Last Friday, July 6, Belmont's Susan Cohen was primed to take home the top spot in Jeopardy!, America's most watch daily quiz show and arguably, with "The Wheel of Fortune," the nation's favorite game show of all time.
For many of its millions of loyal fans, the opportunity just to be on stage to hear "This is ... Jeopardy!" be announced, to press the buzzer and answer a question correctly, and to stand with legendary host Alex Trebek – and not just having a opportunity to become a "champion" – would be a lifetime dream accomplished.
But the Dover, New Hampshire native and graduate of Richmond, The American International University in London said that even now, she wouldn't call herself a great fan of the program that has been running in syndication since 1984.
Cohen said while she watched the landmark game show from "time to time, I hadn't seen a lot of the program."
But the director of the Council for the Arts at MIT does enjoy trivia – "sometimes I come up with the strangest facts" – doing crossword puzzles and reads a lot so she was willing to take the on-line test.
In fact, twice before Cohen did well enough online to be asked to come in for a second round of live auditions in Boston.
But both times, she didn't go because she was asked to bring a funny anecdote about herself that would be used on the actual show.
She didn't have one.
"I couldn't think of anything to share," she admitted.
(Last Friday, the fact that she didn't attend the Boston auditions because she didn't have an anecdote was her lighthearted moment for Trebek to discuss.)
But the third time was a charm for Cohen – who moved with her husband five years ago from Watertown to Jeanette Avenue – when last summer she traveled to a Back Bay hotel with 30 other hopefuls to take another general knowledge test and play a round at contestant lecterns with the actual buzzers.
Then ... .
"They said they would get back to me but I heard nothing. So I just waited," said Cohen.
And on Feb. 20, she got the call: come to California.
On Wednesday of the next week, Cohen was in Los Angeles – actually at Sony Studios in Culver City near Santa Monica – with other contestants to prepare to go on the program where a full week of shows are recorded in one day.
"It was a lot like jury duty," she said, as the contestants waited sequestered from family and friends to discourage any chance of assistance.
She credits the staff – "handlers, I suppose" – with making the entire experience "very comfortable. They were great."
And being television, there was the necessary need to apply a good quantity of make-up for the player's moment on a high definition screen.
"People saw me on the show and said how great I looked and I just (laugh)," said Cohen.
Cohen said she doesn't remember being nervous because she was concentrating during the filming.
And just like the show, the program takes just about a half-an-hour to film with a few breaks to re-record host Trebek when he stumbled over a pronunciation.
The actual game is "really, really quick" – just 22 minutes for the game, introductions and a chance for Cohen to record a message for the show's web page. ("Hey Boston, I'm Susan Cohen from Belmont. I work at MIT and I want all my nerdy friends to watch me on Jeopardy!")
Due to the show's fast pace and her focus, Cohen said she didn't remember the questions she provided although to her chagrin the art history major missed a visual arts answer.
But she would come back with a correct Daily Double question to name the famous Edward Hopper 1942 masterpiece depicting people in a late night diner. ("The Nighthawks")
See how you would do answering the questions Cohen faced by going to the website J! Archive.
Cohen didn't remember correctly answering a question that referred to AOL's Patch in the answer. (It's "Moviefone")
What she did recall was Trebek once pointing out in the first round the low scores on the board.
"It was a subtle way of saying, 'Hey, step it up,'" said Cohen.
And Cohen did very well, leading at the first commercial break – midway through the first round of answers – with $2,200 and at the beginning of Double Jeopardy round with $3,600 having correct questions in five of six answers in a category of men with the first name Jimmy (Jimmy's on Top.)
With Final Jeopardy remaining, Cohen and the defending champion, Stephanie Fontaine from Arlington, Virginia, were tied with $11,200 with the final answer in the category "Opera Characters."
Yet the correct question eluded Cohen.
(Cohen's husband in the audience knew the question.)
But even if she had got it right, Cohen's bet would not have matched Fontaine's who placed her entire winnings on her correct answer.
But for Cohen and her husband, the mid-winter trip to California afford them the chance to visit museums and enjoy the weather, with her $2,000 in winnings for taking second place paying for their round-trip flight across the country.
"It was a great deal of fun," said Cohen.
And while she could tell people that work and friends that she was on the show, Cohen could not reveal how she performed or any of the answers or questions used.
"We were on the honor system for about five months," she said.
And last Friday, Cohen, her husband and a dozen friends went out to John Brewer's Tavern in Waltham to see the outcome of the show.
"It was fun until the end, but even then it was great to see how well I did," said Cohen.
As for anyone considering taking the Jeopardy challenge, Cohen says "go for it."
"I say, why not? For me, it was definitely a great experience and something I can say I did."