Trivial pursuit: Brandon is home to multiple former Jeopardy! contestants


(L to R) Steven Jupiter, Cecil Reniche-Smith, and Jeff Haylon hail from different places and all competed on Jeopardy! at different times and somehow found themselves in the same small town in Vermont. Though none of them won the game, they enjoyed reminiscing about the experience. Trivia still plays a central role in Haylon’s life: he hosts Friday trivia night at Red Clover in Brandon and competes in the Rec Department/Library’s Sunday trivia contests as well.

BRANDON—And the answer is: Three.

Question: What is the number of Brandon residents who have appeared on the television quiz show Jeopardy?

Cecil Reniche-Smith, Steven Jupiter, and Jeff Haylon all appeared as contestants on the iconic show. Cecil’s episode aired in 1989, Steven’s in 1997, and Jeff’s in 2012. Cecil and Steven were standard contestants, while Jeff was a 15-year-old competing in that year’s Teen Tournament.

Jeopardy in its current format premiered in 1984 with Alex Trebek as host and Johnny Gilbert as announcer. Trebek hosted the show until his death in 2020. Gilbert serves as the show’s announcer to this day. (He is currently 95 years old.) Until 2002, second- and third-place contestants were awarded consolation prizes, while first-place finishers kept their winnings and returned to defend their title. Today, a cash stipend is the consolation prize. 

And by the way, you cannot simply wander up and appear on Jeopardy. To be clear, you are selected to appear on Jeopardy through a rigorous screening process. You must take a test and achieve a minimum score. If you pass, you are invited to and must perform to some unknown standard at a mock version of the show. You are perhaps evaluated on camera readiness, wit, reflexes, intelligence, style, grace under pressure… Who’s to say? Only the producers know the precise combination they’re seeking that will ensure a competitive match as well as good television. Then, you will be notified by a representative from the show that you have been selected to appear. Or you won’t be notified at all ever.

Show biz, am I right?

All three of our Brandonites experienced a version of that process. When Cecil and Steven decided to give it a shot, tests were in person, periodic, and sporadically located. Steven, because of timing, paid to fly from New York to Los Angeles just to take the test. Cecil, however, lived in California at the time, and drove 15 minutes to the studio in order to take the test. Currently, one can take a Jeopardy online test at one’s own convenience, as Jeff did, then wait and hope for an invitation to a next-level gathering of potential candidates. When his invitation came, Jeff traveled to New York to take another test and do that mock version of the show. He recalled, “I got a question wrong and made some pun about it, and everyone laughed. Even the parents. That’s when I knew I had clinched it.”

What motivates someone to audition for Jeopardy? The only common denominator for all three is that they were fans of the show. Cecil had a self-proclaimed “garbage-can mind” and lived near the studio, so why not? At Jeff’s house, Jeopardy was a regular family event. He had seen many, many episodes and knew he wanted to appear on it. And Steven’s mother, who was terminally ill, was an enormous fan of the show. 

“And I thought, well, what more could I do to cheer her up than to go on her favorite show?” he said.

But notification that you have actually been selected for the show may take some time. For Cecil and Jeff, test day to tape day was a full year. Steven’s experience was shorter: his episode taped only three months after the test.

Our contestants’ preparation methods varied. 

“I didn’t prep,” recalled Cecil. “I mean, other than just watching a lot of Jeopardy.” 

Steven was in his final year of law school at the time and was receiving help from his classmates there. He said, “I was really good with the hard stuff, and the more arcane and obscure the better.” His game plan was to focus more deeply on the stuff he already knew, and not clutter his mind with lots of new information. 

Jeff employed a similar strategy, although with the help of his family he drilled for hours a day for several weeks on actual past questions from the show, even using a clicky pen as the “buzzer.”

And then you go to California. Because five episodes are taped on the same day, you must bring five changes of clothes in case you win. You pay for your own flight and put yourself up in a hotel. Except for Jeff, who, because he was invited to participate in the teen tournament, was flown out with his parents on the show’s expense. And except for Cecil, who, because she lived close by, simply drove to the studio again.

Game day! Everyone played well, remaining competitive until the absolute end. Each person had an opportunity on a Daily Double question. Jeff answered his question correctly, concerning Russian Czars, but unfortunately it came so early in the game that he couldn’t really capitalize on it. Both Cecil and Steven correctly answered their questions in the second round (“What are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon?” and “What is A River Runs Through It?,” respectively), and both answers propelled them in momentum and put them in good positions at the end of the game.

By Final Jeopardy, Jeff was too far behind to win the game. Had he answered his question correctly, though, he may have amassed enough to propel him into the semifinals of the tournament. Cecil missed hers as well. All three contestants did so on her episode. If she had answered correctly, she would have won. Steven did answer correctly but didn’t wager enough on Final Jeopardy or his Daily Double. Had he been more aggressive with his wagers, he would have won as well.

The show goes by so fast, the stage is as vast as we see it on television, breaks in play are timed exactly to coincide with commercials, a light in the studio indicates when contestants can buzz in after a question is read, and when you lose you are quickly shown the door.

And Alex Trebek? Apparently, he was not the warmest of people, but Jeff contextualized by saying, “For anyone going on that show, it’s one of the most significant days of their lives. For him, it’s Tuesday.”

Steven won a trip to Barbados, which he wasn’t ever able to take but had to pay taxes on. Cecil won “the world’s ugliest watch.” Jeff’s consolation prize was $5,000. Minus taxes, of course.

And then you go home. Though your high school classmates seem to understand you a little more, or at least tolerate you a little more. You regret the green dress you wore, but looking back, it was fun. And then one day you’re on the subway going home after law school and some guy cannot stop staring at you. Thankfully, his stop arrives before yours and he exits the train. But then he suddenly turns, points, looks you squarely in the eye and shouts, “Jeopardy!”

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