With his wide-brimmed leather hat pulled low and dark glasses — indoors, at night — the trivia king of Boston looks imposing, like a character from a crime flick. But ask him how his reign began, and he evokes a kinder, gentler era of entertainment.
“When I was growing up, Monday morning, the first day of school for the week, all the kids would talk about what we watched last night, ‘Lassie’ or ‘My Favorite Martian,’ ” says Morgan White Jr., 59, of Newton.
“Then in March or April, you would be watching reruns . . . and I would still remember what I watched back in September or October, say the episode where Uncle Martin gave Tim the ability to read minds,” White says.
MORGAN WHITE JR.: THE MAN FROM T.R.I.V.I.A.
FYI, that would be Ray Walston and Bill Bixby on “My Favorite Martian.”
“I absorbed information, whether it was the 50 states or continents or whatever the case may be,” White says, sitting in Jacob Wirth restaurant on Stuart Street one evening last week. “I hated school, but I paid attention, and it stuck with me, and I’m able to recall it at will when necessary.”
White will be ready to call out the questions and, when necessary, the answers, during First Night at the Hynes Convention Center, Room 202, with family performances at 1:30, 2:45, and 4 p.m.
“The show I have to work the hardest every year is First Night,” White says.
That’s because he’s doing three shows in an afternoon for a hundred or more people at a time, many of them in family groups from kindergartners to grandparents.
“I have the entire family from 1 to 92, as Nat King Cole says, and it’s my job to choose information that’s pertinent, whether we’re talking about SpongeBob for the child or a granddad who might remember all three vice presidents under Roosevelt. And make it fun and rewarding for them by giving them a prize, a hat or a T-shirt or a movie poster, whatever.”
When White was still in school, teachers and family gradually recognized that his memory was unusual. He worked in government agencies for a few years, but by the time he was 30, White began a career talking trivia on the radio (WBZ these days), writing books about trivia, and hosting trivia contests at bars and restaurants. At Jacob Wirth, he hosts a 90-minute trivia set twice a week.
He stands at a table near the bar with a hand-held microphone, at first drawing only intermittent attention from the office-partiers, after-work drinkers, and tourists scattered around the room. He calls for topics, then fires questions on the fly, giving away T-shirts for answers about a Steely Dan song and the cartoon “DuckTales.”
“Give me another subject! Nutrition? Did you really just say nutrition? Just for you I will do nutrition. Egads,” White says, shaking his head in mock disbelief. “OK, name someone from the 1970s who ate nuts and berries and other healthy things and died in his 60s. Euell Gibbons? That’s right! Come on down and get a T-shirt!”
Jacob Wirth owner Kevin Fitzgerald says he likes activities that involve audience participation, to complement the German beer-hall atmosphere of his venue, and that White has drawn trivia teams from a nearby hospital and groups of Emerson College students.
“We don’t have a demographic. We get people from 20 to 70 every day, and we need someone who can appeal to all ages and has a knowledge of all facets of trivia,” Fitzgerald says. “He’s excellent at getting an audience and reading a crowd.”
Are there tricks to remembering — and recalling — all those facts, inconsequential and otherwise? Mnemonic devices for coming up with questions? “Everything you can think of, yes,” White says. “It all folds in, like shuffling cards. I am able to cross-reference like nobody’s business.”
Give me a letter, he says.
Give me another letter.
“So if I said, the name of the actor who was on ‘A Different World,’ the ‘Cosby Show’ spinoff, that would be Glynn Turman — don’t worry, I’m not going to quiz you on it — or I could pick George Thomas, the utility player for the Red Sox. Or I could pick — reversing the letters — Tom Gordon, a reliever for the Red Sox. I can do that on almost any set of letters, although if you throw some Qs and Zs in there, it slows me down a little bit. Slows me down, but doesn’t stop me.”
White is mellow and solicitous and doesn’t use a single expletive in an hourlong conversation. Divorced, with one son — Evan, a TV reporter in Rochester, N.Y. — White comes across most clearly as an unreconstructed baby boomer. His favorite show to this day is the 1960s spy drama “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Lately he bills himself as The Man From T.R.I.V.I.A.
Of course, bar trivia is hardly rare in Boston, especially given the huge college scene. Ask Morgan about businesses that thrive on the trivia circuit in town, though, and he scoffs.
What they do “is no competition for me,” he says. “I’m saying this politely. They hire people, they give them the format to follow, they give them the DJ equipment, they place them in the club, and they’re reading the questions. And people have five minutes or so to answer. No one can do it the way I do it. It’s instantaneous. There’s not time to look up something.”
This might seem like the golden age of “to look up something,” with every fact or alleged fact available via the Internet with a few mouse clicks or taps on a smartphone. White doesn’t operate like that. “I know it’s a boon to mankind and all the information that’s out there, you can look up anything on YouTube. . . . I have people who can get that for me, but I don’t need to be bothered.”
He calls computer-related activities “ticky, ticky.”
“You remember the old TV show ‘George of the Jungle,’ which turned into a movie for Brendan Fraser?” he asks, unable to stop cross-referencing. “They didn’t have the telephone, they had the ‘Tooky Tooky’ bird. The bird would be the phone, so I just updated that. It became ‘ticky, ticky’ because to my ear that’s the sound of fingers flying over a keyboard.”
White is his own imdb.com and Wikipedia combined, and he’ll trust his memory over the Internet, thank you very much.
“This is my life, this is my living, I put gas in my car because I do trivia,” he says. “And I drive a gas guzzler.”