Fourteen-year-old James Cohen was a fan of what was already called "oldies" music in 1972. From his familyās Berkshire home where he often spent summers and weekends, Cohen was a regular listener of WCFM. In particular, he enjoyed Dave Durrellās late night Friday oldies show.
On May 12th, Cohen turned on his radio as usual, only to discover that Durrellās program had been pre-empted by the twelfth semi-annual Williams Trivia contest being hosted by the Free Tumblers. The music was essentially the same collection of 1950s and early-1960s tunes that he had expected to hear.... but in between, there were all these odd questions. Cohen was immediately entranced with the game, and began an unparallelled trek through the annals of Williams Trivia that continues to this day.
For that first contest, Cohen hastily dubbed his team.... namely, himself.... "The M-80s." ("I was kind of into blowing stuff up," Cohen explains.) His debut appearance lasted only until about 6 AM Saturday, but he was already hooked. However, one important change needed to be made.
Cohen recalls spending an entire study period before the following contest anxiously trying to think up a new, better name for his team. He had noticed that several team names came from on-campus houses, or possessed other geographical significance. Especially influential was the success of "The Bayonnettes," a team named after the truck drivers of Bayonne, New Jersey who won that first of Cohen's contests. James decided to concoct a name that would reflect his New York City background. After running through a few nominees, he eventually settled upon "The Manhattan Skyliners."
Jim soon convinced his friend Mark Gilloni to join in the fun, and they would continue as a two-man team until 1981. Although they rarely missed a Spring contest, only occasionally were they able to participate in December. Last-day-of-classes scheduling periodically caused the Winter contest to be held on Mondays, Wednesdays, or other mid-week times, making high school recruitment more or less impossible. The fact that Cohen was too young to drive didn't help.
A further obstacle for the team was its location, some four miles off campus. In those days of rotary phones, eight hours of dialing was as much of an endurance test as anything Trivia offered. Players of the time talk about the tell-tale purplish ridge around one's index finger being worn as a badge of honor the following morning. The extra digits that the off-campus Skyliners were obliged to dial for each extension-- multiplied by 400 attempts-- didn't help their cause.
Another problem was that the Cohen family only had one telephone line, while teams like the Bayonnettes, the Grand Duchy of Fenwick or BOMO sometimes employed dozens. In order to commandeer sorely-needed extra lines, Cohen was obliged to secretly climb up the telephone poles in the neighborhood and hook into the neighbors' private wires. Fortunately, phone service tended to be at a low ebb at 4 o'clock. (At 8 AM, he'd have to quickly disassemble the set-up before any of them noticed.)
Having such a tiny team posed another problem with the phones. 1970s Trivia was oft-afflicted by a phenomenon called "phone jamming." This unsavory practice occurred when larger teams would thwart competition by blocking multiple phone lines at once. A variant on the practice would occur when a top team continued to call in even after scoring their 2 points, this time under non-existent "shadow" team names, to keep the lines tied up and unavailable to their foes. To give an idea of what smaller fish like the Manhattan Skyliners were up against, one early-70s champion claims that their shadow team actually finished in fifth place.
Another obstacle for small teams was that the champions in those days had less time and patience for "sounds like" guessing games. Songs were shorter, and there were sometimes twice as many teams as available lines, so phone operators would be forced to quickly terminate stagnating conversations.
Against these odds, countermeasures were needed. Cohen quickly adopted the habit of taping the contests off the radio, and would actually listen to the cassettes as study aids. For two decades or more, there was a consensus on which music to play during a contest. Williams Trivia concentrated heavily on Top 40 hits, and the same titles and artists would often pop up again and again. Teams that were familiar with popular songs could gain valuable time. Cohen felt that as a really small team, he had to be able to identify these songs within a few notes just to hold his own. So successful was he in this strategy that years later, the teeny-tiny Manhattan Skyliners got the second-highest score on the Spring 1991 audio Super Bonus, outdoing teams ten times its size.
In the 1970s, the Manhattan Skyliners' final position generally ended up in the mid-teens. Cohen still remembers the thrill one semester when the team was at last doing well enough into the second half to qualify for a "Challenge Trivia" question. Challenge Trivia was a longtime element of Trivia in which some playing teams were permitted to quiz the hosts on-air; due to time constraints, participation in Challenge Trivia was granted only to the upper tier of scorers. More often, though, the Skyliners were never able to overcome their huge disadvantage in manpower and had to listen while the big fish fought it out.
In 1981, Cohen and Gilloni decided to make Trivia a house party, and for the first time, more than two people played under the Skyliners banner. This infusion of personnel enabled the Manhattan Skyliners to achieve new highs in both points and placement. The taller-than-ever Skyliners would compete throughout the 1980s with an assortment of friends, girlfriends, and other acquaintances.
Besides their extensive timeline, the Manhattan Skyliners were notable for other reasons. For years, Hour Bonuses were read over the air at the top of each hour, and teams called in answers on two "Bonus Lines." As bonus size exploded, boni became too lengthy to read, and trips to Baxter Hall became necessary. Since driving to campus would often reduce the team's size by 50% (or even 100%), Skyliners seldom bothered making the effort. (Audio boni, however, have long been a team advantage.) Not until the mid-1990s would the Skyliners even attempt an Action Trivia.
But the hallmark of the Skyliners was top-notch question/song performance; even while ignoring the rest of the contest, the team would usually place in the Top Ten purely on the strength of phone calls.
May, 1994 marked the Skyliners' apex to date. After more than two decades of competition, the team peaked in 4th place. The following Spring, Skyliners scored a team-record 222 points, good enough for 5th.
The Manhattan Skyliners are the only team to witness the sweep and evolution of Trivia from (almost) the beginning. Starting with the 12th-ever contest, they've played the 22nd contest, the 31st contest, the 44th contest, the 56th contest, the 65th contest, and dozens more in between.
How best to illustrate the Manhattan Skyliners' elder statesmanship of Williams Trivia? Well, one month after Cohen played his first contest, five men were arrested for breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex. Small wonder that teams tend to announce the first Skyliner score or sighting over the radio with a little more enthusiasm.
If pressed, James Cohen confesses that he enjoyed Williams Trivia more in the old days. And he still harbors a smidgen of ambition to win the whole thing just once.... so he can run a contest the way it "ought to be done." With finite players, that might be a tall order. But at the rate he's outlasted the greatest players and teams in Williams Trivia history, who knows? The Skyliners may yet get their chance.