The $16,000 question

Tony Cianciola’s recent trip to New York City was an experience he and his wife, Diane will never forget. Last November, they took their delayed honeymoon by hopping a plane to the Big Apple with a rare chance to become millionaires.
Cianciola, 52, is an aircraft mechanic from Oakdale who found himself sitting in the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” hot seat facing the $16,000 question: “By definition, a maillot is what type of women’s clothing item? A) A fitted jacket, B) a one-piece swimsuit, C) a wide brimmed hat or D) a full-length skirt.”
After incorrectly choosing D instead of the correct answer, B, Cianciola walked away from the game show with $1,000, three zeros away from the big prize.
“I’m not big on trivia, but I have a lot of general knowledge and facts in my head,” Cianciola said. “So I thought that I would do well. I have done some public speaking, so I didn’t think that nerves would be an issue.”
But according to the father of three, that’s exactly what got the better of him during the Nov. 2 taping (the show aired on Jan. 23).
“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” an NBC game show that gives contestants a chance to win $1 million by correctly answering trivia questions, first aired four years ago in the evening with Regis Philbin as its host (it has since moved to daytime and now features “The View’s” Meredith Vieira as host). Its contestants have the option to stop at several points along the way to the grand prize by acknowledging they are unsure of the answer and opting to leave the show with the money they have already accumulated.

The day for dollars
While backstage, waiting for his turn to take a crack at a million dollars, Cianciola said that he was pretty comfortable. He was talking to other contestants and producers. Then it was his turn in the hole, (the ‘Millionaire’ equivalent to being on deck in baseball). As Cianciola was waiting, songs by AC/DC and Aerosmith played on the radio.
“I was pumped up and felt like I was in the groove,” Cianciola said. “I walked out on stage and started shaking hands and joking with the audience. I was excited and nearly forgot to greet (host) Meredith Vieira, but at the same time I felt cool, calm and collected while I was walking up on the stage.
“The minute I got in the hot seat, my brain started wandering and my mouth went on autopilot. I got spooked. The characters on the screen looked like hieroglyphics and I couldn’t understand a word that (Vieira) was saying to me,” Cianciola said.
But there was no time for nerves now; it was show time. All of the studying Cianciola did to prepare himself - all of the computer time he logged playing ‘Millionaire’ games while waiting for his real life turn and all the episodes Cianciola watched at home, yelling at the television contestants, “Come on you dummy. Don’t you know the answer?” - all these things were irrelevant now. It was time to win some money.
Cianciola started by answering the first group of questions correctly. With growing confidence, he said that he thought the early questions were all really easy.
“I thought, ‘Man, this show is designed to make me the next millionaire,’” Cianciola said. His confidence was growing and it seemed that the pre-show groove had followed him to the hot seat, Cianciola said. Then, the $2,000 question tripped him up a little bit.
When contestants of ‘Millionaire’ are initially unsure of the answer to the posed question they have three options for help during their game, called “lifelines.”
“When the question came up on the screen, I knew who a quinquagenarian was, I know Spanish, but my mouth blurted out, ‘I would like to poll the audience,’” Cianciola said. The audience confirmed what Cianciola thought was the right answer, so he moved on, with two “lifelines” left.
Cianciola said that he gathered his nerves for the time being and went on to answer the next slew of questions correctly, leading up to the $16,000 question. The question appeared on the screen in front of him and Cianciola opted to use his “50-50 lifeline” to narrow his options from four to two, in an attempt to define a maillot.
When the question was initially presented to Cianciola, he was fixed on the correct answer being either B) a one-piece swimsuit or D) a full-length skirt,” Cianciola said. Both options were still remaining after he used the “lifeline.”
“My mouth went on autopilot, I knew the answer so I didn’t think I needed to use my last ‘lifeline’. I have watched enough ‘Baywatch’ to know what a maillot was, but I had never seen the word, nor heard the correct pronunciation,” Cianciola said. “My mouth just said D, my brain knew the answer was B.”

Nerves over knowledge
Cianciola said he walked off the stage after giving an incorrect final answer wondering, “What just happened?” His wife Diane said that she knew the correct answer was a one-piece swimsuit because she had taken five years of French.
“When he did the ‘50-50,’ I felt like he knew the right answer,” Diane said. “When he said my final answer is D, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, he said the wrong letter.’”
Had nerves not gotten the better of him, he would have responded to the $16,000 question with “B”, Cianciola said. Cianciola’s chance to become the game show’s next millionaire had come to an end in a New York minute. He was walking away with $1,000 and an unused “lifeline”.
Cianciola’s unused “phone-a-friend lifeline” and daughter-in-law Amy Franzwa said, “I had an idea what the correct answer was and I probably would have guessed right after the ‘50-50 lifeline’ was used.”
Franzwa was sitting nervously at her house waiting for the phone call, which would allow her to help Tony correctly answer the question. She had several search engines cued up on her computer and a tabbed-out book that Cianciola gave her titled, “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader.”
“I received ‘Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader’ from my mother as a Christmas gift 15 years ago,” Cianciola said. “Nearly every fourth question on the show comes out of that book, and I have read that book several times cover to cover over the years.”
Cianciola said that the experience of being on the game show was exciting enough, although it would have been fun to win some more money.
If he had hit the jackpot on the show, Tony said that he planned on using it to pay some hospitals bills from a heart attack he suffered last March.
“We still get excited when we watch the tape at home. It was a wonderful trip, the sightseeing and stuff in New York was a blast. I thought that I could at least walk away from the show with $25,000, and I almost did,” Cianciola said.     
The Cianciolas immediately spent the money that Tony won, taking a limo from the hotel to the airport and upgrading to first class on the flight home. Back in Minnesota, the couple attended a Wild game the day after the show aired. While standing in a beer line, the Wild fan standing next to Cianciola told him that he looked familiar and wondered how he knew him. Then the fellow said, “Hey, I saw you on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ yesterday.”
“So with the show came fame, now I’m just waiting on the fortune,” Cianciola said.    

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