NEWS- Genesis of <i>Jeopardy!</i> Who is Julann Griffin?
In covering the death of talk show host and show business mogul Merv Griffin, news outlets the world over credited him with inventing one of the most enduring television shows of all time: Jeopardy!
They were partly right: the idea for Jeopardy! came from a Griffin, but it wasn't Merv.
As Griffin, who died August 12 of prostate cancer, wrote in his 2003 autobiography, when he needed an original game show idea in 1963, he turned to his wife for an answer and found that she offered him the right question.
Today a Palmyra resident, Julann Griffin– she and Merv divorced in 1976– found inspiration in a scandal that had just rocked the fledgling game show world and later inspired the Ralph Fiennes-John Turturro film, Quiz Show.
"We were on a plane from my hometown of Ironwood, Michigan back to New York, and Merv was writing on a pad of paper and said he was trying to come up with a new game show," says Julann.
A 1959 Congressional investigation had blown the lid off the scandal that had made the public and FCC reluctant to trust another knowledge-based game show: a show called Twenty One was supplying its most telegenic contestants with the correct answers.
"So I said, 'Just give all the contestants the answers,'" recalls Julann.
By his own account in Merv: Making the Good Life Last, Griffin initially thought it was only an "offhand remark," but Julann soon demonstrated she was serious by engaging her husband in a rapid-fire answer-and-question session.
"I said, 'The answer is 5,280,' and he said, 'How many feet are in a mile?'
"I said, 'The answer is 52 Wistful Vista,' and he said, 'Where did Fibber McGee and Molly live?'"
By the time they touched down in the Big Apple, Merv and Julann had enough of a concept to call a meeting of Griffin's creative partners in his office, and Jeopardy! was born. After a year of development in which Julann did everything from writing clues to composing the original theme music (but not the famous "thinking music" Merv composed later– earning him an estimated $80 million in royalties!), the program was ready to be pitched to the networks. As Merv had predicted, it was a tough sell, but not for the reasons he thought.
"NBC flipped for the idea, but they thought the questions were too hard," Julann says. "But then, they were network executives, so of course they would think it was too hard. So we made the questions easier and easier until they said it was ready to air."
On March 30, 1964, the Griffins made television history when Art Fleming hosted the first episode of Jeopardy! Although the marriage ended in 1976, more than 40 years and thousands of episodes (hosted by Alex Trebek since 1984) have secured a place for the game show in American popular culture.
On the strength of the program, Merv went on to build Merv Griffin Enterprises, a television empire that included his own long-running talk show as well as mega-hits Wheel of Fortune and Dance Fever.
Julann's career in fun and games went on as well. In the early 1990s, with her sister, Maureen Roberts, she founded Jam Productions, which later merged with filmmaker Temple Fennell's Boxer Films as Boxerjam, an online gaming company sold to Media General in 2003.
The sum the Daily Progress's parent company paid for the dot-com company was undisclosed, but it's safe to say it did not rival the $250 million the Coca-Cola Company shelled out for Merv Griffin Enterprises in 1986. Julann says she saw nary a cent from that transaction and that she's "a little bit" bothered that many of her ex-husband's obituaries haven't mentioned her role in creating his biggest hit.
"It's a leftover from the days when women were just in the kitchen and expected not to take the credit," she says, "but I think we're outgrowing that, and I've just had to move on."
For his part, Los Angeles Times reporter Dennis McLellan says a lack of column inches is the reason he didn't include Julann's Jeopardy! role in his summation of Merv's life.
"You just couldn't get into too much detail, and he developed the idea into the show itself," McLellan explains, "but she was certainly involved in the creation of the thing."
In spite of the slight, Julann still has warm memories of her former husband.
"When he would walk through a crowd, he was interested in everybody," she says. "Everyone from kings and queens to scullery maids, he knew how to relate to all of them and loved talking to them. It was a pleasure to be a part of that."
Never one to rest on her laurels, Julann continues to develop ideas for all manner of games. Still, she says she experiences a certain fondness every time she sees Jeopardy!
"It's like a mother cat with her kitten," she explains. "She takes good care of it and raises it, and then one day swats it and lets it go."