There’s moments in life where one decision can take you in a totally different direction and change the course of your life for good or bad. I had a real Twilight Zone/It’s A Wonderful Life moment in November of 1985. I’ve told this story many times and most recently on the Greg and Dan show on WMBD, but it needs to be told again today, so here we go.
Vic Burnett: The Weatherman Who Changed My Life
Back in 1985, Greg Owens and I created a satirical game called, “Trivial Trivia, The Idiot Edtion.” It was a send-up of Trivial Pursuit, which was all the rage at the time. I thought of the idea and wrote the questions and Greg designed it and handled the business end of things. We thought it was a pretty funny idea, the only problem was that the business community didn’t get the joke, except for one weatherman, who happened to change my life. I’ve told this story countless times, but it bears repeating today and at the end of the story I’ll tell you why.
After Greg and I had the games printed up, we found out that not everyone got the joke. Basically the game was a deck of cards with moronic questions like: “Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb?” And: “How many members were in the original Jackson 5?” It was a satire of Trivial Pursuit which was huge at the time.
After the game was printed and boxed up, Greg and I took two days off from work, to set out and sell games. We printed up 300 of them and we were fairly confident we could sell the first batch easily.
The first place I went to was Bogard’s Drug Store on Glen. I shopped there regularly and thought maybe they’d recognize me and be the first store to stock it. I walked in, asked a young red-haired girl who was stocking shelves, if I could see the manager. She told me he was in the back room and I could just walk right in and see him. So I dutifully walked back and saw an craggy-faced, old man hunched over a gray metal, folding table. He was just standing there, so I waved and said, “Hi, are you the manager?”
The scowl on his geriatric face grew even bigger and he growled, “What do you want?”
I walked into the room and to the other side of the table and stuck out my hand and said, “My name’s Marty Wombacher, I shop in here regularly, maybe you’ve seen me in here?”
He barely shook my hand and spat out, “I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
Things weren’t going as well as I had hoped, but I gingerly and confidentally moved on to the sales pitch. I handed him the game and started telling him how this was a satire of Trivial Pursuit and that it would make a fun stocking stuffer and about halfway into my smooth sales pitch he said in a level just below screaming, “These questions are too easy, anybody can answer them.” Then he thrust the game back into my hands, as if it was a ticking time bomb he was trying to get rid of as quickly as possible.
I tried to explain to him that it was a satire, a joke, but he cut me off and now he was at a screaming level and he shouted out, “It’s not funny, now get out of here.”
Wow, talk about your “Death of a Salesman” moments. And it just got worse with each sales call. No one got it. And I was starting to think that maybe they were right. Maybe it was just stupid and Greg and I were the idiots for thinking it was funny. It felt exactly like that sinking feeling when you tell a joke to a group of people and their faces suddenly turn into Mount Rushmore.
The second day was a repeat of the day before. Nobody thought it was funny and nobody bought it. After about five stops, I decided I’d try one more and then call it quits. I went to the gift shop in the Pere Marquette Hotel in downtown Peoria and was shocked to see local weatherman, Vic Burnett standing behind the counter.
I pointed and said, “You’re Vic Burnett!”
He smiled and said, “That’s me alright.”
“What are you doing here?” I questioned him, I was suprised there wasn’t a map behind him with clouds and storm warnings!
“This is my gift shop,” he explained.
“But you’re a weatherman,” I shot back in quizzical tones.
He cocked an eyebrow and said, “I can do two things, you know!”
I laughed and handed him the game and dove right into my sales pitch. Vic started looking at the cards and immediately started laughing. I looked up to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Nope, he continued to read cards and howl with laughter. He was the only store-owner that got it. All of a sudden my confidence was back, Jack!
“It’s so cool to see you laughing at the game,” I happily told him. “No other store owner got the joke.”
“This is hilarious!” he said in between guffaws.
I cut right to the chase.
“So how many do you think you’d like for your store?” I asked while looking at the glass cases and imagining the games inside of one of them.
And then, the laughter died and the shoe dropped.
Vic looked a little pained and said, “To tell you the truth, I’ve spent my Christmas budget already. Maybe after the new year.”
No! I was so close, but yet so far away. I felt as dejected as William Hayes in “Midnight Express” when he learns his sentence has been changed to life in a Turkish prison. Except I didn’t have any hashish to ease the pain. I stood there wallowing in a deep sea of depression, when Vic Burnett said the following life-changing words.
He held the box up and said: “Do you think I could have this? I know a guy who would love it!”
So now not only was he not buying a single copy, he wanted one for free! The cheap son-of-a-bitch! I couldn’t believe it! At first I was going to say no, but after a few seconds, I just waved at him and said, “Yeah, keep it, I don’t care anymore.”
I was broken.
Then I walked outside to my car, drove home and called Greg. He hadn’t had any luck either. I remember saying to him that I didn’t think it was going to work and we should figure out what to do with the 300 games.
I felt a combination of embarassment, stupidity and depression swirling around inside of me. One thing was for sure, I’d never do anything like that again in my life. Then a funny thing happened the next morning.
I was at work and a co-worker came in really excited and ran over to me.
“Gene Konrad was playing your trivia game on his show,” he excitedly spat out.
Gene Konrad was a disc jockey who had a popular morning show on WIRL. I didn’t give him a copy and we hadn’t sold any, so I was sure my co-worker was either teasing me or he had it wrong.
“No way,” I told him, “how could he have a game, we couldn’t get them into any store, so no one has a copy.
“Well, he said the name of the game, was asking the same questions and said that on the back of the box it said it was made in Peoria and he wanted to know who made the game.”
Okay, now I was intrigued.
“What time is his show over?” I asked my co-worker.
“Nine o’clock, I think,” he answered.
“Okay, thanks,” I told him and he went his way and I started working with one eye on the clock. At 9:01 I called the station and spoke to Gene Konrad.
He told me the phone had been ringing off the wall and that people wanted to know where they could buy one. I told him my sad tale of being rejected by every store owner and Gene asked if Greg and I would like to be on his show. Nervously I agreed and he told me to go back to the stores, tell them we’d give them a free plug on the show if they’d stock it. It sounded like a plan. Then I asked the following question: “How did you get a copy of the game?”
“My friend Vic Burnett gave it to me and said it might be fun to play it on my show,” Gene explained.
A chill ran down my spine remembering that I almost didn’t give it to him.
Most of you know what happened, but in quick succession, the following things happened. We got the games stocked in stores by telling then we’d plug the store on Gene’s show. We did the show, it went great and stores sold out of the game that day. We did some other morning radio shows, then were featured on the local TV news and then The Bloomington Pantagraph ran a story about us on their front page. A U.P.I. wire service writer in Washington who was from Bloomington and subscribed to that paper, saw it, called us at work, interviewed us and it went out on a nationwide wire to newspapers, radio stations and TV shows. The next day Good Morning America mentioned the game, radio stations from all over the country started calling us for interviews and then the Today Show called and wanted to book us for the second week in January!
We got flown out to New York and we were interviewed by Jane Pauley. I remember walking around New York with Greg and saying, “You know, I’d like to live out here someday.”
And seven years later I moved there. All because Vic Burnett gave the game to Gene Konrad.
If that game would’ve tanked, I never would’ve done future projects that led to me doing my own magazine for three years, which led me to meet Dick Stolley, a former Pekinite who was the founding editor of People magazine who asked me why I wasn’t living in New York. About a week later, I yanked my pension plan and on July 7, 1993 I moved into my first apartment in Manhattan.
All because Vic Burnett gave the game to Gene Konrad.
The hair still stands up on my neck when I wonder what my life would be like if I hadn’t had given Vic the game.
The funny thing is, I never saw Vic Burnett again.
I told this story on the Greg and Dan show last week and at break, Dan got up and came back with Vic’s son, Chris. Chris is a Marketing Consultant for jmp radio group, and WMBD, which broadcasts the Greg and Dan show is part of the group. Dan introduced me and I asked how his dad was doing. He said he was doing great and I told Chris I’d love to have lunch and thank his dad for that life-changing moment.
Well, Chris arranged the lunch date and below are pictures from this magical reunion!
This is where the drug store used to be. It's now a store called Random. I'll have to do a post from here one of these days.
Okay, let's go find this place!
Wow, those are massive doors, let's go in and see if the Burnett's are here!
And here they are, Vic and Chris Burnett!
Reunited and it feels so good! It was great to see Vic after 26 years and tell him what an impact he had on my life by giving Gene Konrad the Idiot Trivia game. Without Vic, you wouldn't be reading this blog right now, because I never would have done another creative thing in my life had he not given the game to Gene Konrad.
It was great to see Vic after all these years and tell him what an impact he had on my life, he had no idea. Thanks to Chris for setting up this holiday lunch! Cheers to you all and to life-changing moments!