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The lost Jeopardy tapes: the 40-year mystery behind an enigmatic champion

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

In its many decades on air, "Jeopardy!" has had lots of notable contestants. But one in particular has been the topic of much lore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARBARA LOWE VOLLICK: Presidential trivia for 600.

ALEX TREBEK: The answer this time is the Daily Double.

PFEIFFER: That's Barbara Lowe Vollick competing on the show in 1986. She won five games in a row, which was a rare feat at the time. But despite that success, her appearances seemed to have vanished from the "Jeopardy!" archives and in syndicated reruns. So rumors have swirled for years among "Jeopardy!" superfans about what happened to Lowe Vollick and why - until now. Journalist Claire McNear recently located and spoke with Lowe Vollick. She's written about that conversation in a new piece for The Ringer, and it fills in some of the details of this game show mystery. Hi, Claire.

CLAIRE MCNEAR: Hi there. It's so great to be here.

PFEIFFER: Would you describe what made Barbara Lowe Vollick such a mysterious figure?

MCNEAR: Yeah, it was an interesting sort of saga. I mean, the first thing that happened was she won five games, which, at the time, was the limit for returning champions. And it qualified players for a berth in the upcoming Tournament of Champions, where they have all their best recent players come back and face each other. And she didn't show up in that. And that was a few months after her initial appearance. So there were a number of fans who found that sort of mysterious.

And then, what happened over the course of the '90s in particular is a lot of "Jeopardy!" executives began to sort of speak poorly of her in public. Trebek gave an interview in the 1990s where he said that she had essentially lied about her identity and that she'd been on all these other game shows, which, at the time, was not allowed. There was a former "Jeopardy!" producer who wrote a book and, you know, repeated Trebek's claims and also added that Lowe had mocked other contestants in the studios and that she had, you know, gotten into it with Trebek and was kind of this terrible contestant and had gotten all this hate mail for the show from her appearance. So she sort of became this mysterious figure in the eyes of Jeopardy! superfans - and there's a very devoted fandom to this game show - where she was sort of seen as a villain and really kind of "Jeopardy!"'s greatest villain. And nobody really knew what had happened.

PFEIFFER: By the way, this is such a niche topic. How did you find out about it? Are you really into "Jeopardy!"?

MCNEAR: I am a reporter at The Ringer, and in 2020, I published a book about "Jeopardy!" called "Answers In The Form Of Questions." And so I've gotten to know a lot of people in that world. That includes both people who work on the show, and then, of course, people from this very devoted fan community. And there was kind of an interesting element where this was widely referred to as the Holy Grail not just of "Jeopardy!" episodes, but of game shows. There was this sort of decadeslong search for tapes of her games that had gone missing. And they finally found those tapes at the end of last year when a superfan came forward and said they had taped on their VCR almost every single "Jeopardy!" episode from the 1980s, then just stashed them all in a closet all this time.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter) What? And did the tapes answer any unanswered questions?

MCNEAR: Yeah. So there are a couple things that show up in the tapes. And the first is that, essentially, Barbara is not really the person that she was described as and that she was widely believed to be. I mean, she - instead of being this kind of combative, cantankerous person who is, you know, the supposed villain of "Jeopardy!" for all these years, she's super bubbly. She's very emotional. She, you know, gets really excited when she gets a really hard clue right. She's really kind of endearing. And there were a couple sort of infamous moments where she supposedly really beefed with Trebek. And in reality, they didn't really happen that way at all.

PFEIFFER: When you spoke with her, was she aware that she's become a mystery in the "Jeopardy!" world? And how does she feel about that, if she knew that?

MCNEAR: Yeah, it's a funny thing where she - because this episode had occurred and had sort of left her with a bad taste in her mouth, she has not watched "Jeopardy!" in many, many years. And she is not very active in that "Jeopardy!" fandom community. So she was, for the most part, not very aware that she had become this sort of infamous figure in the lore of "Jeopardy!" But that changed a couple of years ago when a "Jeopardy!" fan who was trying to find these tapes found her and reached out. And she found the whole thing, I think, kind of preposterous. But I also think that she was glad to finally get to tell her side of the story, which had really been a mystery until now.

PFEIFFER: That's The Ringer's Claire McNear. Claire, thank you.

MCNEAR: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MERV GRIFFIN'S "THINK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kira Wakeam
Tinbete Ermyas
Sacha Pfeiffer
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.