When Leonard Fahrni says he reads Playboy for the magazine's articles, you can believe him. Fahrni does indeed read Playboy--and Entertainment Weekly and God knows what else--to fill his storehouse of knowledge. To him, each dollop of data, each apparently trifling fact, deserves to be gathered, recorded, catalogued and treasured for all eternity. In an age when information is being created and disseminated at speeds unimaginable only a generation ago, no one could possibly know everything about nothing in particular, but that hasn't stopped Fahrni from trying. You may fantasize about emptying your head of every insignificant memory in order to create room for knowledge of a more respectable sort, but not Leonard Fahrni. He likes his head the way it is.
Fahrni's friends (who are, in fact, very much like him) rib him about his obsessions. They rib him about every other aspect of his life as well, and Fahrni gives them plenty of ammunition. At 38, he's bald, paunchy, single and a full-time student (he's working toward a master's degree in math at the University of Colorado-Denver) still living in Lakewood with his parents, Mary Lou and Leonard Sr. Although no one would mistake him for a kid, callers to his home must ask for "Young Leonard" if they wish to speak with him.
Plenty of calls are coming in, for this Saturday in April is the day that the latest Basement Bowl is set to take place. Fahrni has staged 31 previous tests of trivia skill in the downstairs rooms of his parents' house, but this one is special: It takes place when the 27th annual CU Trivia Bowl--once referred to by Games magazine as the greatest trivia contest in the country--was scheduled to be under way. Because the Trivia Bowl was canceled after last year's edition, however, many of the most twisted and talented trivia players in the university's august history are feeling lost, confused. They need somewhere to go--so they're going to Leonard Fahrni's basement.
By noon, two have already arrived. Sander Klein, a CU Trivia Bowl Hall of Famer and past champion, is sitting on the edge of Fahrni's unkempt bed, thumbing through a well-worn copy of Penthouse that's presumably a trivia gold mine. Opposite him is Mark Whelan (Hall of Famer, ex-champ, contest judge), who is watching Fahrni pound away at a computer. Fahrni puts everything about the Basement Bowl into his computer, including the names of the invitees and each and every question--a minimum of thirty tossups and twenty bonuses in a variety of categories (movies, TV, sports, miscellaneous)--for each of the four games he's written and readied. Whelan, a man who so loved the CU Trivia Bowl that one year he traveled to Colorado from Connecticut in order to attend, is awestruck by Fahrni's anal-retentive dedication to all things trivial.
"This is about as geeky and nerdy as it gets," he says, his voice dripping with admiration.
In 1973, when Young Leonard Fahrni, then a CU student, was far younger than he is today, he saw his first CU Trivia Bowl match. He loved every minute of it--but when the next year rolled around, he did not sign up to compete. "I thought I shouldn't play, because the people in it were too good," he says. "I went and watched for seven years before I played."
By 1980 he was ready. He joined a team, and on the day of his first game, he proudly took his place at a table set on the stage of the Glenn Miller Ballroom, where the Trivia Bowl was held. Fahrni doesn't remember the first question the players were asked, but he remembers buzzing in before the emcee had finished reading and providing the correct answer. "It was the first tossup in the first game I ever played," he marvels. "I thought, `This is easy.' Then we got killed."
The next two years Fahrni missed the Bowl; he had joined the Navy and was stationed on the U.S.S. Midway, which spent most of this period in the Indian Ocean, where it could threaten Iran's leader at the time, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Fortunately, Fahrni's stretch in the service wasn't all spent staring down the barrel of a gun. "I was the ship's movie officer," he says. "It was typecasting."
His hitch over, Fahrni returned to the States--and to the Trivia Bowl, joining forces with other competitors who were becoming almost as serious about it as he. One, Bob Downs, had already built a reputation with Bowl judges for his frighteningly complete knowledge of sports trivia and for his dark (some might say tasteless) sense of humor. During the early Eighties he had named one of his teams "Why Did God Invent Women? Because Sheep Can't Cook," but the moniker was rejected by Renae Foxhoven, then director of the Trivia Bowl as well as a member of CU's program council, which sponsored the event. "She said it was offensive," Downs says. "Can you believe it?" Downs responded by redubbing his crew "Renae Foxhoven Made Us Change Our Name." After Fahrni joined the squad, Downs continued the tradition of using Foxhoven's name as part of their handle even though Foxhoven herself had long since ceased to have anything to do with the Trivia Bowl. The placards bearing these names--for example, "How to Succeed in Renae Foxhoven Without Really Trying"--decorate one of the walls of Fahrni's basement, not far from an autographed Denver Broncos poster and a decorative rug that depicts dogs playing poker.
The more the Foxhoven team played, the better it got. A shifting membership didn't prevent Fahrni and Downs from reaching the Trivia Bowl quarter-finals five times and the semi-finals twice. After one such triumph, Fahrni was so confident he would reach the last match of the Bowl that he wrote a personal biography of the sort that the emcee, Dan Rector, traditionally read to the crowd before the final game got started. Instead, Foxhoven was defeated, and Fahrni tucked his biography into his wallet, hoping he could use it the next year. It stayed there until just prior to the 1993 competition, when a disgusted Fahrni tossed it out. Of course, his squad (that year known as "A River Runs Through Renae Foxhoven") made it to the championship game. Fahrni and company lost that contest, too, but because the team that defeated them retired after its victory, the Foxhovens were considered favorites to take the title in 1994.
It was not to be: The CU program council stuck a fork in the Bowl and declared it done. According to Stephanie Arnold, current business manager for the program council and an organizer of the final Trivia Bowl, "I think it was obvious that its time had passed. It was a combination of the whole organization coming to that conclusion, seeing the response that we'd received in the past versus what we were receiving now."
Even hardcore supporters of the Trivia Bowl would have difficulty arguing with that. From the mid-Seventies to the mid-Eighties, the Bowl was hugely popular, drawing national attention (one exhibition match was hosted by Family Feud's Richard Dawson and broadcast on ABC) and throngs of 2,500 or more for the finals. But in succeeding years, students began to think of the entire spectacle as an anachronism that had nothing to do with them. By 1993 preliminary matches were being held in a small auditorium in the University Memorial Center rather than the Glenn Miller Ballroom, and attendees primarily consisted of other competitors.
But Fahrni's enthusiasm never waned. His first trip to the semi-finals in the late Eighties inspired the creation of the Basement Bowl, an informal gathering of trivia-heads intent on boning up for the real Bowl. After the fourth match, Fahrni started keeping track of the games, and he hasn't stopped. He maintains a Basement Bowl diary and saves each of his sets of questions in separate recipe boxes marked with the date they were used. One basement shelf contains more than twenty such boxes, but Fahrni wouldn't think of recycling any of the questions.
"Never," he says firmly. "But if someone decided to bring the Trivia Bowl back, I could have enough questions ready in ten minutes."
"And now, our national anthem."
Fahrni--clad in shorts, a Basement Bowl shirt designed by Bob Downs and a cap promoting the recent flop movie Car 54, Where Are You? given to him by Jason Katzman, Basement Bowl player and film critic for the Colorado Daily--pushes the play button on his cassette deck. Seconds later, the first eight trivia players gathered in the basement hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" as played by the Flagstaff Brass Quintet, featuring Fahrni on trumpet. "I also play trumpet with the 101st Army Band for the National Guard," he boasts.
As the anthem's final note dissolves, the players get ready, testing the signaling buttons on the elaborate buzzer system made by trivia nut John Dahl that Fahrni keeps in his basement. "I used to borrow CU's buzzer system before that, but it was kind of embarrassing to have to go to them and ask, `May I borrow your buzzers?'" Fahrni admits. Whelan and Klein are among the foursome on one side of the table; across from them is a quartet that includes Ron Fitz, whose memory is photographic when it comes to the golden age of television and the music of the Fifties and Sixties, and skilled jack-of-all-trades Mark Vincent. Watching are Fahrni's mom, Mary Lou, so dedicated a trivia fan that she attended almost all of Young Leonard's Trivia Bowl matches; his sister Patty, a formidable player in her own right; and nephew Aaron, thirteen. Leonard Sr. is smart enough to stay upstairs.
Klein's team correctly answers the first question (they recognize a snippet of whistling from Wayne's World), earning the chance to respond to a video bonus question. Fahrni starts a pre-cued tape on his VCR, and up pops a seemingly ge-neric film sequence featuring opera music in the background. "That's Moonstruck," someone calls out. Next comes the latter portion of a credit sequence, also accompanied by opera music, from another picture. "Room With a View," a second person yelps. The third clip, opera music included, stumps the panel; it's from the TV series Northern Exposure. When Fahrni asks what these scenes have in common, Klein lamely answers, "Opera?" They don't recognize that each featured La Boheme, by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. Fahrni chortles--he's fooled these experts by asking a question that comes uncomfortably close to legitimate culture.
The players do far better with queries that aren't so highbrow. They instantly recognize Andy Griffith's version of "House of the Rising Sun." They have no difficulty identifying four songs by the group Yes from their introductions alone. They remember clearly that The Beverly Hillbillies was followed on the CBS television schedule circa the late Sixties by Green Acres. They are able to name several tunes culled from a live album by the band Kansas ("Only Leonard would own a live Kansas album," Whelan moans. "You're really sick"). They know everything there is to know about a recent Budweiser commercial that features twentysomething actors reminiscing about bad TV ("`Mary Ann or Jeannie?'" Vincent quotes. "`Jeannie!'"). And Trivia Bowl alum Dave Gatch recalls a factoid about the recent movie My Girl, a weeper in which Macaulay Culkin is stung to death by bees. "Anytime I can watch Macaulay Culkin die makes me happy," Gatch says.
And then there is the taste test, for which one team is blindfolded and made to identify four different brands of candy.
"That's Bit O' Honey. I know that's Bit O' Honey, because it tastes like shit."
"Raisinettes. That's too easy, Leonard."
"Mounds. No, Almond Joy. Almond Joy's got nuts. Mounds don't."
"A Whatchamacallit. No, it's not a Whatchamacallit. PB Max."
As this absurd satire on the Patty Hearst abduction is going on, the basement fills with Trivia Bowl royalty. Dave and Lori Bailey, who met and fell in love thanks to the Trivia Bowl. Rick Crane. Alan Mulberg. Cody Van Arsdale. Even Dan Rector, the revered main Trivia Bowl emcee, whose presence makes everyone somewhat self-conscious. Before long there are 25 people in the basement, all eager to start playing. "This is the best turnout ever," Fahrni says, grinning.
In fact, the trivial brainpower in Young Leonard Fahrni's basement is almost awe-inspiring. If a foreign aggressor dropped a bomb on the house at this very moment, it's quite possible that everyone in Colorado who knows that skating star Sonja Henie once dated Adolf Hitler would go up in smoke.
Pray for peace.
Shortly after CU pulled the plug on the Trivia Bowl, the university's program council announced that it would be staging an event called the Knowledge Bowl in late March and early April, when the other Bowl would have taken place. This didn't annoy most Trivia Bowlers, but the Knowledge Bowl's rules did, since they seemed specifically designed to prevent anyone who had anything to do with the Trivia Bowl from playing and/or excelling. The questions would be (sheesh) academically based, the council stated, and the teams would consist of two undergraduate students, one graduate student and one faculty advisor. No former students allowed.
Fahrni, ever curious, attended a Knowledge Bowl quarter-final match featuring the Daily's Katzman, and is notably pleased to report that it was not a smashing success. "Obviously the program council only did it because they had a week of dead space," he sneers. "They set the ballroom up with all the old Trivia Bowl stuff and then asked questions about Egyptian mythology. It was lame." As for the turnout, he adds, "there were eight people on stage, six judges and twelve people in the stands--and I think all of them were waiting to play in the next game."
Predictably, the program council's Arnold sounds more positive about the Knowledge Bowl. Although only thirteen teams competed (in its heyday, the Trivia Bowl cut off participation at 64 squads), she says that everyone enjoyed themselves. She estimates the attendance at the final match at 250 ("Ha," Fahrni responds) and notes that "we think it will do better next year, because we're going to be putting a larger emphasis on it." As for the Trivia Bowl, she concedes that a handful of people expressed disappointment that it wasn't happening, but says that there are no current plans at the university for its resurrection. CU's only acknowledgement of the Bowl is an interactive display at the university's Heritage Center through May 6 called "26 Years of Nothing You Need to Know."
Meanwhile, there are other trivial schemes afoot. Doug Brunkow, who chaired CU's program council during the early Seventies, is organizing an effort to stage the 27th Annual Trivia Bowl at Currigan Exhibition Hall on June 10-12. His plan is nothing if not ambitious: He wants the 32 teams he hopes will compete to obtain corporate and media sponsorship, with the proceeds going to the charities of the specific teams' choosing. And more funds could be raised, he says, by getting interested parties to pledge a certain amount per point for each point the team scores in its matches. If that happens, he says, "we could put $5 or $6 million into the charitable coffers of the state of Colorado."
Brunkow insists these are realistic goals and says he has gotten positive feedback from the corporate representatives with whom he's spoken, including, he says, "the three beer companies." And even if the Bowl can't be pulled together by the early June dates, he is certain it will happen later in the year. After all, the program council has offered to lend the new organizers the old Bowl's equipment, and past Bowl judges and players have pledged their support.
"Maybe this is outer-space-type thinking," Brunkow says, "but I think it can work."
Fahrni will be out of town when the Trivia Bowl is scheduled, but he says, "I hope it works, and I hope I can play in it next year."
In the meantime, there's the Basement Bowl. Upon completion of the first game, which takes a little less than an hour, Dave Gatch perches on a stool behind a music stand that serves as a lectern and hosts a game he's written. At one point, he asks, "How do Mr. and Mrs. Ron Howard determine the middle names of their children?"
With a straight face, Whelan responds, "I think they name them after aircraft carriers." Wrong: The middle names of the former Opie's kids commemorate the places where they were conceived (no, none of them is called "Backseat"). At the match's conclusion, Gatch gives special prizes to the high-point scorers who competed--an LP version of The Best of Stan Freberg and a recording of music by Batman TV theme composer Neal Hefti.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Next up as emcee is Klein, a stand-up comic who lards his game with questions about (surprise) stand-up comics, as well as Broadway musicals. "Everyone hates my games," he grumbles afterward. "Mine are too eclectic for them. All they want to do is talk about television." The exception to the pro-TV crowd is Whelan, who, upon noticing that Fahrni's TV is beaming an episode of the Scott Baio series Charles in Charge at them, points his finger and shouts, "That's the reason we're losing. Turn that off."
The buzzer system stays on, however. It stays on through the afternoon. It stays on through the evening. It stays on through fifteen separate matches until 1:15 a.m., when the last eight players finally give up and return to a world that doesn't care that Chuck Woolery was the original host of Wheel of Fortune. Even Young Leonard Fahrni is bleary-eyed, but he can't hide the exhilaration the Basement Bowl produces in him.
"It's spring," he says. "People are supposed to be answering trivia questions.