Trivial? Not for Morgan White.
By Joel Brown
Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff
“The show I have to work the hardest every year is First Night,” says trivia contest star Morgan White Jr.
With his wide-brimmed leather hat pulled low and dark glasses — indoors, at night — the trivia king of Boston looks imposing, like a character from a crime flick. But ask him how his reign began, and he evokes a kinder, gentler era of entertainment.
“When I was growing up, Monday morning, the first day of school for the week, all the kids would talk about what we watched last night, ‘Lassie’ or ‘My Favorite Martian,’ ” says Morgan White Jr., 59, of Newton.
“Then in March or April, you would be watching reruns . . . and I would still remember what I watched back in September or October, say the episode where Uncle Martin gave Tim the ability to read minds,” White says.
FYI, that would be Ray Walston and Bill Bixby on “My Favorite Martian.”
“I absorbed information, whether it was the 50 states or continents or whatever the case may be,” White says, sitting in Jacob Wirth restaurant on Stuart Street one evening last week. “I hated school, but I paid attention, and it stuck with me, and I’m able to recall it at will when necessary.”
White will be ready to call out the questions and, when necessary, the answers, during First Night at the Hynes Convention Center, Room 202, with family performances at 1:30, 2:45, and 4 p.m.
“The show I have to work the hardest every year is First Night,” White says.
That’s because he’s doing three shows in an afternoon for a hundred or more people at a time, many of them in family groups from kindergartners to grandparents.
“I have the entire family from 1 to 92, as Nat King Cole says, and it’s my job to choose information that’s pertinent, whether we’re talking about SpongeBob for the child or a granddad who might remember all three vice presidents under Roosevelt. And make it fun and rewarding for them by giving them a prize, a hat or a T-shirt or a movie poster, whatever.”
When White was still in school, teachers and family gradually recognized that his memory was unusual. He worked in government agencies for a few years, but by the time he was 30, White began a career talking trivia on the radio (WBZ these days), writing books about trivia, and hosting trivia contests at bars and restaurants. At Jacob Wirth, he hosts a 90-minute trivia set twice a week.
He stands at a table near the bar with a hand-held microphone, at first drawing only intermittent attention from the office-partiers, after-work drinkers, and tourists scattered around the room. He calls for topics, then fires questions on the fly, giving away T-shirts for answers about a Steely Dan song and the cartoon “DuckTales.”
“Give me another subject! Nutrition? Did you really just say nutrition? Just for you I will do nutrition. Egads,” White says, shaking his head in mock disbelief. “OK, name someone from the 1970s who ate nuts and berries and other healthy things and died in his 60s. Euell Gibbons? That’s right! Come on down and get a T-shirt!”
Jacob Wirth owner Kevin Fitzgerald says he likes activities that involve audience participation, to complement the German beer-hall atmosphere of his venue, and that White has drawn trivia teams from a nearby hospital and groups of Emerson College students.
“We don’t have a demographic. We get people from 20 to 70 every day, and we need someone who can appeal to all ages and has a knowledge of all facets of trivia,” Fitzgerald says. “He’s excellent at getting an audience and reading a crowd.”
Are there tricks to remembering — and recalling — all those facts, inconsequential and otherwise? Mnemonic devices for coming up with questions? “Everything you can think of, yes,” White says. “It all folds in, like shuffling cards. I am able to cross-reference like nobody’s business.”
Give me a letter, he says.
Give me another letter.
“So if I said, the name of the actor who was on ‘A Different World,’ the ‘Cosby Show’ spinoff, that would be Glynn Turman — don’t worry, I’m not going to quiz you on it — or I could pick George Thomas, the utility player for the Red Sox. Or I could pick — reversing the letters — Tom Gordon, a reliever for the Red Sox. I can do that on almost any set of letters, although if you throw some Qs and Zs in there, it slows me down a little bit. Slows me down, but doesn’t stop me.”
White is mellow and solicitous and doesn’t use a single expletive in an hourlong conversation. Divorced, with one son — Evan, a TV reporter in Rochester, N.Y. — White comes across most clearly as an unreconstructed baby boomer. His favorite show to this day is the 1960s spy drama “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Lately he bills himself as The Man From T.R.I.V.I.A.
Of course, bar trivia is hardly rare in Boston, especially given the huge college scene. Ask Morgan about businesses that thrive on the trivia circuit in town, though, and he scoffs.
What they do “is no competition for me,” he says. “I’m saying this politely. They hire people, they give them the format to follow, they give them the DJ equipment, they place them in the club, and they’re reading the questions. And people have five minutes or so to answer. No one can do it the way I do it. It’s instantaneous. There’s not time to look up something.”
This might seem like the golden age of “to look up something,” with every fact or alleged fact available via the Internet with a few mouse clicks or taps on a smartphone. White doesn’t operate like that. “I know it’s a boon to mankind and all the information that’s out there, you can look up anything on YouTube. . . . I have people who can get that for me, but I don’t need to be bothered.”
He calls computer-related activities “ticky, ticky.”
“You remember the old TV show ‘George of the Jungle,’ which turned into a movie for Brendan Fraser?” he asks, unable to stop cross-referencing. “They didn’t have the telephone, they had the ‘Tooky Tooky’ bird. The bird would be the phone, so I just updated that. It became ‘ticky, ticky’ because to my ear that’s the sound of fingers flying over a keyboard.”
White is his own imdb.com and Wikipedia combined, and he’ll trust his memory over the Internet, thank you very much.
“This is my life, this is my living, I put gas in my car because I do trivia,” he says. “And I drive a gas guzzler.”
Trivia Created on the Fly by a Man with a Microphone -
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps introduced the character “Mr. Memory,” a performer with a penchant for knowledge and superlative recall. His audience pummels him with questions; he effortlessly hurls out answers. Now meet Boston’s real, live version of Mr. Memory: MORGAN WHITE JR., the veteran trivia guru at the Coolidge Corner Clubhouse. Patrons who show up for Monday’s 8:30 pm trivia night will find an unusual game format: the audience yells out categories to White, who then creates questions on the fly. Score a point for every answer you get right. Category suggestions have run the gamut, from highbrow (films of Fellini) to lowbrow (“yo mama” jokes). White’s breadth of knowledge is mind-boggling and customers delight in trying to stump and tantalize him with unexpected topics. Prizes for winning teams include T-shirts, hats, glasses, or movie passes.
He sweats the small stuff
Morgan White Jr. has made a career of
his trivial pursuit
By Jack Thomas, Globe Staff
The time: a recent Saturday afternoon. The place: Zoinks! - a toy store at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, on the second floor, not far from a display of Gizmo Gears, SpongeBob backpacks, and Nana Banana coloring books. The players: (1) Robert McLaughlin of San Diego, a tourist. (2) Morgan White Jr., the self-appointed "Trivia King," who has just finished another of the more than 300 appearances he makes yearly to demonstrate his ability to amass an astonishing amount of information that is utterly useless, mind-numbingly arcane and, therefore, devilishly difficult to recall. White: Pick a subject, something you know well. McLaughlin: I could be unfair and say my home, San Diego. White: OK. Two questions. First, tell me the professional team that started in San Diego and is now in another state. McLaughlin: Hmmm ... the San Jose Sharks? No, wait, they're still in California. White: The answer is the Houston Rockets. They used to be the San Diego Rockets. McLaughlin: I didn't know that. White: Second, name a Gary Coleman movie set in San Diego. McLaughlin: The kid from "Diff'rent Strokes?" He made a movie set in San Diego? White: Yes, and he wore a Padres uniform. McLaughlin: Um ... I don't know. White: It was "The Kid From Left Field." McLaughlin: So, you're the Trivia King. You bet he is. Put another way, if Morgan White Jr. of Newton is not the Trivia King, then Lassie didn't live in Calverton, Aleksei Leonov didn't make the first walk in space, and Tom Doniphon didn't shoot Liberty Valance. But they did. And Morgan White is. Just as Jerry Seinfeld built a reputation based on a television sitcom about nothing, White has built a career out of memorizing factual knickknacks, or trivia, which Webster defines as details unimportant, inconsequential, or nonessential. In addition to his weekly appearances - Monday nights at Coolidge Corner Clubhouse in Brookline, Tuesdays at Checkers in Manomet, Wednesdays at Panda Palace in Weymouth, Thursdays at Capone's Pizzeria in Pembroke, Saturdays at Kelly's Landing in Weymouth, and Sundays at Tucson Tacos in Kingston - White entertains at nightclubs and corporate parties across the country and sometimes hosts the overnight radio talk show on WBZ. Dressed in black and blue - black slacks and jersey, blue jacket and glasses tinted blue - the 49-year-old settles into a window booth at his favorite hangout, the Biltmore Cafe in Newton Lower Falls, and while he polishes off a midafternoon cheeseburger club, he talks about how he drifted into a career in trivia. "My job is not available on Career Day in high school," he says. Because of his unusual memory and his appetite for detail, interviewing White is easy - no groping for names, no grasping for numbers, no lapse into generalities. Where was White born? Not Boston, but the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. Where did he live as a boy? Not Boston, but in the South End, 505 Massachusetts Ave., at the corner of Tremont Street. "I'm blessed," he says smiling, "with a good memory." He became aware of it in the third grade, on the playground, when conversations turned to TV programs. "We'd talk about what made us laugh the night before, and it dawned on me I had a good memory, not only for what all of us had seen the night before, but for what I could remember from episodes a year earlier. "Like, in the first episode of 'My Favorite Martian' - that would have been September 1963 - someone asks where they'll get money to repair the spaceship, and Uncle Martin says Las Vegas. A year later, I'd say to kids, you know, they never went to Vegas. No one else would remember that, but I did." At age 10, he startled his father with his knowledge not only of comic strips but also of the cartoonists. "The question came up as to who drew 'Mutt & Jeff,' and I said it was Al Smith. My father went through the funny papers, asking me who wrote 'Li'l Abner,' and I said Al Capp, and who wrote 'Cicero's Cat,' and I said that was Al Smith, too. He was amazed. Then he asked me about television cartoons, and I gave him the answers like that," he says, snapping his fingers. "He asked who created Popeye. I said Max Fleischer. He said how do you know this? I said it's right there in the credits." An only child, White was raised by his mother and grandmother. Thanks to Metco, he went to Brookline High School, where he made the honor roll and played basketball and baseball. "I was no Bob Gibson," he says, referring to the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who won three World Series games against Boston in 1967. After two years at Graham Junior College, White worked at odd jobs - mail clerk, switchboard operator - and put together books on trivia about Boston and black history. As sales climbed, he decided to devote his life to trivia. Divorced with one son, Evan, a 19-year-old Emerson student who lives with him, White is 5-feet-10 and weights 245 pounds, thanks, he says, to midnight trips to Kelly's Roast Beef in Revere for fried clams and hot dogs. Still, for someone in entertainment, he lives a clean life. "I have no more than five drinks a year," he says, "and I've never done drugs, not even for experimental reasons, and I grew up in the '60s and '70s, when it was common." When young people marvel at his memory, he tells them he's never taken drugs, and as a result, whatever brain cells he's supposed to have, he's got 'em. "I don't dwell on it, and if people applaud, which they do, I say don't. I'm just making a true statement." Trivia, for White, is not a 9-to-5 job. Today's events, after all, are tomorrow's trivia, and White cannot watch television or see movies or listen to music or read books without absorbing mundane information the rest of us happily ignore. "If I see a fact that's interesting, I write it down so that I can use it or have it as a reference point." Does he ever feel overwhelmed by the volume? "The answer is yes, but I'm going to tell you another way of looking at it. Pick any color. Green? Fine, now, in my mind, I've got nothing but green. The moon is made of green cheese. 'Greensleeves' is the theme from 'Lassie.' Mr. Green Jeans appears on 'Captain Kangaroo.' And I'm thinking of 'Puff the Magic Dragon' and the lyrics, 'green scales fell like rain.' "I can't stop it. I honestly can't shut if off. When I get in my car shortly, I'll see green upholstery beneath me, and an hour from now green will be coming back to me. It's part of the curse of doing this. Once I focus on something, I can't stop it, because it's my job to come up with more green and more green and more green," he says, snapping his fingers three times. "So, yes, it can be a curse." He seems startled to be asked if his behavior is obsessive. "Maybe by someone else's definition, but I don't look at myself that way, not at all." But if Barry Bonds may be described as obsessive about hitting a baseball and Hemingway about writing sentences, then how can anyone be an expert in trivia without being obsessive? "If you look upon it in comparison to Bonds and Hemingway, well, no one else in the country does what I do the way I do it. This is hard to say without being egotistical, but I am the best there is at what I do." White declines to discuss fees, except to say that his annual salary is roughly equivalent to what he would be paid as a junior partner at McKenzie, Brackman. "You'll recognize that," he says, "as the law firm on the 'L.A. Law' television series. "Someone asked me why what I do works so well, and the answer is that, first, I always ask what a person is interested in, and then, second, I ask trivia questions about that subject. I have a girl who loves horses, and she always asks me to ask questions about horses. Why? Because it validates what's important to her. If a person is criticized by friends as a geek for caring too much about one thing, whatever it is, say ketchup, well, that person is going to respond favorably when someone like me talks to him about ketchup. "Once they choose the topic, then I know what they're interested in and what questions to ask, and I'm in control. Whether it's a man from San Diego or an 8-year-old boy who loves baseball, they've given me control." Richard Appel was a student at Boston University studying for a master's degree in broadcast administration in 1981, and in the middle of the night he'd call White on radio to play trivia games, sometimes winning a book, a T-shirt, a movie poster, or discount coupons to a deli in Brookline. "It was never about the prizes," says Appel, now 45 and a market researcher for Sony Music in New York who hosts his own trivia event twice a year for charity. "But Morgan White had an incredible memory." White talks with admiration about a rival. "One of the best in my business is a gentleman from St. Louis, David Strauss, a history teacher I first heard in Boston in 1979 on the David Gold show on WMEX. "He knows his stuff, but he found out I was good, too, when we went back and forth about the old TV show 'Burke's Law,' starring Gene Barry, which was on in the mid 1960s. "His concept - and he's right - is that people like us, we're the gunslingers. We're the fastest draws in the West, and so people come to us and say, here's one I bet you can't answer. "But they try to stop us by asking the same questions over and over. What's Dorothy's last name on 'The Wizard of Oz' [Gale], and what's the Skipper's name on 'Gilligan's Island' [Jonas Grumby], and what was Captain James T. Kirk's middle name on 'Star Trek' [Tiberius]. "But I come back and say, you know, there's another well-known character on TV whose first name is James and whose middle name is Tiberius, because the producer of 'Wild, Wild West' was also the first producer of 'Star Trek.' And they go 'gulp.' The answer is James Tiberius West from 'Wild, Wild West."' White declines to reveal his IQ except to say he is eligible for membership in Mensa, the intellectual society that limits membership to the top 2 percent of IQs. "I'd rather not get into IQ numbers. Why? Because IQ is misleading. Take an 8-year-old kid who knows sports, who pays attention to baseball. Within the parameter of his age, he might not remember a lot of the history about Ted Williams as the Splendid Splinter and that his final home run was hit off Jack Fisher. But how many kids his age would know that? "A week ago, at Tucson Tacos, two families were there, and somebody picked the topic of literature. Well, the subject turned to 'Charlotte's Web,' and I asked who wrote it. A kid, 12, said E. B. White, and his parents were proud. Then I did something about TV, and the answer was SpongeBob. A different child picked up on that, and his parents said that was good, but why didn't he know the answer to the book question. I urged them to be appreciative of what he knows." Trivia, for better or worse, can be a mirror into who we are. Some of us are pleased to be able to name five Britney Spears songs in 10 seconds. Others are proud that we are unable to name a single song by Britney Spears. Some of us prefer not to know that Bart Simpson's teacher is Miss Crabapple, that Dumbo's last name is Jumbo, that the signature on the bat Jack Nicholson brandishes in "The Shining" is Carl Yastrzemski's. And if the memory bank has limitations, like a warehouse, and the more we fill it with useless information, the less likely we are to remember the passwords to all our electronic gear, then what is the advantage of knowing that the number of shots Lucas McCain fired in the opening scene of "The Rifleman" is 12, which is four more than the hour on the face of the clock on a bar of Dial soap, which is 8? Can the mind become cluttered with facts that, like rubbish, ought to be discarded? Can trivia be overdone? "I don't think so," says White. "For me that hasn't happened. They say we use only a small part of our capacity to remember, and if we work at it, we can increase it." Still, the need to absorb ever more song titles, lyrics, cartoon characters, and cultural grains of sand sometimes makes White's life seem like an endless preparation for a final exam. He laughs. "That's true. Remember when Pokemon came out with 150 characters? I memorized every one of them, and do you know what they did?" No. "They came out with 100 more." This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 1/9/2003. © Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.