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Goldbart now blames the lapse on bad karma, influenced specifically by his ex-wife. "They had said I could bring a relative with me to the taping," he remembers. "My daughter said she'd like to go. Then three days later she changed her mind. Her mother had put the kibosh on it, I know. That just seemed to set the world in motion."
Karmically, his third appearance on the show, in 1990, was a wash. The occasion was Super Jeopardy!, in which four contestants competed in each round instead of the usual three, for a grand prize of $250,000. The format, Goldbart says, cramped his style, and he was eliminated posthaste. "I didn't have a chance. My ex-wife was putting a curse on me," he says. "She did me in twice. It's always been my observation that you can do somebody in once, but not twice. One week after the taping of that Super Jeopardy! show, she died."
When the invitation came this past summer for appearance number four, Goldbart wasn't too concerned about winning. "When I go on, I can't go on just to make money," he says. "It doesn't work for me. I'm not motivated by it. This time I went on to do the calendar."
"The calendar" is unfinished business: an idea for revising our Gregorian system of chronicling time that Goldbart introduced to TV-land in 1985, amid the get-to-know-the-contestants segment of his fifth appearance, just before he was dethroned as champ by a bouncy brunette who said she worked for a private investigator. (The woman, who went on to become a five-time winner herself, was later exposed as that bane of the game show-playing population: a professional contestant. She was subsequently disqualified.)
"I had referred to the calendar in the background information I gave, but it took me by surprise when Trebek asked me about it," Goldbart remembers. "I said, 'Yes, I have revised the calendar,' and he said, 'What do you mean?' and I hadn't really thought it through, and I said, 'It's really just a completion of the Gregorian change.' He said, 'Now all you have to do is convince all the other countries in the world.' That was it."
And ever since, Goldbart regretted that he was unable to use that fleeting moment to give the world the specifics of his momentous improvement to Pope Gregory XIII's cumbersome method of marking the passage of time. But the masses who tune in next week will finally learn Goldbart's way, in which there will be no need to conjure up "Thirty days hath September/April, June, and November" to recall how many days a given month contains. Instead, all odd-numbered months (January, March, May, et cetera) would have 30 days, while the rest would contain 31. Except December, which would have 31 days during leap years and 30 days otherwise. "It's really simple -- the Gregorians could have done this in the Sixteenth Century, but they didn't," Goldbart muses. "Maybe they wanted to retain power. But a calendar should be as dull as graph paper. You shouldn't have to think about it."
Other highlights and propitious signs that accompanied the trek to California:
His appearance in the first round will air Wednesday, December 1 -- his ex-wife's birthday.
"Both my [first-round] opponents were very, very tall, so they made me stand on a box."
During the taping of the show immediately preceding his, he sat next to his two towering opponents-to-be, and when Final Jeopardy came along, he knew the answer and they didn't (amaze-your-friends hint: What is the Ukraine?).
Upon his arrival, when he turned to the lifestyle section of the Los Angeles Times, the main feature story was written by Irene Lacher.
And what endows that name with such significance in the pantheon of Goldbartinalia? Seven years ago, when Lacher was a lowly Miami Herald "Neighbors" writer, Goldbart returned from the Tournament of Champions debacle and told her about his foul-up in the semis. Though he swears he recounted the incident "in the strictest confidence," the Herald ran the story on its front page on the very day the semifinal aired. "She betrayed me!" Goldbart hisses at the mention of her name.
Not surprisingly, Goldbart refuses to reveal the outcome of the tenth anniversary tournament. He won't even say whether he made it past the first round to the finals. "I've accomplished my life's mission, what I was put here to do," he says cryptically. "Everything went wonderfully well."
It's probably better not to know the outcome in advance. In the imaginary movie we make out of our own lives, we each play the role of the hero. The protagonist to hope against hope for. The one against whom the deck is stacked. The underdog who emerges victorious in spite of the odds, though loss would seem the foregone conclusion. (It is life, after all.) How fitting, in that light, that Lionel Goldbart's contest will be played out for its audience weeks after it actually happened, a foregone conclusion.
And how sweet, regardless, to cheer.