Quiz show creator has an answer for every question


October 28, 1991|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Evening Sun Staff

SOPHIE ALTMAN'S voice carries above the conversation of sleepy parents and noisy students on a recent Saturday morning: "Do we have any cheerleaders? Cheerleaders? Cheerleaders!"

A group of teen-age girls wearing their green and yellow cheerleading outfits and carrying gold pompons parade past Altman, holding open the glass door to a WJZ-Channel 13 studio where "It's Academic," the long-running high school quiz show, will soon be taped.

"The band," she yells. "Where's the band?"

Finally, Altman goes to the "green room" and fetches host Mac McGarry and the taping begins. The credits roll, and the audience, with a little prodding, claps and cheers.

Altman, now executive producer, created "It's Academic" for Washington's WRC-TV 31 years ago -- three years before the popular "Jeopardy!" quiz show made its television debut. She expanded to Baltimore 10 years later, and since then the question-and-answer show has held a loyal following.

Altman says she finds it amazing that the show -- created at the request of high school students wanting an academic program -- is still on the air.

"I never would have believed it would have gone 31 years, and it's still going on," she says. "It's been a wonderful career. You spend hours working on the questions, but it comes to fruition when you go to the taping and the students answer your questions."

The questions used on the show, written by Altman and her four-member staff, are painstakingly researched and double-checked. Altman estimates some 10,000 questions are written for the show every year. At that rate, she and her crew have come up with more than 300,000 brain teasers.

Questions range from the popular to the obscure -- on chemistry, history, literature, mythology, current events, the Bible. A sample:

"In one of his rare successful actions, Union general Ambrose Burnside led the 1862 invasion of what North Carolina island -- the site of England's lost colony in the 16th century?" Answer: Roanoke Island.

Or this one: "The oldest melody to reach No. 1 on Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 was a souped up version of the Fifth Symphony by what classical composer, born in Bonn in 1770?" Answer: Ludwig van Beethoven.

Local high schools that field the show's teams take the game show seriously. Many recognize the show (which can be seen Saturday at 11 a.m. on Channel 13) as an official extra-curricular activity, sponsoring "It's Academic" clubs, hosting scrimmages among one another to prepare for the show's actual taping. Students try out for the team, buy "It's Academic" quiz books, hold after-school practices, formulate questions and memorize answers, practicing with the same zeal as athletes preparing for a big game.

At stake is scholarship money from Giant Food (from $250 to $1,000 per show) and the right to be known as the champion of the "It's Academic Superbowl," a showdown at the end of the season among Washington- and Baltimore-area schools. Teams compete in different rounds before making it to the Superbowl.

Altman has always had her hand in creating and producing teen-oriented TV shows, among them "Teen Talk," a discussion program that aired on WRC-TV for 10 years, and "Report Card for Parents," a program teaching parents how to rear their children. It ran on WRC-TV as well as WNBC in New York.

"She's a very important person in doing programs for young people," says "It's Academic" host McGarry, who's been with the show ever since it started. "She's been doing this for generations."

"It's amazing how much they know," Altman says of the 14- to 18-year-olds who participate in the show. "You read so much about our schools [deteriorating] and you watch these students and you marvel at them. You do a program and they're so quick and responsive and they're such nice kids."

After all these years, what keeps Altman going is the enthusiasm of the students and the dedication of the teachers. "I've had teachers cry when they win and just feel sunk when they lose," she says. "They're very involved with their students."

During a recent preliminary match among Wilde Lake, Frederick and Woodlawn high schools, Altman stays alert. Besides everything else, she is the official scorekeeper. Nothing gets past her during these matches, not even the pronunciation of names.

At one point, a Frederick High School contestant adds an extra syllable to the answer of the following question: "The phrase, 'the first to defy and the first to die' was used to describe what black man who, along with four other men, was shot to death in the 1770 Boston Massacre?' "

The reply is "Atticus," and immediately associate producer Joel Kemelhor, who sits next to Altman, yells for the taping to stop. It's an incorrect answer, he says, and Altman and he march to the studio room to double-check that the contestant didn't say the correct answer, (Crispus) Attucks.

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