Alex Trebek 'Always Had A Warm Spot' In His Heart For Cincinnati

Nov 9, 2020

Answer: His first love, the Beverly Hills Supper Club, the garbage, and the heat and humidity

Question: What are five things Alex Trebek remembered about his Cincinnati summer in 1958?

I had the pleasure to interview Alex Trebek – the Jeopardy! host who died of pancreatic cancer Sunday at age 80 – several times, and we'd always end up talking about Cincinnati.

After his first year studying philosophy at the University of Ottawa, Trebeck spent the summer in Cincinnati with his mother, who was a governess for developer Joseph Kanter and his wife, singer Nancy Reed Kanter.  

"I have fond members of Cincinnati, having worked there one summer, many many years ago," Trebek told me in a lengthy conversation for a 2012 Enquirer story to promote top-rated Jeopardy! switching to WXIX-TV from WCPO-TV.

Alex Trebek gestures while presenting an award at the 46th annual Daytime Emmy Awards in Pasadena, Calif., on May 5, 2019.
Credit Chris Pizzello / Invision/AP

"My mother was working for a family as a governess. They were the owners of an apartment complex. And she mentioned that I was going to be out of work for the summer, and they said, 'Have him come down here, and he could work on one of my projects.' "

Answer: Cincinnati garbage man.

Question: How did Trebek usually describe his Cincinnati summer job?

Alex Trebek publicity photo from 1999.
Credit Courtesy Jeopardy!

Although 18-year-old Trebeck did a variety of jobs for Kanter, including mopping halls, "most of it had to do with garbage detail. And so I've often told people that I was a garbage man in Cincinnati," he said.

The warm spot in his heart for Cincinnati came especially from two women – singer Jane Morgan, who he saw performing at the old Beverly Hills Supper Club, and a girl with a Chevrolet convertible.

Morgan "was gorgeous. I fell in love. I was 18. My God, she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen," he said of the Broadway star from Can-Can, Kiss Me Kate and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It was his first taste of show business.

"I met a girl there (in Cincinnati) too. She had a 1958 Chevy Impala convertible. Red. And we spent the summer dating. And that added to my pleasant memories," he said.

Alex Trebeck hosted the popular game show for 37 years.
Credit Courtesy CBS

Answer: 95 degrees Fahrenheit

Question: How did Trebek describe the warm spot where he lived in Cincinnati?

"I'd go back to my apartment, because they let me have an apartment in the complex, and I had no furniture except a bed and a television set. My dresser was a carboard box that the TP (toilet paper) came in. And I'd go there for lunch and drink about a gallon of lemonade because I was so thirsty. Cincinnati, as you know, in the summer, you get 95 degrees and 99 percent humidity. But it's a lovely city."

Answer: By accident.

Question: How did Trebeck get into broadcasting?

After resuming classes in Ottawa, he eventually took a fill-in newscaster job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

"I needed money to pay tuition. Five hundred bucks paid tuition for college. They offered me a permanent job after college (in 1961). I got into broadcasting by accident, and I stayed with it all my life. It's been very good to me," he said.

In Canada, he hosted newscasts, interview shows, music shows and a game show called Reach For The Top from 1966 to 1973. He moved to Los Angeles in 1973 at the invitation of fellow Canadian Alan Thicke to host NBC's The Wizard of Odds game show. After that he did High Rollers, Classic Concentration, The $128,000 Pyramid, Double Dare, The New Battlestars and subbed for Chuck Woolery hosting Wheel Of Fortune.

When Merv Griffin was reviving Jeopardy! for syndication in 1984, "they remembered me and asked me to host Jeopardy! And they told me how much they would pay me, and I said, 'Whoa!' That was a lot less than I was making up to then. So I asked, 'Can I produce?' And then I was earning as much as I had been earning hosting other game shows."

Alex Trebek for years took the contestants' test when it was released four times a year.
Credit Courtesy CBS

Answer: Pretty good

Question: What kind of student was Trebek?

"In primary school and high school, I was pretty good as a student. In college … I had no money. I was working part-time. I couldn't really get into it. Was I bright? Yes. Did I know a lot? Yes. Broad knowledge as opposted to knowledge in-depth.

"I have appeared on other quiz shows, and I've done all right. I'm not a rocket scientist. But I'm not an airhead."

For 15 years or so, Trebek would take the contestants' quizzes four times a year, when the show would issue new application tests.

"I used to test myself on a regular basis, and I'd get 60 to 65 percent right … And then I said: I don't need to do this anymore. I've got the job! The hell with it."

Answer: Pete Rose's landlord.

Question: Who is Alex Trebek?

After Jeopardy! was a huge success, Trebek bought the house next to his Studio City home in the 1990s so he could use its tennis court. That became another Cincinnati connection for us to talk about. Trebek rented the house to Pete and Carol Rose, who would call the popular TV host to fix plumbing or electrical problems.

"When something breaks, you call the landlord," he said. He had sold the house by the time we talked eight years ago.

Alex Trebek sometimes wore hairpieces after losing his hair during chemotherapy.
Credit Courtesy CBS

Answer: Dignity, respect, humility and humor.

Question: What qualities made Trebek an icon?

The seven-time Emmy winner always treated contestants with respect and dignity. He was a quick wit, which put contestants at ease. He exuded confidence, as if he really did know all the answers. I was always amazed at his pronunciation skills. (How long did he practice some of those foreign language tongue twisters?)

When I spoke to him, he always talked about the popularity of the game – not the host.

"You don't watch our shows just as spectators. You play along. On Jeopardy! you try to come up with the responses before our players do. Some of the material is easy. We kind of suck you in, and then we kind of hit you with the tougher stuff ... People enjoy game shows. It's light-hearted, feel-good entertainment. You're watching people to whom nice things are happening.

He went out of his way not to embarrass contestants, especially those who failed to make Final Jeopardy because they lost all their money.

"A rule that we've followed is that we don't take cheap shots at people," he said. "We treat contestants the way we'd like to be treated."

The affection shown to Trebek by contestants since his cancer announcement in March 2019 was touching. He choked up a couple of times when thanked during the show. We were watching nice things happening to a person who deserved it.

Despite his failing health, Trebek continued to tape shows. He recorded his last shows for the current 37th season on Oct. 29. We'll continue to see him on the air through Christmas.

I've interviewed a lot of celebrities. Some go through the interview routine, promoting their show, almost on automatic pilot. They don’t care if they're speaking to someone from Cincinnati, Sacramento or San Antonio. Not Trebek. He genuinely enjoyed talking about the big impression from a short summer here as a teen.

"This has brought back a lot of wonderful memories for me, as you can imagine," he told me in 2012. "I've always had a warm spot in my heart for Cincinnati, and I don't mind telling anybody or everybody."