This UMass Lowell librarian (and Manning School alum) is competing on 'Jeopardy!'
The caller ID on Ellen Keane's phone said "Sony Pictures." Her first instinct was to ignore it, but...what if it was a focus group for a new movie coming out? She answered the call, thinking she might get some free movie tickets out of the deal.
“Hey Ellen, it’s ‘Jeopardy!’ calling,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “We’d like to have you come out and be on the show.”
Keane, who has worked as a librarian at the university for 19 years and earned her MBA from the Manning School of Business in 2009, had almost forgotten that she’d auditioned for “Jeopardy!” back in May in Boston. It was now late August, and the producers wanted her to fly out to Los Angeles to be on the game show ... in three weeks.
“It was quite a surprise,” says Keane, who got to work studying “everything that there is to know” while one of her sisters, Kathleen, took care of booking the flights and hotel.
How did Keane do on the show? She can’t say. Her first (and hopefully not only) episode will air the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and she’s sworn to secrecy until then. Keane, who is from Dedham and now lives in Stoneham, plans to get together with family to watch herself on television – along with millions of other viewers across the country who will be “elbow deep in gravy,” as Keane puts it, getting ready for Thanksgiving.
“It was all such a blur,” Keane says of her appearance on the show. “But it was really, really fun.”
Keane considers herself a “Jeopardy!” fan, but she didn’t really think she’d end up standing on stage with host Alex Trebek when she took the show’s 50-question online test last winter. Of the 80,000 people that take the test each year, Keane learned, only about 3,500 get an audition.
“I just thought it might be fun to take the test as a little challenge, to see how it goes,” she says. “When you watch the show, there are days when you’re like, 'Oh my god, I know everything.' And then there’s other days when I know nothing. The categories can be so random.”
As winter turned to spring, Keane hadn’t heard anything. She’d registered with an old email address that she rarely uses, however. When she checked it, she saw that she’d been invited to audition in Boston – but that she’d missed the deadline. She responded anyway and apologized for missing the email. Fortunately, there was still room for her, the organizers said.
At the audition, Keane and about 60 other hopefuls took two written tests before participating in a mock version of the show complete with the game board and buzzers. They even did the little get-to-know-you interviews like Trebek does with contestants on the show.
“They wanted to know if you’d be too nervous to be on TV or if you’d speak clearly,” says Keane, who thought she did well at the audition but still wasn’t getting her hopes up. “I was pretty sure that was the end of my ‘Jeopardy!’ road.”
Then came the fateful phone call three months later.
“I’m glad I was at home when I got the call, because I didn’t want to say anything about it to people in the office,” says Keane, who is head of access and technical services for the UML Library. “There’s no guarantee that they’ll definitely put you on. What if I got there and I passed out the second I saw Alex Trebek?”
Keane wasn’t sure what to study first.
“I learned all the world capitals, but there are a lot of countries on this earth,” Keane says with a laugh. “It’s amazing. When you suddenly need to cram all the world knowledge in three weeks, there’s so much. I thought, 'Wow, I should have been paying so much more attention to every single thing all the time.'”
Keane is humble about her smarts (“Seriously, I know nothing. I don’t know how it happened.”), but her résumé tells a different story: She was captain of a team that won the annual Massachusetts Library Association trivia contest five times.
Keane says it was “surreal” to walk on the set of the Sony Studios in Culver City, where she was struck by how “welcoming and friendly” everyone was – from the production crew, to the makeup artists, to her fellow contestants, to Trebek himself.
“I’m so glad I got an opportunity to meet him,” Keane says of Trebek, who is continuing to host the show while he battles pancreatic cancer. “He’s just such a nice man. He’s really incredible.”
Keane, who worked in local cable access television before becoming a librarian, also took a keen interest in the microphones and high-definition cameras used on the show. When she told the makeup artists (“Sandy and Lisa, the nicest ladies”) that she’d like red lipstick, she learned that they don’t use it on the show because the high-def cameras make it look blue.
“They said they’d get as close to red as they can,” says Keane, who had her sister Kathleen cheering her on in the studio audience.
“She’s a big fan of the show, so she was excited to go,” Keane says. “She turned it into a little vacation for us.”
They were joined in California by their other sister, Nora, and ended the week at Disneyland.
“So no matter how it went on the show,” Keane says, “the trip was going to end on a happy note.”