Noe Valley Voice September 2000

By Suzanne Herel

Ever think that reading the theater reviews in an entertainment magazine could be worth $64,000?

You might if you'd been in the hot seat opposite Regis Philbin, like Jamie Hammond was recently.

The Noe Valley resident had sailed through 11 questions, winning $64,000 on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, when the game show host asked him: "What is the color of the painting that is the focus of the play Art? Pink, gray, black, or white?"

Those watching the show, which aired in late August, might have been willing to guess. But not Hammond.

"Even if you're 90 percent sure when you're at home, there's still a 10 percent chance you're wrong, and there's money on the line," said Hammond, 31, sipping coffee at Martha & Bros. on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Instead of trying to double his money by taking the question, Hammond walked away with his winnings. Good thing, too: The answer was white, but Hammond said he would have guessed black, a move that would have chopped his earnings in half.

He recalled a TimeOut New York magazine he'd bought on arriving in New York--where the show is filmed--to bone up on entertainment trivia. "I didn't turn the page to see the theater reviews," he said. "If I had, maybe I'd have been on the show a little longer."

Still, he has no regrets. He never thought he'd get on the show in the first place. On a lark, Hammond began calling Millionaire's contestant line last April while driving to Palo Alto, where he's a product manager at Alta Vista. He got through about 10 times, and answered the trivia questions correctly about three times, he said. Then he got a call-back, answered those questions right, and finally heard from a live person at the end of June. That's when he started preparing for his television debut.

"I decided if I was going to do this, I wasn't going to mess around," he said. First stop: Barnes and Noble, where he picked up a variety of reference books, including The Order of Things and the People Magazine Almanac. He also played the Millionaire computer game. Then he started assembling people he'd be able to call as one of his "lifelines" on the show. "I wanted to get ringers," he said.

Hammond tracked down the author of The Order of Things; contacted a former professor; chose a group of friends who would be together in a room with a computer; got in touch with a trivia whiz from the Millionaire Internet message board; and talked with the brother of a friend of a friend who was knowledgeable about medicine. "I knew I was weak at arts, literature, science, and medicine," Hammond said. "I was good at sports, pop culture, and geography."

Thus armed, Hammond flew to New York, his hometown, for the tapings on July 26 ­ 27. He was joined by his mother and brother. His fiancée, Charlotte, was in the middle of taking the California Bar exam, so she stayed in San Francisco.

At the ABC studio, a producer coached Hammond on what to wear (no stripes or pastels) and how to approach each question (go with your instincts and talk it out). During taping, he was sequestered. He wasn't allowed to read, write, or call anyone, and most people backstage weren't permitted to talk to him.

"I couldn't even go to the bathroom without an escort," he said.

At the end of his final show, Hammond told the TV audience that he planned to spend his winnings on first-class tickets to Italy for a honeymoon when he and Charlotte wed in October.

"I don't think I'm going to do that now," he said. For now, he's going to hold on to it. And, he said, "I'm going to give some of it to charity."

And his opinion on Regis?

"He's pretty much what you see on TV," he said.