The $32,000 Question

Who the hell is Stan Flouride, and what was he doing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Home viewers didn't get to see Regis Philbin's initial reaction when Stan Flouride, a local eccentric and neighborhood fixture in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District, won the "fastest fingers" round on ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and made his way to the hot seat.

"Stan, you're just what we've been looking for!" the game show host exclaimed, outdoing even his typical, manic exuberance.

Philbin's gleefully biased remark was edited for broadcast, but perhaps he can be forgiven for gushing a little. His show doesn't get many multipierced, tattooed contestants sporting red, white, and blue hair and wearing the charm beads of a Wiccan wizard around their necks. Indeed, Millionaire has become the "pasty, middle-aged, white guy show," as Flouride calls it, referring to the continuous stream of contestants who are seemingly cut from the same mold. The show's producers don't cast players but rely on an anonymous telephone trivia test that one demographic overwhelmingly tends to call. Every so often a woman, a person of color, or a guy like Flouride gets through. And at Millionaire, it is a welcome event. Even in the retake, it was hard for Philbin to contain his excitement when Flouride finally took the stage.

"Hello, Stan! Here we go, baby!" Philbin barked in his endearing, carnival way. "God knows what color you'll make your hair if you win a million bucks."

"Green," Flouride says he wanted to quip, but didn't, distracted by the glare of the klieg lights.

Flouride may have been a revelation to Philbin, but he is a well-known -- or at least often-seen -- figure in the bars and neighborhood haunts of Haight-Ashbury. The self-proclaimed artist, writer, sculptor, collector, and wizard has been hanging out in the Haight since the 1970s and living in the same cluttered, rent-controlled studio for two decades. Local bartenders and regulars revere him as the quintessential aging hippie.

Flouride's artistic, social, and political passions consume his life; he has only ever held part-time jobs, having worked in a dozen Haight Street shops and restaurants over the years. To help pay the rent, he now works eight days a month at Robert's Hardware store. So the $32,000 Philbin handed him last October is coming in handy. So far, he's bought a new computer, a bike -- his preferred method of transportation -- and a trip to Pompeii, though he'll fly there. He almost nabbed the $125,000 question, but was out of lifelines when Philbin asked him:

"Which fast-food chain is named after its founder? A) White Castle; B) Wendy's; C) Taco Bell; D) Burger King."

"Wendy's is named for his daughter, and I don't think there is a Mr. Taco," was Flouride's line of reasoning. "I'm sure it's White Castle. That's my final answer."

Glen Bell founded Taco Bell in 1962 in Downey, Calif.

"That cost me $93,000," Flouride says. "I try not to think about it."

Still, he has no regrets.

"I'm poor enough that $32,000 makes a difference," he says. "This is enough to improve my life, but not screw it up. If I had a half-million to play with, I could get in some serious trouble."

In fact, now he can afford to print even more subversive bumper stickers for drivers of SUVs and BMWs with slogans like "I Love Global Warming" and "Poor People Out of My Way."

"So what are you, the last original hippie?" Philbin asked as Flouride cleared the $4,000 question. "How's Haight and Ashbury these days?"

"Less hippies and more shoe stores," Flouride reported. "Rents are up, and the arts are being squeezed out by the dot-coms."

"Sure," Philbin agreed. "But tell me, what are you going to do with your money?"

"Stop being a weirdo freak, and just be eccentric."

Philbin went on to the next question, smiling tentatively.

"He missed my point," Flouride says. "If you are poor and different, you are a freak. But if you are rich, you are eccentric. Regis is a really nice guy who's having a good time and loves what he's doing, but he's a lot less clever than you want to believe he is."

Philbin, however, was enamored. After one commercial break, the host held up Flouride's business card for the world to see -- a miniature bottle of Tabasco sauce with Flouride's contact information printed on the label. "Stan is a genuine character from San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury," Philbin announced. To Philbin's delight, Flouride also hands out Pixy Stix and old eight-track tapes as calling cards. "I always look for things I can get lots of cheaply to use," Flouride says. "I don't even know what's on the eight-tracks; just some bad '70s music, I'm sure."

Flouride is not even his real name, but ABC allowed him to use his almost quarter-century-old alias on the air. He was known as Kevin Kearney until 1978, when he and his friend Klaus Flouride -- the original bass player for the band the Dead Kennedys -- began making up punk rock names for themselves. They both took the same last name and, as a novelty, would tell women they met that they were twin brothers. At least that's what Stan did when Klaus became famous.

Now, at 48, with thinning (though Technicolor) hair and a midsection paunch, Stan Flouride finds his dates online instead of at punk rock concerts. Despite Flouride's Krusty the Klown resemblance, more women have replied to his ad ever since he began posting a picture of himself with Philbin. "Now I can afford to take someone out," Flouride says. And prospective dates know what they are getting into.

"My ads say I have polychrome hair and that I like troublesome women; I don't lie," he says. "But for this article, just say I'm in my 40s. I answered some personal ads this week and said I was 42. It's OK to take off six years, isn't it? That's pretty common, right?"

Unfortunately, Flouride's luck with women has been about as short-lived as it was on Millionaire. He'd like to forget about the guest he brought to the show, who sat in the studio audience sharing his camera time with Philbin in front of 18 million viewers. Flouride met the woman in a bar and asked her if she'd like to be on Millionaire with him. She jumped at the chance, and the all-expenses-paid hotel room provided by ABC. But when they got to New York, she brought another man back to the hotel and made out with him on the couch as Flouride tossed and turned alone in the bed.

One priceless benefit of being on Millionaire was the chance for Flouride to reconnect with his 29-year-old son, who is a playwright in New York. It was only the third time they had seen each other since they first met four years ago. Flouride's son also sat in the studio audience, out of the camera's view. "My biggest disappointment was that if I had gotten that $125,000 question right, I'd have gotten the chance to talk more about my son on camera," Flouride says. "I planned to say that he was a great kid, because he was raised by a great mother."

While Philbin is notorious for having a pack-rat office, overflowing with baseball caps, homemade Notre Dame paraphernalia, and other assorted tchotchkes that fans send him, Flouride has him beat. If Philbin only could have gotten a glimpse inside Flouride's apartment, he would have loved the man even more. Floor-to-ceiling shelves on every wall are filled with obscure collections: hundreds of female action figures (from Princess Leia to Velma of Scooby-Doo), a giant sculpture made of cookie cutters, and even stacks of canned Chef Boyardee spaghetti. "Only in America do we have to contort pasta into bizarre shapes so kids will eat it," Flouride says. "That's my future eBay stash -- I'm betting some kid who is 12 now will pay me $30 for a can of Sonic Hedgehog pasta in 20 years."

Flouride may be a starving artist, but he knows sentiment sells.

He also knows that on TV, at least on Millionaire, he sells.

"All day, the staff kept looking at me, saying, "Oh, I hope you get on,'" Flouride says. "I know I'm a charming and personable person, but that means shit in TV. Having a freak up there is in their own self-interest. I understand what the game is: for me to be a freak. And I didn't mind, because there was enough money involved to make it worthwhile."

Flouride lauds Millionaire, though he rarely watched it before he was a contestant. "There is so much crap on TV, the fact it is Number 1 against everything else is pretty cool," he says. "Yeah, it's fluff, but at least it's based on some semblance of knowledge and information."

A publicist for the New York-based program remembers Flouride well. How did Flouride's participation enhance the broadcast? "I can't comment on that; this is a very guarded show," the publicist says, though he does reveal: "He was a marked and welcome difference from the other contestants; he really stood out. It's always pleasant to add variety to the show."

Flouride, though, is the first to admit the big secret.

"You know, behind my colored hair, I am just a pasty, middle-aged white guy, too."

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