At 7:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday, Daren and Jen Cassani are bent over a laptop in the DJ booth at Nectar's in Burlington, putting the final touches on their quiz. They're making sure the PowerPoint pages won't pop up at the wrong time, inadvertently revealing an answer. If the Cassanis were schoolteachers, a slip-up like that might go over well with their students. But they're preparing their lessons for a much tougher crowd: pub quizzers. You don't want to piss off this rowdy bunch.
The Cassanis own Top Hat Entertainment, a company that does everything from DJing parties to providing giant, inflatable boxing gloves to fraternities. They've been impresarios of Trivia Mania for three and a half years, and I've been a regular for three of them. Tonight, as always, my boyfriend James and I are eager to test our trivia mettle, along with our friends Pat and Brian.
Handing out specially prepared answer sheets - which she'll also correct and score - Jen tells me this job isn't all fun and games. "We have a deadline every Thursday, but we also have a ton of other deadlines for the other things we have going on," she says. "It would be great if we [Top Hat] just had trivia, and that's all we had to worry about, but this weekend we have probably 30 gigs happening." With wedding and graduation season in full swing, the couple hasn't had much down time.
The pub quiz, such as Trivia Mania, is a growing international phenomenon. In the mid-'90s, pubs in Britain began using them to drum up business. Quizzes proved a sound investment, a cheap way to bring in a more rarefied clientele who might normally be at home reading. Like the one at Nectar's, most trivia nights take two hours, with seven rounds of 10 questions each. A bar employee or hired MC asks each question over the microphone, and patrons jot down their answers. The winners of each round get prizes such as T-shirts and free alcohol, while the overall winner nets a larger reward. This week, we're competing for free passes to the Harpoon Championships of New England Barbecue.
We begin with the usual Miscellaneous round, a potpourri to get everyone in the mood. Questions range from "What are the two most valuable pieces in Scrabble?" to "Forrest Mars and Bruce Murrie introduced what product in 1941, a WWII G.I. favorite?" My team of four knows that Q and Z are the most valuable letters. James deduces that Mars and Murrie were M&M, inventors of the candy that melts in your mouth, not in your battle-worn hand. We score nine out of 10, as do a few other teams. Others score only one or two points. Many will leave, frustrated, before the game is over.
Trivia Mania isn't just about what you know, but what you can learn - the M&M question being a case in point. In the next round, which is all about detectives real and fictional, Daren asks, "Bing Crosby was an early choice, but when he said no, Peter Falk inherited what role?" Of course, we know that Peter Falk is Columbo, but who knew that der Bingles had almost worn that storied trench coat?
Most bars with quizzes buy questions prepared by large companies and sent all over the world. When I contacted Church Street's Irish-themed pub, Rí Rá, to ask about the source of its Tuesday-night quiz, the manager was as ignorant as I was. He referred me to the corporate offices, but after talking with three other people, I remained unenlightened.
The Cassanis found their market niche when they noticed a problem with mass-produced trivia questions. "One of them may be, 'What's the capital of Vermont?' - but you can't ask that," Jen says. "Maybe in California or in another country, it would be a hard question." The couple write their own quizzes and have even come up with "Vermont rounds" featuring questions about the minutiae of local geography.
Trivia Mania got going in 2005 when the owner of Nectar's offered the Cassanis a 12-week trial run. Top Hat now hosts four pub quizzes in the Champlain Valley, not to mention trivia quizzes for wedding parties, corporations and schools.
Daren has owned Top Hat Entertainment since 1996, and before that ran a small, independent DJ company. He got to know Jen when she worked across the street from the Top Hat offices at the Vermont Bed Store, so the courtship began surrounded by mattresses. The only small crimp: Daren's father was Jen's high school guidance counselor. Jen says, laughing, "I probably would have made some different choices in life, if I had known he'd be my father-in-law."
The couple soon joined forces, combining the skills Jen gained with her Champlain College business degree and Daren's experience as an entertainer and salesman. In 2004, Jen bought out the other partners, making Top Hat fully Cassani-owned. Trivia forces the pair to take their work home with them in a whole new way. "It gets frustrating when we're here all day working on other aspects of the business, and we get home and realize now we have to work on trivia," Jen says good-naturedly. Stress aside, the couple's interactions are affectionate and display the easy rapport of compatible people.
Jen and Daren both admit it's tough to dig up 70 to 80 new questions each week, but bar patrons would never know. In the recent game, my team is deep into round three - traditionally the music round, in which teams must identify title and artist of songs played over the loudspeaker. This week's theme: "Bad Songs." As the uplifting strains of Europe's classic "Final Countdown" resound, my teammate Brian observes, "Four out of four of these songs are awesome." The other players seem to agree, singing along.
Daren taught himself PowerPoint to add visual appeal to Trivia Mania, and the tool allows him to offer a movie round. One of the most popular features, it showcases clips from 10 films, each with two questions attached. In tonight's round, "Macho Movies and Chick Flicks," we're asked to recall the hometown of Meg Ryan's character in Sleepless in Seattle and name the film in which an obscure Jean-Claude Van Damme clip originates. With close to 180 individual quizzes in the can, the Cassanis have watched plenty of flicks over the last few years. Daren says their aim is "to build an atmosphere. We want movie clips that are going to be recognizable and people are going to enjoy, or [that] bring them back to high school when they saw that movie."
Many teams are 10 or more strong. Tonight, one table of 11 appears to include three generations of one family. One large team of frequent competitors is all lesbian; another is composed entirely of postal workers. I ask Daren what unites these diverse trivia hounds. "It's people who like to get away for a couple of hours," he speculates. "They can't stay out till 2 in the morning, and it's a way to see their friends and have a little break from the job they've been doing all week."
Jen chimes in: "All the postal workers, they tell us all the time, 'We cannot wait till Thursday. We get a break, it's so great.'"
There are more groans of disappointment than squeals of delight after the difficult Literature round. Few people knew that John Tenniel illustrated Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Fewer still were aware that E.H. Shepard drew the original pictures of Winnie-the-Pooh. At least, my team didn't know. We merit five points out of 10 and start to worry we could be out of the running for that Harpoon barbecue. (Luckily, here at Nectar's it's the $8.50 all-you-can-eat chicken-and-ribs night, and James and I have torn through two plates of the former and three racks of the latter.)
Winning may be sweet, but trivia night is also about relaxing with friends. When I ask Daren which questions he most enjoys writing, he says comics, baseball and "Star Trek," but he's quick to add: "The kind of questions I like are the ones that get the teams arguing amongst themselves. 'How many presidents have there been after Kennedy?' - and people count on their fingers and argue. I like when people argue about it, decide on an answer, and put it down - and then I read it and they're wrong. We're there to create that atmosphere where people are yelling at each other, but it's really all about the fun of the game."
I can't disagree. Sure, it bolsters the ego to win Trivia Mania, as we do tonight by just one point. But it's not about the buckets of Harpoon schwag and the Jäger shots. (Our home is littered with free T-shirts and shot glasses we will never use.) It's about experiencing the unique culture of pub quiz, united by nerdiness. For autodidacts like us, without degrees, holding our own at trivia night proves we can hang with the doctors and lawyers of the world. They, in turn, can show they know as much about "Magnum, P.I." as the gastro-intestinal system.
In failure, we never forget the answer we missed, and in victory, we never forget our friends.
Top Hat Trivia Mania can be played Thursdays, 7:30-9:30 p.m., at Nectar's, Burlington; Tuesdays, 8-10 p.m., at Geoffrey's Pub, Plattsburgh, N.Y.; Tuesdays, 8-10 p.m., at Mulligan's Irish Pub, Barre; and Wednesdays, 8-10 p.m., at McGillicuddy's Irish Pub, Montpelier.