'Jeopardy!' crew seeks clues in Cleveland

By Michael K. McIntyre | The Plain Dealer Published:

CLEVELAND -- They rode in a black van. Stealth black. It moved like a secret.

Breezing past security at the gates of the NASA Glenn Research Center, the stretch van and a nondescript box truck carrying high-tech equipment and a half dozen specialists eased to a stop.

The crew filed into a building -- we can't tell you which one -- and immediately descended the back stairs to a secluded room used for high-tech experiments.

What was said there is classified. Otherwise, the integrity of "Jeopardy!" would be in jeopardy.

The unit known as the "Clue Crew" chose NASA Glenn for the backdrop of a series of space flight-related answers and questions that will be aired on shows this fall. Producer Brett Schneider and "Clue Crew" question askers Kelly Miyahara and Sarah Whitcomb Foss traveled to a variety of locales at NASA Wednesday to film "Jeopardy!" answers. The two on-camera stars flashed smiles, on cue, as wide as the doors on the iconic NASA hangar behind them. A half-dozen cameras and sound professionals set up at each spot. "With all of these cameras, I wish we were shooting a shuttle launch or something," said Schneider.

The crew was headed recently to other locales in Cleveland, though Schneider asked that they remain secret to protect the integrity of the game. Contestants, conceivably, could study a finite pool of information such as "Rock Hall Inductees," for example. (The Rock Hall was not one of the locales.) They didn't count on the U.S.S. Cod sending out a press release. The other venues still are classified.

"Jeopardy!" invited a few journalists along, but swore them to secrecy on the clues and even the specific topics. They got to watch the on-air talent cut promos such as: "Clues from Cleveland! On the next 'Jeopardy!'" and "Clues that are out of this world, on the next 'Jeopardy!'"

And they helpfully provided a "press" clue -- a.k.a. a fake question that will never be on the show -- suitable for filming and quoting:

A: "The facility that's now NASA Glenn Research Center developed the Centaur Rocket, which sent the Surveyor space probe here from 1966 to 1968, before humankind got there."

Q: Ask Arthur Chu?

No, come on, it's literally a dummy question.

Q: What is, the moon?

Correct!

Miyahara and Whitcomb Foss took some time out to talk about life on "Jeopardy!" In addition to being on-air talent, they act as ambassadors for the show. They've traveled to every state, 48 countries and all seven continents to deliver clues for the show.

"I have the greatest job in the world," said Miyahara, who won the job nine years ago after answering a nationwide casting call. A former teacher, she'd been managing a Nordstrom in The Grove in LA before "Jeopardy!"

Whitcomb Foss was a morning anchor at a TV station in Traverse City, Mich., when she got the "Clue Crew" job 14 years ago.

"The job takes us places we really never dreamed of visiting," said Miyahara.

"Antarctica," Whitcomb Foss answered when asked about her favorite trip. "Traveling someplace few people ever get to go. Getting the chance to go there as a part of my job. ... The incredible icebergs. Seeing penguins and whales in their natural habitat."

They've learned a lot in their years on the show, but still not enough to inspire confidence with a buzzer in hand.

"People always think we know every answer, or I should say every question, to every piece of trivia in the world," said Miyahara. "But I've got to say it's very humbling. I wouldn't do well on the show as a contestant, I'm sorry to tell you."

Whitcomb replied: "It's all about the categories. Some days when I'm watching in the studio I feel like a total 'Jeopardy!' champ. Other days not so much."

She says she's strong in pop culture, particularly pop music, and history.

And what about Alex Trebek. Prickly pear or teddy bear?

"He's a teddy bear," said Whitcomb Foss. "At a recent 30th season wrap party, tears came to his eyes."

There. We pried out one secret.

For the rest, you'll have to catch the show.

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