STEVENS POINT — The Oz is now on Twitter.
He no longer sports a beard, has two new hips and instead of running 6 miles a day through the streets of this college town, logs 2 miles each night on the treadmill parked in his living room.
The Oz, or Jim Oliva according to his driver’s license, is a grandfather three times over and has endured just as many divorces. His late winter and spring routines, however, have remained constant and culminate each April with what is billed as the World’s Largest Trivia Contest.
Oliva, 68, has been running and writing the questions for 36 of the 45 contests, hosted by WWSP-FM, UW-Stevens Point’s college radio station. He is actually the fourth Oz of the contest but has no plans to retire, has not lost his sense of humor, shows no signs of lost enthusiasm and still mans the trivia complaint line.
And by the time the 54-hour contest is over at the end of next weekend, his new Twitter account, @olivatheoz, should have a substantial fan base, far more than the 34 followers he had late last week. Although he’s not quite sure what he’ll tweet and is still learning how to navigate his account on his purple Samsung Galaxy 4.
“I don’t know. Obnoxious things,” said Oliva, when asked about potential tweets. “I’ll probably (tweet) just to tantalize and (tick the players) off.”
Stevens Point is defined by many things, including Stevens Point Brewery, Sentry World Golf Course, the Wisconsin River and the university, where the basketball court is named after Dick Bennett and his brother Jack, and where countless students have graduated into careers with the state Department of Natural Resources.
The annual trivia contest and Oliva also make the list of notables. The contest started in 1969 as just a 16-hour contest three years after students at Lawrence University in Appleton launched what is now the Great Midwest Trivia Contest. But while Lawrence’s may be older, the Stevens Point contest is bigger and consumes the community. Oliva joined the fun in 1979, a few years after moving from Madison to take an $8,000-a-year job as a math teacher at Ben Franklin Junior High School.
“I’ve just tried to keep it a fun contest and to entertain people,” Oliva said. “I want them to have as much fun as they can during a weekend listening to the radio.”
Teams pay $30 to enter and can consist of a few members to several dozen competitors. Each team has a name, too. Last year’s entrants included “Couch Potatoes Looney Bin,” “More Alcohol Than Answers” and “Kim Johg-Un’s Rubberband Rocket.” A few also take jabs at The Oz with names like “It’s Oz Season not Wabbit Season” and “You Bet Your Sweet Oz.”
After a question is broadcast, teams have the time it takes to play two songs to answer. Points are awarded based on how many teams answer correctly. The fewer correct answers, the more a question is worth.
The weekend begins with a parade on Friday with an estimated 2,500 to 3,500 people coming back to the city each year to play. This year’s contest — dubbed “Trivia on 45,” a takeoff of the 45 rpm record — will have about 400 teams made up of 11,000 players. Many will be hunkered down in homes, apartments, dorm rooms and hotel rooms in Stevens Point but, thanks to the Internet, dozens of teams around the country will also take part.
States represented include Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois. The contest usually has a few teams in California and in the past has had entries from teams in China, Rome, Italy and a military base in Afghanistan.
But the contest really begins the first Saturday of January in a basement bunker at Oliva’s home on Elk Street a few blocks from the river. His home was built in 1897 so the basement is a throwback with steep steps, stone walls and low ceilings. But in 1997, Oliva built a 14-foot by 26-foot room in the basement with raised floors and vapor barriers between the walls. This is where Oliva and John Eckendorf, who has been writing questions with Oliva since 1989, spend their weekends writing the contest’s 428 questions.
There are shelves of books, many devoted to movies and television shows, piles of board games and a section that includes empty cereal boxes, juice bottles, soda cans, spaghetti sauce jars, potato chip containers and candy wrappers, all fodder for questions. He has a huge stockpile of magazines, including Life, Time, Sports Illustrated, Better Homes and Gardens and every TV Guide back to 1974. Oliva recently bought on eBay, for $8, a vintage copy of Photoplay, a magazine devoted to movies that was published between 1911 and 1980.
“There’ll be more than one question from this,” Oliva said, pointing at the magazine but ordering me not to identify the specific issue.
Favorite topics include “The Simpsons,” movies, commercials and printed advertisements. You know those subscription cards that fall out of magazines? Oliva has a pile of those, too.
In addition to the 428 questions, there are two running questions with 10 parts each, the Trivia Stone scavenger hunt, and three incredibly difficult music snippet questions. Each snippet has just a few seconds from eight songs. And if you think you can use a smartphone app, like Shazam, forget it. They require at least 5 seconds to identify a song, Oliva said. Teams have four hours to complete each snippet.
But the bulk of the contest is just good old trivia questions that have now been modified to make the Internet not as helpful. The details are few for many questions, making Internet searches less valuable., whereas in the past the questions might have offered more clues.
“The Internet has made it much more possible to get the question wrong,” Oliva said. “It does kind of level the playing field, but what separates the top 25 teams from the rest is the number of notes they take throughout the year and the books they have. I still talk to teams who are proud that they have gotten answers out of books.”
Oliva was born in Chicago where his dad worked at a diesel engine plant for General Motors in LaGrange, Ill., while his mother stayed at home raising Oliva and his two sisters. He spent his freshman year of college at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb but transferred to UW-Madison, where he majored in English history, math and computer science. He lived in Madison from 1965 to 1974, worked as a janitor for a company that cleaned Treasure Island, Gimbels and University Bookstore, and he was a drummer in a band, The Fine Young Men.
After moving to Stevens Point, he taught for 10 years, opened a computer store in 1983 and sold it in 2005 but continued to work there until 2008. He now works in the information technology department at Cap Services, a nonprofit social services agency. He also tends bar on Tuesday nights at the Elbow Room.
“You can tell that he’s definitely passionate about trivia and that this is his baby,” said Kirk Tokarski, 21, a WWSP disc jockey and public relations major. “It’s really cool to see somebody so involved and so passionate about something.”