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The Search for the Lost ‘Jeopardy!’ Tapes Is Over. The Mystery Behind Them Endures.

In 1986, Barbara Lowe Vollick won five games of ‘Jeopardy!’ in a row. Her episodes were then taken out of circulation. What followed was a nearly 40-year hunt for the missing tapes—and a quest to find out what really happened between the show and its most enigmatic champion.

Getty Images/Jeopardy Productions Inc./Ringer illustration

For decades, whispers have circulated among game show aficionados about a mysterious Jeopardy! contestant from 1986. She went by Barbara Lowe and won five games in a row, which at the time—in just the second season of the reboot hosted by Alex Trebek—was the upper limit for returning champions. Later that year, when the show aired its Tournament of Champions contest with the best recent players, for which five-day champs automatically qualified, Lowe was nowhere to be found. Then, bizarrely, her episodes seemed to be wiped from the face of the earth.

In the 1990s, Game Show Network re-aired Season 2 of Jeopardy!; eagle-eyed fans noticed that the five episodes featuring Lowe were unceremoniously skipped. When the show launched a 24-hour streaming radio program and a Pluto TV channel that broadcast old episodes, Lowe’s episodes still failed to appear. In markets where affiliate stations play reruns on the weekends, Lowe’s episodes are omitted, again and again.

But the why of that matter, and what exactly happened during those games to incur the enduring wrath of the nation’s foremost quiz show, has long proved elusive. This is particularly bedeviling to Jeopardy! superfans, for whom detailed knowledge of operas, world capitals, and even television ephemera looms large. There are few corners of pop culture where facts and certainty are as celebrated as they are on Jeopardy! Yet one day in 1986, something happened—and nearly 40 years later, no one could say what. For the show’s most devoted fans, hunting for clues about Lowe—Jeopardy!’s biggest mystery and, some claimed, its greatest villain—became a calling unto itself.

Now, for the first time, Lowe is ready to open up about what happened, having caught wind of her place in Jeopardy! lore when one of those superfans tracked her down to see whether maybe, just maybe, she might have recordings of her games. She says she didn’t have the heart to tell him that when she’d moved a couple of years earlier, she’d thrown out a stack of VHS tapes that included her Jeopardy! appearances.

“He said that my episode is regarded as the holy grail of episodes,” Lowe tells The Ringer. “I was absolutely hysterical about it. I thought, ‘That’s insane.’”

And yet Lowe’s episodes were finally found late last year. The discovery of the lost tapes and Lowe’s first interview addressing her experience answer some questions and raise a host of new ones for the people who spent decades looking for the footage. Why were her games shrouded in secrecy for almost four decades? Was there really bad blood between the show and the five-time champ? What transpired during her time on set? And how did this saga come to take on a life of its own?

Should you choose to journey down the Jeopardy! rabbit hole, your first stop is likely to be J! Archive, a fan-run database that is nearing its 20th anniversary. There, volunteer archivists—some of them former contestants—diligently log the arcana of each and every episode: clues and responses, contestant names and hometowns, wager totals, flubbed Daily Doubles, and notable bits of banter with the host. But their mission isn’t simply to capture each weekday’s fresh material. It’s to build a complete record of the nearly 9,000 episodes that have aired since the Trebek era began in 1984.

To this group, the mystery surrounding Lowe was particularly frustrating: Where J! Archive’s page for Season 2 ought to have showcased her streak and perhaps shed light on what went wrong, the archivists could offer only placeholder pages. Not even Lowe’s total winnings—a number that would allow fans to rank her performance against other early champions in homespun Jeopardy! halls of fame—were known.

Sleuths hunted for bread crumbs, celebrating each minuscule find. They turned up a Sacramento Bee story from 1986 written by Clint Swett, the Jeopardy! champion who immediately followed Lowe and described her as “so bubbly you could almost hear her fizz.” They found a clip from a 1980s segment on game shows for a Buffalo TV station that featured a few shots from Lowe’s winning streak, with her ringing in from the champion’s lectern. “When I was a little girl, I wanted to go on Jeopardy!” Lowe tells the camera, grinning. “My lifelong ambition was to go on Jeopardy!

In 2021, a fan noticed that a fragment of her second episode had been uploaded in a six-hour-long clip compilation from the archives of a game show tape trader. It offered confirmation, seemingly, that the recording still existed somewhere—and provided J! Archive with a blurry image of Lowe’s face. The fan pulled the segment into a video of its own, adding the caption: “This is probably going to be the only clip that surfaces for a while.”

That sentiment was shared even among those who preserve game shows’ pasts professionally. Adam Nedeff is a research consultant with the National Archives of Game Show History, a nascent collection still being assembled for a planned wing at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. The brainchild of storied game show producers Bob Boden and Howard Blumenthal, the NAGSH will eventually showcase, among other things, sets and oral histories from seminal programs and game show figures, including producers, hosts, and contestants.

In his role, Nedeff—who has also been a producer and researcher on a number of game shows and has written books about the industry’s history—has led the charge to secure key artifacts, like the top of the $20,000 Pyramid’s pyramid that a 1970s winner thought to ask the staff for and held on to all this time. To Nedeff, procuring the Barbara Lowe tapes had always seemed especially unlikely. Then, late last year, a longtime Jeopardy! fan came forward to share that they’d recorded nearly every single episode of the show through the first seven seasons with Trebek, stretching from 1984 to 1991. The haul—some 896 episodes spread out over a whopping 108 VHS cassettes—had been left sitting in a closet.

Working with a network of fellow game show fans—including Andy Saunders, who runs The Jeopardy! Fan and is a founding archivist of J! Archive—Nedeff arranged for the cassettes to be picked up and digitized. The team crossed their fingers that the conditions in the closet had kept the tapes from going bad. “It was weather that I was worried about more than any actual damage, because I didn’t know where the tapes had been kept,” Nedeff says. “If they were kept in a hot garage for 30 years, that’s not going to be good for picture quality.”

The digital files came back. Nedeff pressed play on the pilot: The sound was good, and the picture was intact. Then, he promptly fast-forwarded straight to March 6, 1986, and watched with amazement as a young woman with wavy brown hair waved happily at the camera.

He reached out to the team, spread across the U.S. and Canada, to let them know that Lowe’s lost games had finally been found. “I said, ‘Eureka. Here she is. I’m looking at her right now,’” Nedeff says. “It was this virtual version of joining hands and spinning in a circle together because we’re so happy. It was just reaching out to people and saying, ‘We have it, we have it, we have it!’”

The NAGSH turned over its full cache to J! Archive, and the news that Lowe’s episodes would be entered into the database of record prompted jubilation among game show fans. The episodes have since been logged in their entirety: Lowe racked up a total of $35,192, with her fallen opponents taking home booby prizes ranging from a Kelvinator electric range to Jules Jurgensen his-and-hers watches to a Tomy Omnibot 2000.

But far from resolving the decades-old puzzle, the tapes showcased a contestant who bore little resemblance to the controversial player many had expected. So the question persists: Why did these episodes, which seem so far from scandalous, cause such a scandal?

“Now that I’ve watched the five episodes, her reputation has been very, very, very blown out of proportion,” Nedeff says.

The legend of Barbara Lowe might have begun with the mystery of her absence from the 1986 Tournament of Champions, but it grew ever larger after top Jeopardy! brass began to disparage her in the press.

In 1990, Trebek published The Jeopardy! Book, a compilation of clues and essays about the show’s history. To promote it, the host sat for an interview with the Scripps Howard News Service, where he was asked about a contestant who “retired as a five-time champion [and] was atypical in that she beamed when opponents missed questions.” Making apparent reference to Lowe, the Scripps reporter said, “The following November, she did not turn up on the annual Tournament of Champions.”

“Right,” Trebek responded. “We disqualified her because we learned she had lied on her application. She had been on seven or eight other game shows under four other identities and Social Security numbers.”

In 1993, Harry Eisenberg, a writer turned producer during the first seven years of the Jeopardy! reboot, published a dishy account of his time at the program. Inside Jeopardy!: What Really Goes on at TV’s Top Quiz Show swiftly landed Eisenberg in hot water with his former employer, chiefly over his description of the show systematically altering game material to provide easier clues for female contestants—an act that would amount to a violation of fairness rules enshrined by the Federal Communications Commission in the wake of the 1950s quiz show scandals. Jeopardy! denied that the show did any such thing; a later edition of Eisenberg’s book dropped the claim.

But both versions of the book featured Eisenberg’s reflections on Lowe. Eisenberg radiated a strong dislike: Lowe, he wrote, “appeared rather strange” and prompted the most letters objecting to a contestant’s “mannerisms and behavior” that the show had ever received. Eisenberg described a fractious moment after Lowe rang in on a clue reading: “Sons of millionaires who killed Bobby Franks as a ‘scientific experiment.’”

“Her response was, ‘Who were Leopold and Leeb?’” Eisenberg wrote. “Alex ruled her incorrect, at which point she immediately shot back, ‘Leeb is just the German pronunciation of Loeb.’ Rather than get into an argument with her right in the middle of the show, Alex went ahead and gave it to her.”

But Lowe’s greatest offense, according to Eisenberg, came to light after she concluded her winning streak. Bob Boden—the same Bob Boden who is now a cofounder of the NAGSH—noticed something strange when Lowe’s episodes aired: He recognized her. “Lowe was something of a professional game show contestant who had appeared on numerous other programs using a number of aliases,” Eisenberg wrote of Boden’s revelation, which he had shared with the Jeopardy! team.

At the time, this was a grave transgression. Jeopardy!, like many shows, has long stipulated which other programs its contestants can be on within a given time frame. Today, players are required to sign contracts pledging that, unless explicitly “disclosed and approved,” they have not previously appeared on any other reality or game show that will air within a year of their Jeopardy! games and that they will not appear on one for six months afterward.

The rules used to be even stricter, with producers still leery of creating even the appearance of collusion with contestants in the decades after the quiz show scandals. ABC’s compliance and practices rules, to which Jeopardy! adhered in the 1980s, allowed for “appearances on only two different TV game shows by any one contestant within a five-year period,” Eisenberg wrote. Lowe, he insisted, had misled Jeopardy!: “She’d not been truthful on her application as she had previously appeared on many more shows than she had admitted.”

So Jeopardy! went for the nuclear option, Eisenberg wrote. The show “decided to withhold her winnings” of “approximately $50,000,” prompting Lowe to hire an attorney. “At first, management was going to contest the matter but they later dropped it and ‘Barbara Lowe’”—scare quotes are Eisenberg’s—“got her 50 grand.” (Inside Jeopardy! is riddled with factual inaccuracies: That’s almost $15,000 more than what Lowe actually won. Eisenberg also wrote that she played in 1987, a year later than she did.)

This was as complete a reckoning as any that had yet appeared. And for many years, Eisenberg’s and Trebek’s versions of the story stuck: Lowe was the combative contestant who had lied to get on Jeopardy!, irritated viewers, and mocked her competition. Then, in Eisenberg’s words, she was “brazen” enough to threaten legal action. Lowe’s missing episodes weren’t just famous—they were infamous. “She was considered by many fans to be a Jerkass,” someone added to Jeopardy!’s page on TV Tropes.

In the forums of the Lost Media Wiki, a user tried to enlist readers in the hunt for Lowe’s games, echoing Eisenberg’s story about her arguing with Trebek. “With all that this [woman] has done, I honestly highly doubt she didn’t act like that,” the user wrote. “It sounds like it’d make a great true crime book,” another user replied.

As recently as last year, Lowe was featured in a video called “Here’s How ‘Barbara Lowe’ Broke Jeopardy (and paid the ultimate price).” In my 2020 book about Jeopardy!, I, too, repeated Eisenberg’s claims.

Over time, the mythos around Lowe—the fake identities, the poor sportsmanship, the beef with Trebek—calcified into what even, or perhaps especially, the people most eager to find the tapes believed was the real story. That she never came forward to explain her side of what happened seemed to only strengthen the tale.

Lowe, who grew up in the South Bronx—“armpit of the world, dear,” she jokes—now lives in Southern California. She hasn’t watched Jeopardy! in years, and until recently, she had no idea that she’d become a legendary figure among a devoted subset of the quiz show’s fandom.

First, about her name. Her driver’s license, which she provided a photo of to The Ringer, reads Barbara Lowe Vollick. In the early 1980s, Lowe—or, more specifically, Lowe Vollick, as she asked to be called—was working as a writer in Orange County. “I thought, who’s gonna buy anything with the last name Vollick?” she says. Her agent suggested Lowe as a pen name. While she never formally filed to have her name changed, she has continued to use Lowe as a de facto second name ever since.

She liked to watch game shows, and with so many of them filming nearby, she realized she could try to make it on her favorites around the same time she adopted the Lowe moniker. “I was a little bit nuts about game shows,” she says—particularly those revolving around trivia, at which she had always excelled.

For Lowe Vollick, one show towered above the rest. “I used to watch the original Jeopardy! with Art Fleming, and so I was sort of addicted to that show,” she says. “Jeopardy!—that was to me what I would call the holy grail of game shows.”

After the show returned to the air in 1984 with Trebek as the host, Lowe Vollick auditioned and got her shot. Nearly four decades later, she remembers the pride she felt after the staff asked her to stop ringing in during a practice game. “They asked me, ‘Please don’t buzz in; let the others get a chance to answer a question,’” she says.

In her first day on set, Lowe Vollick handily dispatched four-day champion Lionel Goldbart with a runaway score, and she then pulled off a nail-biting win with a $1 advantage in the second game. (Jeopardy! typically records a week’s worth of episodes each taping day.) She was scheduled to return the following morning to defend her winning streak, but things took a turn: In the interim, she says, she developed a nasty case of gastroenteritis. “I was on antibiotics,” she says. “I was very sick.”

Still, the show must go on, so Lowe Vollick arrived at the studio as planned. She lined up to play against Ed Morris, a story analyst from North Hollywood, and Mark Dimell, a filmmaker from Pasadena. The cameras started to roll.

Then, midway through the game, Lowe Vollick says she felt a terrible rumble in her stomach. “I turned my head to look at the production assistant, and I just said, ‘I’m sorry.’ And they stopped everything.”

Lowe Vollick made it to the facilities, but she believes that moment was the source of the trouble with Jeopardy! that came later. Trebek, who worked double duty as the show’s producer in his earliest seasons, took particular issue with the delay, Lowe Vollick says. “Trebek was furious. ‘You’re costing us time. You’re costing us money,’” she remembers him saying.

“The alternative was you would have lost your audience,” she says. “And I didn’t have a change of clothes with me. Trust me on that. It’s not a very pretty scene.”

Afterward, Lowe Vollick says that things in the studio were tense. Following her fifth and final victory, she clapped her hands to her face and burst into tears, knowing that she’d punched her ticket to the Tournament of Champions, where she would have a shot at the $100,000 grand prize. But the moment wasn’t purely joyous. “‘Put your hand down right now,’” she remembers Trebek saying. “He was so nasty to me.”

Lowe Vollick was informed that her winnings would be mailed to her as a check after the episodes aired. She and Jeopardy! disagree about what happened next.

Lowe Vollick says her episodes came and went without Jeopardy! sending her a check; she remembers calling to ask about its status and being told that it was still being processed. After more time passed and the check failed to materialize, she hired a lawyer. At the courthouse—Lowe Vollick believes this would have been in Burbank but is not certain—she says that she, her attorney, and her husband met with a judge in chambers and learned that Jeopardy! was arguing the delay her stomach ailment caused had cost the program thousands of dollars, which the show was attempting to recoup by withholding her winnings.

“You have a very valid case, and, yes, we can go to trial, but the problem is they’re very conservative out here, and Alex Trebek is very, very popular,” Lowe Vollick says the judge told her. “There’s a good possibility that they would rule against you just because they love Alex Trebek.”

Instead, Lowe Vollick says, the judge proposed splitting her prize down the middle, with half going to Lowe Vollick and the show keeping the rest. In the end, she agreed; after paying her lawyer’s fee and taxes, she says she ended up with about $5,000. “I just thought to myself, ‘Boy, you’re really—’” Lowe Vollick says before trailing off. “I can’t repeat what I said.”

The Tournament of Champions invitation never arrived. The Ringer was unable to independently verify the lawsuit, although Eisenberg provided his account of it in his book.

Two months after Lowe Vollick’s episodes aired for the first and last time, Jeopardy! creator Merv Griffin sold Merv Griffin Enterprises, which owned and produced the quiz show, to the Coca-Cola Company. In 1994, Merv Griffin Enterprises was merged into Columbia TriStar Television, which was then rebranded as Sony Pictures Television in 2002. Along the way, the show changed physical studios, scattering some records from its earliest years. Scarcely any staff members remain from the show’s infancy. Trebek died in 2020, and Eisenberg died last year.

Jeopardy! and Sony declined to comment on whether Lowe Vollick was paid her entire $35,192 prize. A source with knowledge of the situation tells The Ringer of Lowe Vollick, “Based on various facts, she was deemed ineligible for the Tournament of Champions and was notified to that effect. Jeopardy! has chosen not to re-air her episodes.”

Did Lowe Vollick compete on more game shows than was permitted by ABC policy at the time? In 1987, the year after she was on Jeopardy!, then-producer George Vosburgh told a reporter from the Courier-Post that she had. “It was determined that she had been on more than three game shows and that’s against the network ruling,” Vosburgh said. “Therefore, she was an ineligible contestant.”

Lowe Vollick admits that she was on other shows, though she says she can’t remember all of them. She says her first appearance came on Wheel of Fortune, where she went by her maiden name, Barbara Marquez, and won a “tartan plaid sofa love seat” that she fondly remembers as “the ugliest piece of furniture I’ve ever seen in my life.” She also confirms that she was on the short-lived game show Bullseye, though she insists she didn’t set any records, as Eisenberg claimed in Inside Jeopardy!

But Jeopardy! knew about these appearances, as well as a third, in advance of her games. A copy of Lowe Vollick’s original application to Jeopardy!, still held by the studio and described to The Ringer, shows that she listed three previous game show appearances: Wheel of Fortune in 1976, It’s Anybody’s Guess in 1977, and Bullseye in 1981. And the policy at the time wasn’t no more than three game shows ever, as Vosburgh suggested: It was a maximum of one appearance in a 12-month period and no more than two appearances in a five-year window. Only the Bullseye taping would have been relevant.

Were there other pre-Jeopardy! game shows in addition to those three on which she may have competed under other names or fraudulent Social Security numbers, as Trebek said? Lowe Vollick says she never used a false Social Security number and that she was upfront about the complete list of shows she’d appeared on, as well as the different last names she had used. When it came time to decide what she’d go by on Jeopardy!, she says she explained that Lowe was her professional name. “I said, ‘If you want, I can go on the show as Barbara Lowe, or I can go on the show as Barbara Vollick,’” she says. “They chose Barbara Lowe.”

No one from Jeopardy!’s camp ever named a specific show that Lowe Vollick disguised an appearance on apart from Bullseye, which she included on her application. If Lowe Vollick did turn up elsewhere, it’s difficult to verify. Many game shows from the 1970s and ’80s have had decades pass since their last reruns and are unlikely to appear on streaming services. Others may have vanished permanently: Studios used to tape over old episodes instead of maintaining costly archives; all but a handful of the original Jeopardy! episodes with Fleming, who hosted in the ’60s and ’70s, are presumed lost.

Lowe Vollick eventually added one more game show to her résumé: In 2003, she went on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, where she won $32,000. There, too, her stomach declined to cooperate. In a blog post written shortly after her appearance, she recounted taking a break after her stomach “began to stage World War III.” As with Jeopardy!, she described incurring the chagrin of the showrunner: then–Millionaire producer Michael Davies, who is now Jeopardy!’s executive producer.

Whatever might have happened off camera, Lowe Vollick’s most infamous Jeopardy! moment is preserved in the newly rediscovered tapes. It was in her third game—the one in which she says stomach troubles forced her to interrupt taping—that the Leopold and Loeb exchange took place. True to Eisenberg’s recollection, Lowe Vollick did indeed ring in and pronounce Richard Loeb’s last name Leeb.

Lowe Vollick remembers it well. “I did interrupt them, that’s true, because I was taken aback when they said I was wrong,” she says. She had a relevant piece of background: She’d previously worked at a German restaurant. “They were all German, real Germans from Germany. I think they knew how to pronounce names.”

After she answered during the episode, Trebek marked her down: “Sorry, that is wrong,” Trebek said. Morris, stationed at the far right podium, then rang in and pronounced it “Lobe.” “Lobe, yes, it wasn’t Leeb,” Trebek replied. Lowe Vollick lifted a hand, as if in confusion: “I thought that was the pronunciation of it, L-o-e-b,” she said.

Trebek, perhaps ever so slightly stern, turned to the judges’ table. “All right, we’re going to give it to Barbara,” Trebek said after a beat. “And Barbara gets to select again.” The exchange, if a little outside Jeopardy!’s usual conventions, was fleeting: The entire sequence, from Trebek acknowledging Lowe Vollick’s inquiry to him awarding her credit and instructing her to pick again, took no more than 10 seconds. If the smart-alecky jab that Eisenberg recounted occurred, it wasn’t in the final cut.

Lowe Vollick says that an associate producer later told her to save any future questions for an ad break. “I said, ‘Oh, I’m really, really sorry. I just reacted impulsively.’ I apologized profusely. That’s another thing he was furious at me about,” she says of Trebek.

What had long been framed as a heated dispute, a microcosm of Lowe Vollick’s grating and antagonistic nature, seemingly wasn’t anything of the sort. “It was no worse than Sherbet-gate,” says The Jeopardy! Fan’s Saunders, referring to a moment during Austin Rogers’s 12-game winning streak in 2017 when he pronounced the word “sherbet” with a second r before the t. When Rogers was marked wrong and opponent Jay Hancock got the point instead for saying it “sure-bit,” Rogers grumbled, “I’m from New York. That’s how we say it.”

Likewise, the long-held notion that Lowe Vollick had been rude to her fellow contestants does not come through on tape. According to Saunders, she simply wore her heart—and nerves—on her sleeve.

“We’ve seen a lot more expressive contestants more recently, people who aren’t as afraid to be a little bit more bubbly in front of the camera,” he says. Saunders adds, “I think that there may have been a hint of sexism involved in terms of how the viewers or potentially even Harry Eisenberg reacted.”

Nedeff, the NAGSH research consultant, agrees. “The one thing that you can say about her is she’s a little quirky at a time when Jeopardy! didn’t really have quirky contestants. Even in that day, many Jeopardy! contestants were very straightlaced and very, very reserved and very quiet. And Barbara walks out with a big smile.”

In the end, one mystery has begotten another: Did this moment of game show infamy really come about as the result of a stomach bug, or was something else afoot? What do the tapes and Lowe Vollick’s side of the story reveal about the enigmatic contestant whom fans spent nearly 40 years chasing down? And what does this saga say about what happens when there is no way to establish a singular truth, especially among a population obsessed with finding one?

At the end of Lowe Vollick’s fifth game—which, unbeknownst to her, would be her last time on the Jeopardy! stage—she audibly yelped as Trebek informed the sole contestant ahead of her going into Final Jeopardy! that their answer was incorrect. Apparently realizing that this meant she’d sealed her victory and earned a place in the Tournament of Champions, Lowe Vollick hopped in place, fully sobbing by the time the episode ended. She remembers it as a tense interaction, yet Nedeff says it hardly would have registered as off-putting to viewers.

“Honest to god, it’s a sweet moment, and if you didn’t know the aftermath of what happened, this would look like one of the nicest moments in the history of Jeopardy!” he says. “Barbara cries and Alex very hastily says, ‘I’m going to sign off; I need to hug this woman.’ And he just puts the microphone down.”

Nedeff’s hope is that the rediscovery of Lowe Vollick’s episodes will inspire others to dig through their own closets and basements in search of answers to as-yet-unsolved game show mysteries. If these episodes offered only partial closure, there’s at least one saving grace for Jeopardy! fans: They can now open up J! Archive and rejoice in the thrill of virtually playing alongside her.

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