to have a New York accent or a Southern accent. She was very, very particular about grammar….These days, though, I’m having some adenoidal problems. The older I get, the higher my voice gets.”

In his 51 years in the TV biz, McGarry has also spent a good bit of time in front of the camera—on morning shows, variety shows, chat shows, you name it. (And if you don’t name it, he will: “I did a show called In Our Town, 1:30 to 2 in the afternoon, opposite As the World Turns. What a time spot, right? It was the first Monday-through-Friday variety show in color on Channel 4. Mark Russell tells me he made his debut with me….In 1990, I did The Mac McGarry Summer Comedy Club. We’d show reruns of Father Knows Best, Donna Reed. Lot of fun.” And so on.)

His career in radio—radio being where he got his start, in Pittsfield, Mass., when he was 21 years old—was equally storied. McGarry broadcast presidential addresses from the Oval Office. He informed our city that there were men on the moon. And he worked the mike at legendary jazz concerts—big-band being his preferred music—including the highlight of his DJ career: a 1954 Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey show in Glen Echo’s Spanish Ballroom (“I walk up to the bandstand, and the guys in the band say, ‘Hey, Tommy! Look at this kid! He looks just like you!’ Tommy just grumbled. What a night!”).

But nothing in McGarry’s career has granted him as much of that blissful double-take attention that he so desperately loves as It’s Academic. McGarry retired from his staff announcer post at WRC-TV in 1998, but he continues to tape 45 It’s Academic shows a year—and continues to drop at least one bad joke into all of them (“Let me tell you a secret: The School Without Walls actually has walls!”).

“I now do 41 It’s Academics for Washington and four that are only seen in Charlottesville, Va.,” he says about the show that kicked off in D.C. and quickly caught on, franchise-style, in several other major cities. “I used to do 40 in Baltimore, too, but I had some abdominal surgery a year ago and decided to slow down, ease off a bit.”

Of course, “ease off” is relative for the seemingly tireless McGarry. When his lunch arrives—a giant turkey sandwich that he can barely lift—he grants the slightly skittish waiter an “Oh dear Moses Leroy!” and begins flinging cucumbers off his plate. (McGarry hates cucumbers.) He soon busts out another snippet of another favorite: “AND I WRITE THE SONGS THAT MAKE…” He then ignores his food altogether and enthusiastically commences discussion of another of his preferred topics:

“Teenagers rarely get a good rap today,” McGarry says. “If you read the newspapers and watch television, you wouldn’t know that anybody’s studying in school today. But these kids on the show are just great. Just great….Each year, there is more to be known, and these kids know it! People always ask me if the kids are smarter than they were 40 years ago. My answer is that there’s no way to calculate that. Think of what we didn’t have 40 years ago. Computers, that’s the main thing. Information technology. That’s what I envy. To grow up in the computer age. Kids today are very lucky.”

Those hecklers from Landon are still a week away from wreaking havoc on decidedly unlucky Edmund’s wavering confidence, but chances are good that McGarry won’t notice the playground-worthy shenanigans, anyway. (He probably won’t see the “Johnny Your Sister Is Hot” sign being waved from the bleachers, either.) In fact, the accumulated years of hosting It’s Academic—so many students, so many games, so many questions—have helped create a rather skewed image of Today’s Teenager in McGarry’s head, a pimply-faced amalgam that probably looks more like Wally Cleaver than Bud Bundy.

“These kids are not the kind that get in trouble,” McGarry says. “Not only are these young men and women intelligent, but they’re the heads of the student government, football players, field-hockey players. Generally speaking, they have a lot more going for them than just being smart.”

“I would say that the manners of kids are now better than they were in the Vietnam years,” he later adds. “That was a tough time; the country was in great turmoil over whether the war was right or wrong. And that reflected in the students themselves. One kid came on with a strange-looking hairdo, wild-looking clothes, and a rather surly attitude. He was pretty rough when I interviewed him. He was knocking things in general, the establishment. Some thought we should edit this kid out. But I said, ‘We never do that. Let him see what he did on tape.’” Was this also the infamous troublemaker who said on-air that his life’s goal was “to smoke marijuana”? “That’s the one,” McGarry says.

McGarry shouldn’t be completely oblivious to the evil that teenagers do. McGarry has had four children with wife Babette McGarry, to whom he’s been married 42 years. And the only one to follow in Pop’s broadcasting footsteps—that would be Mark—was a self-described hellraiser in and out of the McGarrys’ Potomac, Md., household.

“I was always getting in trouble in school, and teachers would say, ‘Your father’s Mac McGarry—you should be smarter than that,’” laughs Mark McGarry, a radio DJ responsible for keeping the beaches of Ocean City, Md., properly rocking. “And if my mother wasn’t getting through to me—well, you knew you were in trouble if my father had to take care of business.”

That said, Mark McGarry, shifting into publicist mode, adds that his father has been “more or less a mentor. I would say I’ve learned a lot from him. He really is a teacher, and he truly loves being around the students.”

The same old line: McGarry loves being around the students. And he does. He really does. But understand this, as well: McGarry just might love getting recognized even more.

In case any of the patrons at Clyde’s today missed out on McGarry’s attention-grabbing performance—or, for that matter, missed seeing him here at all—when lunch is over, he slowly works his way through the restaurant and makes a rather demonstrative request to get his parking stub validated: “That’s a kid from the Depression for you! I still know what a nickel is! A nickel’s what got me to school! A nickel for the subway!”

And as McGarry exits the restaurant, damned if faces young and old don’t snap to realization and start smiling. They know him. Of course they know him. When your show has been on the air for more than four decades, that usually means people are tuning in.

“This sounds immodest, but I get recognized all the time,” he says in a conspiratorial whisper. “From Carolina to Pennsylvania. I love it!”

Heading out to his champagne-colored Buick—”What else would I drive? I’m 100 years old!”—McGarry says he has no plans to retire. After all, if the smart kids need him, well, then he just might need them even more.

“When I’m up there doing the shows, I think, I must be pretty young myself,” he says. “They’re only 16, 17 years old, so I get the delusion that I’m not getting any older—except when I see the tapes. Heh-har-ha!”

And with that, McGarry eases his lanky frame into his humpback whale of a car, slowly rolls out of the parking lot, and heads for the studio. This upcoming Saturday is another taping day, and the only host It’s Academic has ever had needs to start preparing. Edmund, for one, is counting on him.

There are two kinds of applause required on the set of It’s Academic: “rowdy” (when coming out of a commercial break) and “polite” (when the game is afoot). Of course, when you’re dressed in a furry frog suit and you’re being taunted by an equally fuzzy alligator—and three bands are simultaneously clanking out stadium-rock faves, and multiple squads of cheerleaders are high-kicking a few feet away, and grumpy TV people are barking seemingly contradictory instructions—you pretty much stay “rowdy” all the time. As a frog, it’s your only option.

The frog and the gator—plushy mascots representing Upper Northwest’s Maret and Bethesda’s Stone Ridge, respectively—are

actually two of the calmer members of the

hundreds-strong horde of excitable parents, students, friends, and bagpipers(!) who have gathered in small Studio A on this early October Saturday morning. (Appropriately enough, Studio A is also where they tape such other intellectually stimulating shows as The McLaughlin Group, Meet the Press, and, er, The George Michael Sports Machine.)

Today, as on all taping days, there’s a sense of controlled mayhem on the set—kind of like a less bloody version of the prom scene from Carrie (or, for that matter, an MTV Beach House for brainiacs). As well as the constantly clapping, shouting, stomping crowd—which routinely overflows the two sets of available bleachers—bulky cameras crane here, growly production assistants direct bagpipers(!) there, and the red-and-blue “It’s Academic” sign directly above the contestants’ chipped-gold buzzer-buttons casts a neon midway glow everywhere. The soundtrack coming from the bands in the stands always seems to be the same—that’s right: “Rock and Roll, Pt. II”—which sounds far less rousing outside of the MCI Center but adds a goofy gloss to the goings-on nonetheless.

For the most part, the student contestants stay out of the pre-show putting-it-together melee; if they haven’t been totally freaked out by their super-stressed parents in the crowd, then they’ve been rendered crooked-grin paralyzed by the fact that the loveliest ladies in the pompom business have shown up to twirl their goodies just for them. It’s a wonder they can think at all. (And here’s hoping those student contestants won’t notice that when the cameras pan away from those lovely ladies, those lovely ladies look as if they’re about to keel from boredom.)

Unbelievable: All this produced pomp—pomp for 41 seasons, no less!—for a bunch of teenage smarties who are about as hip as the show’s theme song, a goofy dated bop better suited for Herbie Goes Bananas.

TV really is an amazing thing.

Because of scheduling conflicts, the small staff responsible for getting It’s Academic on the air—a skeleton crew that normally tapes four shows in a row; the shows then air individually over the next several weeks—will today have to orchestrate the taping of five shows in a row. And with some 15 teams and their pumped-up posses due this morning, that controlled mayhem could turn into hair-pulling chaos.

Seated at a table just off-camera to the left of McGarry’s wooden podium (which stands tall in front of a faux-bookcase backdrop) are Sophie Altman and Susan Lechner, It’s Academic’s own Waldorf and Statler, the old men from The Muppet Show who bark one-liners from the balcony. If things start to go awry and chaos ensues, the women seated at this table will be the first to know—and the first to let someone know how to fix it, and fix it now.

Altman is the show’s creator and executive producer, a woman who, in 1961, courted a 34-year-old McGarry to be the host of a new quiz show—a show she thought would last “oh, maybe 13 weeks.” Altman was hosting a show called Teen Talk at WRC-TV when she dreamed up the basic premise for It’s Academic; she was simply looking for a new job that would allow her more time with her family. She had no idea.

“The clothes have changed, the hairdos have changed, but the enthusiasm has not changed,” Altman says. “It’s now a great honor to be on It’s Academic.”

Senior editor Lechner has been with the show more than 30 years and can still remember when only 55 area schools played on the program instead of the full-slate 81 today (most of which have both coaches and after-school It’s Academic practices). Lechner is responsible for, among other things, prepping the bands and the cheerleaders on when to bang drums and shake booties—and when to just try and keep still. With her librarian specs and quick-draw pointer finger, Lechner is the enforcer, and she’ll put any and all frogs and gators in their places if they start getting too rowdy.

During the taping of each game, Altman and Lechner, stationed side by side at that no-frills table, keep the score for each of the three-person teams and make sure the five stages of the game go as planned: the free-for-all opening-category round (+10 points for a correct answer/-10 for an incorrect answer), the individual-team rounds (+20 points/no penalties), the “picture” round (+10/-10), the second team rounds (+20/no penalties), and the big finish, the pivotal grab-bag finale (+20/-20).

Resting between them on the table is a beat-to-hell but oh-so-important leather briefcase—the briefcase that holds the index cards, the index cards that hold the answers and questions, the answers and questions that are delivered to McGarry just before game time. For now, the briefcase is locked shut.

Today’s first show, featuring the teams from Stone Ridge, Maret, and Vienna, Va.,’s Madison, will air the Saturday before Thanksgiving, so Altman makes a note to remind McGarry to give the seasonal-appropriate salutation.

“If we’d known earlier, we would have had turkey for everybody,” says Altman.

“Or at least some sandwiches,” says Lechner.

When the crowd breaks out in a collective cheer—”Look, there he is!” a lone voice shouts as if spotting Superman zipping through the sky—Altman and Lechner don’t even look up. They’ve seen that cackling ham’s moves too many times. Instead, they repeat once again how great the Food People at Giant have been in sponsoring It’s Academic for all these years.

Entering stage left, McGarry isn’t greeted with a hearty chorus of “MAC! MAC! MAC!” this time, but someone does compliment him on his tie, a red silk number with yellow flowers that looks quite snazzy against his gray suit.

“I know—would you look at me,” McGarry says, doing a little Charleston soft-shoe on his way into the hyped-up throng.

Between tapings, McGarry will retreat to his office (“nice and messy”), where he’ll snack on some sandwiches (“ham ‘n’ cheese, peanut butter ‘n’ jelly”) and try to relax (“four shows, no problem; five shows is gonna be tough”).

A few minutes before each showtime, he pushes through thick black curtains just behind the longest set of bleachers and begins making his rounds, scribbling notes about people in the crowd (“That young man’s sister was once on the show”) and schmoozing with the audience and the contestants (“Where are you from?” “Where do you go to school?” “How many years have you lived in Washington?”).

“Mac has a real quippy sense of humor,” Altman says. “He’s very quick and can improvise. He relates to the kids and picks up on what they’re saying.”

McGarry may indeed be all those things when the cameras are rolling—that is, if you consider that quick “School Without Walls actually has walls” quip a real zinger. But during the pre-show meet-and-greet, McGarry doesn’t so much improvise as rely on the same bag of schticky tricks he’s been reaching into for years: lying about his age, repeating ad nauseam the “teenagers rarely get a good rap” rap, and basically strutting around the studio as if he owned the joint.

A few seconds before showtime, McGarry leans back in his tall director’s chair, sips some water, and stares down into the dusty, wiry innards of his podium (very unimpressive, if you’re wondering).

Across the room, a cameraman starts counting down: 10, 9, 8…

And slowly…7, 6, 5…the mayhem in the studio…4, 3, 2…settles down into isolated expressions of joy, anguish, and release. The cameras are on and: The frog and gator high-five. Nathaniel from Madison sweetly stutters these golden words: “I’d like to thank our cheerleaders for coming out today.” Maret’s Vladimir nails a question about quarks that helps his team win the game. Barbara Clay, the mother of Henry Merritt from second-place Madison, stops shredding her black-and-red pompom and cursing under her breath to give her son a post-show hug. “They practiced so hard,” she says. “I think they’re happy.”

And if you slow-pan backstage, you’ll find the pixie-ish pacing figure of Caroline Coronado, a 17-year-old senior from Einstein High in Kensington, Md., who looks not unlike Marcy from Peanuts. Her school is up next, against Paul VI and Rockville. The button-nosed brunette with the shiny face has been on It’s Academic twice before and never won. The captain of her team, she’s been up since 5 o’clock this morning. But she’s not tired. She’s just “really, really” nervous.

At a time like this, Caroline could certainly use some good advice.

And now for a few pointers from all-knowing quiz-whiz Ryan Moore, a D.C. native who not only represented Wilson High (class of ’91) three times on It’s Academic but recently did battle in Jeopardy’s hallowed Tournament of Champions. The king of the brainy set, Moore could be teamed up with Lenny and Squiggy and still come out on top, right? Right?

“Oh no, we stunk on It’s Academic,” Moore laughs. “We weren’t too hot.”

Nevertheless, the 28-year-old, now working at an entertainment-marketing start-up in Venice Beach, Calif., is adamant that the hard lessons he learned on McGarry’s show made him the celebrity he is today. Plus, in his senior year, Moore did lead Wilson into the second round of playoffs. (“Then Holton Arms kicked our butts.”)

“It’s Academic helped me get used to the competition,” says Moore. “It got rid of all my nerves and fear of being on television. It’s kind of a trip to be on TV. I was like a complete robot then. I was calm. But robotic-calm.” (Of course, Moore probably didn’t have the Landon thugs chanting his name. And you know they would have. Come on, with those two syllables: RY-AN! RY-AN!)

Although he hasn’t seen the show in a few years, Moore remembers almost every detail of his experiences in Studio A and is certain that the same all-important rules still apply: “It’s Academic is very much about speed,” he says, his voice gaining a solemn tone. “Anticipating. Buzzing in early. Cutting off Mac. Reading is probably the best way to increase your knowledge base.” He pauses, then adds: “Studying for the show can make you a more well-rounded person.”

Moore might be right about that one: Other “well-rounded” people who have appeared on the show have included current Washington Post CEO Donald Graham, who was the captain of his St. Albans team during the show’s first season, and Maine Gov. Angus King, who was on a championship team from Alexandria’s Hammond High. Plus, Hillary Clinton was an alternate on her school’s team in Chicago—and we all know how well-rounded the former first lady is.

“In some ways, It’s Academic is harder than Jeopardy,” Moore continues, “especially with the math and science questions.”

Then again, Jeopardy’s host is a hardass compared with It’s Academic’s genial wonder. “Trebek’s all business when the cameras are on, but after that, he’s usually backstage, not hanging with us,” says Moore, who prefers his game-show MCs to spend a little time with the talent. “Mac’s pretty gregarious. You can tell he’s a good spirit, a good man.”

Moore, dedicated smart guy that he is, made it all the way to the semis of the Tournament of Champions before bowing out with $5,000 in his pocket—and garnering himself a modicum of fame.

“Yeah, I get noticed,” he says. “At this bank in Venice, a guy comes up to me and shouts, ‘Hey, Ryan!’ I’m thinking, I don’t know this person. Then he says, ‘My wife and I saw you on Jeopardy. We just knew we’d see you around. Venice, yeah!’ It was crazy.”

Revenge of the nerds.

Nome, San Francisco, Seattle: If you were to sail from the U.S. to Russia, your trip would be shortest if you left from which of these cities?

I have a _____.

I have _____ to keep.

What two different words here will complete quotes from a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. and a poem by Robert Frost?

What’s the value of X in this equation: 1/-X=1/(3X-7)?

“In coming up with questions, we try to reflect what the kids of today know,” says It’s Academic producer Susan Altman, Sophie Altman’s daughter and one of the most cutthroat question creators on the show. (The questions are done by committee, Lechner, Sophie Altman, and associate producer Joel Kemelhor included.) As she watches Caroline Coronado’s Einstein team take on Rockville and Arlington’s Paul VI—the teams are tied after the first round; the above questions cause only minor speed bumps—Altman adds, “Forty years ago, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was fresh. Now that’s ancient history. So we’re always updating old questions, writing new ones.”

During a commercial break, Altman adds, “These kids on this show study hard. They are typical. They represent a majority of kids in school today….”

The producer continues to talk, but the sound of Scottish babies crying—the bagpipers(!)—is drowning out every noise in Northwest Washington. There’s nothing like a rousing rendition of “Scotland the Brave” to get that brain working, and the crowd is commanded to get “rowdy” after the pipers do their loop.

Caroline—Hermione Granger in tan sweater and black skirt—leads Einstein to a substantial midgame lead, but then, for some reason, the team captain gets gun-shy. Her reluctance to buzz buzz buzz allows Paul VI to sneak back into the game. And wouldn’t you know it, after the final, grab-bag round, Einstein and Paul VI are tied at 380 points apiece.

The crowd burbles with excitement—no Landon punks here today to ruin a perfectly good time. And McGarry take great delight in announcing a sudden-death overtime, which consists of one, just one, free-for-all bonus question.

McGarry pulls a card from an envelope, squares his shoulders, and fires away:

Pi over 4 radians is equal to how many degrees?

Gulp: Einstein has no idea; neither does Paul VI. Caroline gives a frantic, helpless look left and right to her equally stumped teammates. But just as she’s about to buzz in, Paul VI, in what will prove to be a massive tactical error, boings! the buzzer first. “Oh jeez,” team captain Jason says.

“Your answer?” asks McGarry.

“Uh…” says Jason.

“YOUR ANSWER?” demands McGarry (psst: somebody’s getting hungry).

“Uh…180 over 4?”

“No, I’m sorry! The answer is 45! AND THAT’S THE END OF THE GAME!”

Blink, blink: Paul VI loses 20 points for the incorrect answer; the bright yellow 380 on the scoreboard in front of the desk quickly turns into a far less luminous 360.

Ryan Moore’s lessons be damned, Einstein wins by keeping its collective mouth shut and its collective hand off the buzzer.

During a quick commercial break, the Einsteiners catch their victorious breath and trade giant wowed smiles—while the Paul VI crew slouches in unison and stares off into what-the-hell? oblivion.

In celebration, and with the back-to-action cameras zooming in on their sashaying steps, the Einstein cheerleaders, all 322 of them, start dancing to—oh, what’s this interesting new song?—”Rock and Roll, Pt. II.” McGarry weaves through the crowd, posing for a quick snapshot, scribbling a hurried autograph, and exasperatedly explaining to a young lady with red ribbons in her hair that no, that is not a real bookshelf behind his podium.

Parting the black curtain, McGarry turns back to survey the crowd: “Whoa, that was amazing!” he says, as excited as they are. Then the host disappears for another sandwich and some rest. After all, he still has three more shows to do.

Caroline is hugging everyone she can find: cheerleaders, friends, maybe even a piper. This was supposed to be her day, and it is, it was, it always will be.

“I didn’t want to get distracted by the band!” she says, her face so pinched pre-show now opened up in victorious bloom. “Was I blushing? I felt like I was blushing! I know I was blushing!”

When Caroline’s parents try to pull her away, she turns and snaps: “I’m talking to the newspaper!”

Alex Trebek, she’s all yours. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.