Players' paradise 

The game-playing fever that's currently sweeping Orlando's bars and sound stages is as easy to explain as the popularity of the song "Pennies from Heaven" in 1936: When your financial future looks darker than pitch, it's fun to pretend that instant affluence is within arm's reach.

There's no banking on a 401(k) these days, and as for the broker who sold you all of that WorldCom stock, well, you can't even get him on the phone. So why not throw your hopes behind the prospect of low-risk remuneration for your mastery of arcane knowledge -- or, failing that, your willingness to humiliate yourself physically if the price is right?

You can do a bit of both in Flame and Fortune, the camp quiz show presented Wednesdays at The Parliament House. Hosts Michael Wanzie and Doug Ba'aser lead contestants through several rounds of interrogation in the areas of general information, gay history and local queer culture. All the while, dragged-up spokesmodel Miss Sammy makes like Vanna White on the sidelines. The tone is boozy bawdiness, but the trappings are pure daytime TV: A soundtrack tape includes the theme to forgotten Trebek platform "The Wizard of Odds." Trebek, though, would never countenance "physical challenges" like "Beat the Cock," in which competitors have until a rooster crows to perform certain stunts -- like a blindfolded, room-wide search for a dildo stuffed down the front of Ba'aser's pants. What a great way to meet new people.

The promotion harkens back somewhat to the "Games a Go-Go" spectacles Miss Sammy used to host at Southern Nights, where a different TV prize-fest was sent up each week. (A memorable "Family Feud" parody pitted "Winter Park vs. trailer park.") But as Wanzie points out, those shows were staged revues with minimal audience participation. In contrast, "Flame and Fortune" affords regular Joes and Janes (and those in between) the chance to walk home with $100, or even $250 on special occasions.

The headlining duo comes to the games game naturally: Wanzie once played Muppet quizmaster Guy Smiley in a touring production of "Sesame Street Live." Ba'aser is a tour guide by day, and his job of ferrying British vacationers to Clearwater entails the devising of group diversions. He was also a regular in "Games a Go-Go." ("He played Joan Van Ark a lot," Wanzie recalls.)

Tourists are part of the talent pool for a revival of "Beat the Clock" (note extra consonant, please) that's now taping at Universal Studios Florida for a September airing on the PAX network. Weekly auditions at CityWalk cajole a mixture of out-of-state visitors and annual park passholders to engage in agile tomfoolery for $$$$. Producer Smokey Knudsen says that a favorite routine is "Butt Pens," in which contestants have to write a specific word on an easel "with a magic marker strapped to their tuchis."

The show is the first in a planned series of revivals culled from the Goodson-Todman production library. An initial shoot of 130 episodes should be finished by next month, with a second round of tapings possible should the ratings so warrant. For engaging in activities that are "fun and not all that physically challenging," as Knudsen characterizes, players can win a whopping $25,000.

Now, where did I put that pen?

Maybe it's at the Copper Rocket, where the Wednesday Trivia Madness bouts give writing utensils and cerebella a tandem workout. Teams of players huddle over communal score sheets, scribbling answers to nine rounds' worth of queries posed by master of ceremonies Mandaddy (frontman of the freaky rock unit Gargamel!). Ranging from geography to botany to popular culture, this is data that may actually enhance your intellectual standing, at least within beer bars.

Contestants pay $5 to play, and the winning team takes home the entire pot, which can reach $300. But the real reason to attend is to listen to Mandaddy himself, whose basso-profundo jive talk commands the hushed room like a ghostly emanation from an AM radio in 1962. In between doling out the questions, he drops bons mots like this offhand gem: "Isn't it sad that Sandy Duncan and Left-Eye `Lopez` never got to do a project together?" Now that you mention it ... .

In existence about three months, the show has become so popular that Mandaddy says he is visited regularly by the hosts of other trivia nights that have sprung up around town. (There's a Friday-night face-off at Fairbanks Tavern in Winter Park, among other locales.) But apparently not all of those apprentice Chuck Woolerys allow themselves such wide latitude with their crowds.

"One `host` told me he envies me because I told somebody to suck my ass," Mandaddy says, cheerily. "There's a good rapport between me and the audience."

The vibe is more redolent of the stand-up circuit when Curtis Earth takes the stage five nights per week at local watering holes like the Loaded Hog, Liquid Cellar, Friendly Confines and Devaney's Sports Pub. A vaguely Seinfeldian Pennsylvania emigré who's been in the trivia business since 1993, Earth says he couldn't get a gig in Orlando until the Hog came calling; now, everybody wants some.

The line of questioning Earth pursues rockets without warning from ridiculous giveaways ("Name Woodstock's canine pal") to maddening head-scratchers ("What is the only nation outside of Europe that has sent a team to every single Olympics?" I say we find someone who does know, and beat the snot out of him). You have to win four weeks in a row to reach the prize level of $100, but there's no charge to play. And champs get to strut their stuff on Earth's website,

"Things that we do tonight will be up on the website tomorrow," the clean-cut Earth tells his audience. (I'll take "Things Not to Say on a First Date" for $200, Alex!)

To truly enjoy Orlando's gaming frenzy, though, one has to understand that "winning" is sometimes a relative term.

"We really dumb down the show and make the last `question` very easy," admits "Flame and Fortune's" Wanzie. (A recent example: What is the scientific designation of water?) The proprietors of the Parliament House, he explains, want the word to get around that a Wednesday visit to their premises can mean an easy monetary windfall.

"It's their objective to get people to walk away with money," Wanzie says.

Come to think of it, it's nothing like your 401(k) at all.


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