It was the fifth time they’d called me. Before they had asked me the year the first World Cup took place and when The Parent Trap was released. This time, I guessed my way through the most unlikely question: What year was Selena Gomez born? Then they told me, yes, you can be in ¿Quién Quiere Millonario?
The jokes about Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) came thick and fast — a small distraction from what was actually very intense couple of days. I had less than a week to prepare — that meant also scanning and sending legal papers and buying myself a bus ticket from Maracay to Caracas. It was late August, just a few days short of the quincena, so my mother and I had to actually borrow some money to cover it — I want to be a millionaire, because I’m very much not.
But hey, at least the producers reimbursed my bus fare, down to the last céntimo.
But what does it mean to be in ‘Millionario’ in a country where money isn’t even worth what it costs to print it?
Nowadays, with DolarToday reporting each US dollar close to 3,105 bolivars, whoever manages to beat the 15 questions will earn you just shy of $645. Still, money is money and in this so-called socialist haven of ours having some is without a doubt a big concern
Time was when the grand prize on Millonario would buy you a car with enough leftover for the down payment on an apartment. That was years ago.
Back in July when NPR made a story on the show the grand prize of 2 million bolivars was reported to amount circa $2,000. Nowadays, with DolarToday reporting each US dollar close to 3,105 bolivars, whoever manages to beat the 15 questions will earn you just shy of $645. Still, money is money and in this so-called socialist haven of ours having some is without a doubt a big concern.
Millonario is junk TV, just something Venezuelans use to distract ourselves from our legendary woes. In a country where food, power, water, and even life itself feel shaky and unsure at the best of times, there’s something comforting about Eladio Lárez’s presence at the end of the week. Millonario is reassuring in its uniformity, a semblance of normality in a country where “normal”, like everything else, is in short supply.
But unlike, say, Sábado Sensacional —which, despite the attempts at a revamp, might as well be trapped in amber— ¿Quién Quiere Ser Millonario? has another appeal: the promise that luck still exists in Venezuela.
The image of Dr. Eladio handing off a prop check or two every Sunday evening is proof there’s still a way to beat a system we know is rigged. In a country where over 70% of us live in poverty, this is the 21st Century version of finding a buried chest full of morocotas.
A driver in a van picked us from the bus station. It was me, my friend Rosa, another contestant and his companion. None of us knew quite what to expect. A friend of mine who went to the show back when it was still on RCTV told me she stayed in the Gran Meliá. I commented this to the driver.
“Yeah, first it was the Hilton, then the Gran Meliá,” he told us. He’d been working for the show since the start and that wasn’t the only sign of decaying.
“Back then, during the bonanza years, they would give contestant mugs, shirts, caps, mats. They would do specials too, one with celebrities, one with students live from La Campiña Theater.” His nostalgia is contagious.
The Cumberland Chacao isn’t exactly the Hilton, but it’s 2016 and I’m not about to complain. I looked around and thought, “well, even if I don’t make it past the first round at least I get to enjoy a little Caracas holiday.”
As the four of us sat in the lobby, under a chandelier and next to a grand piano, we saw something I’d just assumed was extinct in Venezuela, like the wooly mammoth or MUD’s credibility: tourists. Actual foreign tourists! A gaggle of 20 or so Spaniards on a 21-day tour across the country going from Mérida and La Gran Sabana and now on their way to El Cuartel de la Montaña, the very next day.
We weren’t in regular Venezuela. It was the Venezuela most of us don’t have the wallet to see. After we went up and marveled a bit more about our room —and divided the shampoo and soap— we met a friend of Rosa at a nearby shopping mall. Some mothers were begging for food with their children and I wondered if the Spaniards had seen this Venezuela on their radical-chic tour.
Back in our room we were in for a nasty surprise. Someone in the room next to ours was watching Diosdado Cabello at full blast. After turning on our TV and surfing some channels the batteries of our remote control gave out. I couldn’t find a way to change the channel or even turn up the volume so I went to the reception desk.
The tired look of the clerk made it clear that he had to face this several times a day and told me to ask for the maintenance guy in the morning. Eventually, I managed to find the buttons behind the TV set and we put South Park loud enough that our boliburgués neighbor got the message.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Every 10 minutes I’d nervously check on my phone to see who composed La Traviata, what position David Concepción played, or who was first: Rojas Paúl or Andueza Palacios. In the morning we had breakfast with the Spaniards. Despite the hotel’s best intentions to fill our plates with fruits the pocket-sized pancakes made la crisis evident.
We had then another surprise. The old 1BC Building —for years the seat of RCTV— in Quinta Crespo is still working! Me and Rosa had taken for granted it had shut down years ago and that the show was done at Televen. One of the security guards told me that RCTV now makes shows for Televen, Meridiano and a telenovela for the United States, plus TV ads.
Still, it was strangely emotional standing in the central rotunda, seeing around posters of Por Estas Calles, Cristal and Viva La Pepa
Still, it was strangely emotional standing in the central rotunda, seeing around posters of Por Estas Calles, Cristal and Viva La Pepa; looking at that old logo around in clocks, uniforms and carved in wood at the wall of the green room!
I felt as if I was venturing into some alternate Venezuela. If you’re a long-running Caracas Chronicles reader or just a Venezuelan of a certain age, you know the whole showdown between RCTV and the Chaverment and how key to the whole conflict Eladio Lárez was. It’s remarkable, when you think about it: the guy who was RCTV’s CEO, and is still Henry Ramos Allup’s brother-in-law…is also the host of ¿Quién Quiere Ser Millonario?
“No es ningún doctor, he studied Journalism,” my dad sneered on the phone as I told him about going to meet Lárez. Not long before RCTV was shut down, dad had a gig making ads for them. I can’t stop thinking about his comment now as I think back on the way the crew would treat him with the utmost respect.
“He also refused to sign-off to the very last minute,” dad reminded me, “swearing the government wouldn’t take him off the air. That they wouldn’t dare.”
Doctor or not, Don Eladio projects certain old-style charisma. Instead of walking in from the same corridor as the contestants, he pops up from the same entrance he appears on TV. But some things the audience at home doesn’t get to see. First, the doctor is shorter than you’d think — a fact the stage craft is carefully designed to conceal. And then, he constantly flirts with the women off camera.
After some rehearsals and taping some reaction shots, the producers send us backstage for a drink of water and a bathroom break before going for real. In the bathroom, five or six guys in suits wish each other the best. Game on!
I didn’t get past the first round: I biffed a question about a Maluma song. The first contestant was a mechanic from Charallave who came with his wife and had a young son at home. He lasted something light eight or nine questions —just below the Question 10 line— when they asked him who was the first Venezuelan to win an Olympic medal. I saw him afterwards at the RCTV cafeteria where we all got a free lunch. I congratulated him, but he wasn’t in the mood. He seemed pretty angry with himself.
The second and final contestant was a school principal from Caracas. She seemed like your prototypical Doña de Cafetal and she was playing to pay a medical procedure for her college-age daughter, who was there with her. She managed to reach Question 12 or 13 —a comfortable but high anxiety position midway to the Grand Prize— but not knowing who invented the vaccine against rabies was her downfall. We taped the sign-off and in just under three hours the whole thing was over.
After our lunch we get taken back to the van to be taken to the bus station, along with the other contestant from Maracay and his companion. I can see the school principal with her daughter being taken to an office across the lobby. She seems upset about something.
Perhaps she didn’t read the part of the handbook where it stipulates that contestants only get 66% of the prize money after taxes? Or perhaps that the show has up to 60 business days from the broadcast date —which could be anything from one week up to six months — to pay out the money? I honestly can’t tell. For all I know, the same producer who gave me my bus fare reimbursement in a white envelope also gave her and the mechanic their cash. That seems unlikely, though.
Alas, I did not leave Caracas a millionaire. I did, however, get to enjoy a niceish hotel in Chacao, a clubhouse sandwich with fries for dinner, a conversation with some European tourists and the short-lived fantasy that I live in a somewhat normal country. And that’s a good day out in my book.