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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published March 29 2014

Eriksmoen: Barroom trivia started in Grand Forks 40 years ago

Let’s start with a trivia question: What regularly scheduled event attracts millions of participants every week and is played in thousands of bars and nightclubs across the U.S. and Canada? The answer is “organized trivia.”

When did this phenomena begin? I have gone through numerous sources searching for the origin, but have found a definitive answer. What I have determined is that the first copyrighted trivia game for liquor establishments on this continent was for shows that began in Grand Forks and soon had successful franchises in Bismarck and Fargo.

April 1, 2014, marks the 40th anniversary of when the trivia game “Think and Drink” received copyright #A523218. According to an Associated Press article, the game debuted at the Grand Forks Westward Ho Peanut Bar in October 1973.

One Monday evening in fall 1973, I was in the Peanut Bar, and because there was no entertainment scheduled on that night of the week, I brought along a trivia book to pass the time. I read some questions to a few friends while in the bar, and soon all of the dozen or so people who were there wanted to participate. It was great fun, and they all agreed that we should do it again sometime.

With that kind of enthusiasm, I realized that a well-structured game could attract a following. When I got home, I immediately drew up the structure and rules for a trivia game that could be played by a large number of people and still be exciting for all participants.

The next day, I scheduled a meeting with Don Lindgren, owner of the Westward Ho, and showed him my proposal. He agreed to give it “a trial run.” He scheduled me to host two shows on Monday and one on Thursday, the slowest bar nights of the week. The Peanut Bar was small, 20 tables with six people at a table. On the first night of the show, the bar was about half full. I was blown over on the second night when I walked into a packed house. By the third night, you needed to arrive 45 minutes before showtime or you could not get in.

In the beginning, almost all of the participants were University of North Dakota students and faculty. In fact, certain departments actually promoted “Think and Drink.” Law school professors promised their students they would never have an exam on a Tuesday or a Friday so they could go out and enjoy themselves on Monday and Thursday nights. The medical school also had several teams, one of which was named the “Virgin Surgeons.”

After a couple of weeks, we had teams of school teachers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, along with teams from the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Then something interesting happened – teams started to make trades. Some of the teams wanted more balance in their knowledge, so a team of law students traded one of its players to a med school team and another player to a journalism team in exchange for a player from each of those respective teams. The show proved to be a great mixer, and I personally know of at least four marriages that resulted from couples who first met at “Think and Drink.”

Publicity was great, and best of all, it was free. The Grand Forks Herald ran a number of articles about “Think and Drink.” The game was featured in a multistate magazine, local radio and television personalities frequently talked about it on the air, and National Public Radio sent someone to report on it for “All Things Considered.” The time was ripe to begin franchising the game.

Because I was busy researching, writing, and verifying about 600 questions each week, I needed a partner who could cover the business and promotional aspects. Don Clement, a good friend of mine, was an accounting major at UND and together we formed a partnership on March 27, 1974, called Eriksmoen Entertainment. We sent mailings to the largest bars and nightclubs in North Dakota. The Graver Inn in Fargo and the GP Warehouse in Bismarck both responded to our offer to conduct an initial show at their establishments.

By this time, I had electronic systems constructed for the lightning round phase of the game. It allowed the host to know which team answered first. The lightning round took place in the second stage of the game, and boxes with toggle switches were placed on the tables of qualifying teams. These boxes were connected to a light console that you can see directly above my wrist in the photo.

I was also blessed to have an excellent secretary, Cindy Hornstein, who came with me when I hosted the first shows in Fargo and Bismarck. She kept score of each team’s progress on a chalkboard. She had an outstanding personality and was extremely attractive, and I believe 50 percent of the sale was made the moment she stepped on stage. Management at both the Fargo and Bismarck bars asked how much extra it would cost to have her keep score at their establishments on a permanent basis.

Each franchisee purchased a set of questions for 20 shows (4,000 total) and leased one of our electrical systems, but they had to provide their own master of ceremonies. When a bar needed more questions, it reordered. Later, we introduced our shows at establishments in Mayville, Minot, Garrison, and Minnewaukan in North Dakota; Bemidji and Minneapolis in Minnesota; Sioux City, Iowa; and Newport Beach, Calif. Most of these franchises did not last very long because the bars had trouble finding suitable emcees.

Did organized barroom trivia begin in Grand Forks? I don’t know for certain. With the publication of this article, other challengers can present their documentation, and a final determination will later be made.

I hope you did not find this article self-serving. That was not my intention because I believe I fortuitously stumbled across something when the timing was right. It is the participants who make barroom trivia a success.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.