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Trivia Night trend takes over Towson-area restaurants for mid-week fun

Mid-week socializing used to involve bowling shoes or secret handshakes. Now bowling leagues and fraternal associations have some serious competition. Trivia Night.

The Towson area is home to more than 20 of them. For two hours a week, at restaurants ranging from the Greene Turtle in Towson to Padonia Ale House in Timonium, teams gather to test their knowledge of current events, modern music and geography.

Trivia Night can fill an entire restaurant or just the area around the bar. Hightopps Backstage Grille draws about 24 teams Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Eight teams take over Kooper's North in Mays Chapel on Mondays, giving the small space an intimate atmosphere. Players gather around the bar at Bill Bateman's Bistro in Towson Wednesdays while the rest of the restaurant is devoted to dining and watching the Orioles game.

Teams can range from a single person to a whole gang, although most have four to six players. Winning teams say a major factor to success is the varied interests of its players.

"Diversify your group," said Megan Schulze, a Towson University graduate student. She plays with another Towson graduate student and a newly graduated environmental scientist. "We all love when we hear a nerdy science question," she added. Although they each have their own specialties, they admit they could use a sports fan."

Having more than one generation on the team helps.

Chuck Michelson, plays at Kooper's North as a member of Formerly Padonia, a team with three generations of knowledge at hand; members range in age from the 20s to the 80s.

"Age brings wisdom," Michelson said.

"The best team is made up of one man, one woman — and an 8-year-old kid," said Mark O'Neil, of Roland Park, owner of Team Trivia's Baltimore franchise.

One team member of Ray Fried Rice — silly team names are the order of the day — said their mix of young and not-as-young is one of the keys to success.

"Most of the questions are geared to the younger audience," said Steve Warner, of Timonium. "But for a few questions, having somebody older helps."

And those team names. Some of them shouldn't be printed in a family newspaper. The teams do have fun, however, with their names. Kyle Boller has a team named after him at Hightopps, while others there are known as E is for Idiot, I Knew That, and Scotty and the Moon. At Kooper's North, teams are dubbed the Natty Bohs, Bad Company and the aforementioned Formerly Padonia. Members of Paradigm Pants and Robinson's Canoe at Bateman's can explain their names — but it'll take a while.

There are rules and in this wired age, and one is paramount: Don't get your cellphone out during a game. That's just so unsportsmanlike.

"The mantra we use is, Don't use the phones to cheat," said Brian Garrahy, owner of Showtime Trivia. "The important thing is we want it to be fair."

Not always masters

Can you name the state where Old Faithful is located?

Better yet, can you list top 40 hits by the band Queen?

Do you know who was World Series MVP in both 1973 and 1977?

Questions range from easy to impossible. But guessing is good, too.

"Go with your first instinct. Don't over think it," advised Robin Mills, of Towson, who, with her husband and sister, plays on a team with daughter Kate Mills and Kate's fellow Maryvale Prep graduates. It must be working — their team, Robinson's Canoe is in the running for Showtime Trivia's tournament.

Bateman's host Kevin White notes that some questions are worded in such a way that they contain clues.

"Even if you don't know the answer, you can guess at it," he said.

Some do consider themselves masters of trivia — or as Mike Davy, of Parkville, says, "little known facts known by few and cared [about] even less."

Mary Layton, of Lutherville, said her brother, Mike Davy, "is the brains of this team."

"Depends on the question," countered Davy, whose teammates on Natty Bohs at Kooper's North, include Mary's husband, Chuck, their son, Bryan, and his fiancee, Maria Papvasilis, of Elkridge.

Some people are die-hard trivia aficionados. Chuck Michelson and Tom Wright, both of Phoenix, figure they've played together for nearly a decade. They have history. They used to play at the Charred Rib. They used to belong to a team called Not the Last Place Team. Now they are part of Formerly Padonia with Scott Bessey, of York, Pa., John Myrick of Timonium, and Warren Michelson, Chuck's father.

And they win.

"A podium finish every week," Myrick said.

Being able to recall arcane facts isn't the only skill Trivia players need.

"There's a certain degree of luck to it," said Marty Fuller, of Timonium, whose team Bad Company includes his son, Thomas, and Andrew Wegerski, a Parkville resident and Towson graduate student.

"We usually place first or second," Wegerski added.

Winning is good. The three top scoring teams usually get gift cards for food and drink at the trivia venue. Hightopps' Trivia Night also has between-rounds questions with winners getting a round of shots.

If a team is really good — and shows up regularly — there are championships, locally and regionally. The Natty Bohs at Kooper's finished second last year and got a chance to play at the Team Trivia national championship in Washington, D.C., where the prize was $25,000. "That was not pretty," said Mary Layton, shaking her head as she remembered the difficult questions.

Tournaments are one incentive to keep teams coming back. Every time a team plays, they win points to qualify for regionwide championships. And in every case, the prize is more than a round of shots or gift cards to what is now the team's favorite restaurant. We're talking thousands of dollars.

Showtime Trivia will host two tournaments for house champions in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware in July. The top prize is $3,000, according to Garrahy.

Team Trivia's top prize was $25,000 last year. For the first time this year, Team Trivia of Baltimore will host a tournament site as part of Team Trivia's national tournament, said O'Neil. The nationwide tournament connects regional sites via the Internet.

But winning isn't everything. "We usually don't break the top 10," said Tony Mendiola, 23, of Parkville. A freelance videographer, he's a member of Scotty and the Moon, which plays Tuesdays at Hightopps.

Some participate just for the food and company. Mendiola's teammate, Stephanie Davis, admits to playing because of the half-price specials.

"It's a great midweek break and a way to drink beer," said Bill LaBarre, of Havre de Grace. A Towson University graduate student, he plays with Paradigm Parts at Bateman's.

Good for business

"In the last seven years, trivia has exploded," said Showtime's Garrahy. He said when he started his company, "it was pretty much open season." Now he operates 36 shows in three states.

On any given night, more than 10,000 people are playing in one of Team Trivia's shows nationwide, according to Becky Fallon, a Johns Hopkins graduate student asking the questions at Kooper's. Team Trivia runs the show at Kooper's North, Glory Days, Souris, Jerry's Belvedere and An Poitin Stil. Fallon, a Hampden resident, also hosts at Mount Washington Tavern.

Team Trivia is the newest operator in Baltimore — but it's a franchise of the nation's oldest trivia company, according to Mark O'Neil, franchise owner of Team Trivia of Baltimore and Team Trivia of Delaware.

"I've watched this company get bigger and bigger — and it's better than anybody else," he said.

O'Neil, a Rodgers Forge native and a graduate of Loyola High School, started the local franchise a year and a half ago. He moved back home after spending 10 years in Atlanta, home of Team Trivia, where he played trivia every Monday night with his brother Kevin. Team Trivia has franchises in 17 states and Washington, D.C.

A newcomer on the scene, he operates 15 shows a week and hosts shows at Jerry's Belvedere.

"My goal is to double that in the next year and triple that in the next five years," he said, noting he is expanding into Delaware.

Charm City Trivia operates shows at 56 bars, the most in the state, according to operations manager Kira Taylor. It started in Federal Hill eight years ago. "And we're still growing," she said.

Hightopps' show is one of Charm City's biggest, with more than 60 teams on a good week, Taylor said. It was the company's third location. "It's still large. And it's a lot of fun," she said.

Trivia Night is all about fun.

And it's good for business, especially on those quiet nights, according to Miles Perman, managing partner for Kooper's North. Monday nights were pretty quiet at the restaurant, which opened in Mays Chapel in August 2013. So when Mark O'Neil pitched Team Trivia, Perman decided it was worth a shot.

"They come with a really good reputation," Perman said.

"It brings business in and it gets our name out there. It's so good for business, it really is," Perman said. "Everybody has fun playing trivia.It's good wholesome fun."

Waking up a quiet Monday night was the reason 7 West Bistro Grille called Charm City Trivia two years ago.

"The restaurant seemed very unlively. We decided to bring life to it," said manager Irene Collier. "It's one of the good nights now."

With about 10 teams playing every week, she's happy. "It's not crazy busy, but it brings life to the restaurant."

An Poitin Stil is usually known for its live music. They wanted something different for their quieter Tuesday nights, according to Scott Mitcherling, general manager. It has worked, he said. In the beginning, eight people showed up. Now he can count on about 50 players.

"I was surprised by the number of people who travel for it," he added.

With Towson University students moving home for summer break, Bateman's Trivia Nights will probably get a little quieter, according to Bateman's owner Tony Gebbia. But he knows they'll return in the fall.

Bateman's has hosted Trivia Nights for eight years. And Gebbia doesn't see its popularity waning. "It brings in a diverse range of people from students to an older crowd," he said.

Bringing in customers is what drives Team Trivia, according to O'Neil. "We help the business owner be more profitable on what would be a quieter night," he said.

Making it fun, he adds, is essential. Hosts have to be engaging, questions have to be well-worded, competition has to be good-natured, O'Neil said.

Hosts who run the games often started out as players. Kevin White, the host at Bateman's, started hosting on a night when the scheduled host didn't show up. A year later, White hosts shows in Towson and Germantown.

"If people leave smiling, I know I'm doing a good job," he said.

That's really the point, as Formerly Padonia teammates from Kooper's North can tell you.

"We try to have fun rather than take it seriously," Scott Bessey said.

"Win or lose, we enjoy yelling at each other and all that," Warren Michelson said.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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