Quiz Master Dennis George has created a unique career by posing trivia questions
Dennis George believes he performs just as well, if not better, than nationally known entertainers like Drew Carey or Joey Fatone. He admires their talents, and intends no disrespect, but sometimes wonders, why that guy and not me?
In his ideal world, the Hamburg native would be hosting a game show on a TV network.
“How do you do that?” George wondered. “I don’t know. But you’re never too old. Some of the hosts are good, but I know I could do that. I’ve been doing it for more than 22 years.”
George, 67, is known around Western New York for his high-energy productions of “The Dennis George Quiz Master Game Show.” The most popular is a Family Feud-style game, which he has performed at schools, corporate retreats, and special events like the Erie County Fair or the Chicken Wing Festival. He performs approximately 200 shows annually.
He has taken his act all over North America and the Caribbean, including shows in Las Vegas, New York City, Toronto, Florida, Grand Cayman Island, and Puerto Rico. He has also entertained on Disney Cruise Lines.
With his nickname “the Quiz Master,” George has developed 18 different shows, including a Match Game, He Said-She Said — where men answer questions about traditional female roles like cooking and sewing, and women test their knowledge about sports and automobile trivia — and Rock and Roll Replay — where contestants have to identify Billboard hits from decades stretching back to the 1950s.
“I am a game show host,” George said. “I really think I was born to do it. I live, breathe, and die for trivia."
He breaks into a familiar routine. “Give me a topic, and I’ll ask you a question. Do it right now.”
Music from the 1980s.
“Okay,” he pauses only for a moment, considering. “This is a good one. Which female had the best-selling song of the 1980s? What’s the artist’s name and the song title?” When an answer doesn’t emerge right away, he adds, “I’ll give you a hint. The year was 1981.” (The answer appears at the end of this article.)
Family Love, Not Family Feud
Growing up in Hamburg, Dennis George Lalka (his middle name was later adopted as his stage name) loved two things: TV game shows, and his childhood sweetheart, Sue Zubler. Both became the central focus of his life. He and Sue married in 1972. Today they have three children and six grandchildren.
The path to hosting variety shows began almost by accident.
“My main job was working at Rich Products,” he said. “I worked in the plant as a mixer. I made the graham cracker crusts on many cream pies. Rich Products is where I honed my craft. I’d walk down the hall and someone would say, ‘give me a question.’ And I knew I had to be ready. When we went to lunch, all the guys had me play a game show. Soon, everyone in the cafeteria was playing.”
He maintains a photographic memory for obscure bits of trivia. Rarely during one of his shows does he pause to consult index cards or fact-check an answer.
“I do use a database, but once I remember something, it’s there,” he said, tapping his head. “People often ask how I remember that. But I’m glad I do, because it keeps the show flowing. It wouldn’t work if I had to continually stop to look at something. If we’re playing Family Feud and I say name the top six items people keep in their junk drawer, I know those items. I drive my wife nuts.”
Family has played an integral part in developing his career. Sue’s brother, Doug Zubler, nicknamed “Mr. Music,” provides background songs for his stage shows. What began with a tape deck 22 years ago evolved into today’s Family Feud-style podium, speakers, and high-tech sound effect generators.
“The audience draws from his energy,” Zubler observed. “They respond to that, plus the music helps. I’m the heartbeat of the show. As he asks questions, I slowly build the volume. By the time you get a winner, I’ll throw up the volume and play ‘We Are the Champions’ or the ‘Shout’ song and bust them with it.”
George’s wife, Sue, was his assistant for many years — he dubbed her “Sue Vanna” — until she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2014.
“The tumor ended that,” George reflected. “They did a seven-hour surgery, and shortly after the tumor was removed she had a stroke that affected her right side. Everything that could go wrong went wrong.”
During several months in intensive care and rehab, Sue struggled to regain her health.
“The only person she knew was me,” George said. “This affected her memory. But slowly, things came back. She still has limitations, and there are constant therapies. In her right eye, she only had partial vision, and couldn’t see anything peripherally. It drove her crazy. It would drive anyone crazy.”
Last January, George left home to go shopping. When he returned an hour later, Sue explained that while he was out, she felt a flutter and her eyesight had returned.
“Doctors were stunned,” George said. “When you have a stroke, it can take a year or more to get muscle movement back. But doctors said that if eyesight doesn’t return in the first week, it isn’t coming back. And it came back, more than four years later. It’s a miracle how her vision opened up like that.”
Despite her wheelchair, Sue still attends as many of her husband’s shows as she can.
“She’ll always be in my heart as part of my show,” George said.
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On a recent weeknight, George hosted a show at Riverworks for 190 event planners from across New York State. He began with an audience participation question: name ten body parts with only three letters in their name. No slang allowed. People immediately shouted answers.
“Arm! Eye! Toe! Jaw!”
After each correct response, George tossed a licorice stick into the crowd. Right away, he had everyone’s attention.
Mr. Music had worried before the show that this particular audience might be uptight. (“You can usually tell right off the bat when a show is going to work,” Zubler noted.). But once the first question was asked, it was clear the night would roll along.
“Mr. Music is very important to the performance,” George said. “He’s a cracker jack. We’ve been doing this so long, he knows my moves. The key to entertainment is to have fun.”
In a short time, George found himself onstage with a middle-aged contestant named Bob.
“Bob was about my age and a little overweight,” George explained. “Mr. Music played the song, and I had Bob doing ‘The Twist’ from Chubby Checker. It was hilarious.”
After a 15-minute break, another show was underway. In that round, contestants raced to provide a woman’s name that could also be a month of the year. A woman buzzed in quickly and blurted, “September!”
“Oh my God, I wish I had that on video,” George said. “Everybody started to laugh, and she immediately knew it wasn’t a good answer. I never pick on anyone, but I do poke fun. As she walked away, I said, ‘Good to meet you, September.’”
“Something different happens at every show,” Zubler observed. “On the way home, we just bust out laughing about it.”
Perhaps George’s greatest skill is his ability to unify a room full of strangers for a common cause. In a short time, people forget their problems. Everyone is laughing and enjoying the fun.
“I first met Dennis when I was coaching in Lake Shore Little League and I coached against him in the late 1980s,” said Gary Kanaley of Hamburg. “We became friends. Over the years, I’ve seen his tremendous talent of getting people who haven’t met one another involved. He can go to any place, into any situation, and in a few minutes he’s got them going. It’s an amazing ability.”
George knows his skill set. Without boasting, he admits he could walk into a room, ask a question, and within moments, people would scream out answers.
At Riverworks, George used his show business experience to end with a bang. Zubler played a selection of songs including “Cha Cha Slide,” “Uptown Funk,” and “Play that Funky Music White Boy.”
“We put the audience in a circle and ended with a fun dance,” George said. “I was down there dancing with them. Everyone was singing and going crazy. I got down, did three push-ups, and said, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ What a show!”
Afterward, he left a pile of cards for the event planners. They were gobbled up quickly, leading George to believe he may get invitations to perform across the state.
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes a patron challenges the Quiz Master about a question's correct answer.
“One time we were at Founding Fathers Pub, and this guy was inebriated,” he recalled. “I asked ‘What is the largest organ inside the body?’ The skin is the largest organ, but I said inside. The answer is the liver. The guy started yelling. He thought it was the heart. The owner had to get out a medical book and prove it to him, but he still didn’t believe it. He was so obnoxious they had to kick him out.”
George customizes each show, depending on the size and age of the audience.
“When I get hired, I make sure I know the age group. If it goes from 20 to 60, then I do TV themes, and I can go back and play old ones from 'Dragnet' to 'Friends.' I can also do cartoon themes or voices. I cater to the audience.”
Because his act is so unique, George doesn’t have any competition in Western New York. No one else is doing what he does. He’s appeared often around town and has been featured on radio programs.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’m recognized,” he said. “I was just in the Dollar Store at McKinley Mall getting balloons, and the girl blowing them up said she knew my voice. Then as I walked out, I held the door for a woman who said, ‘You’re the Quiz Master. I love your show.’”
Years ago, George was invited to work full-time on a cruise line, but the schedule was daunting, so he declined.
“We loved it, they loved the show, but they wanted me for five or six months. I couldn’t do it. That’s for a single person. Now as I’ve gotten older, I stay close to home. I don’t even advertise any more. It’s all word of mouth.”
Although he’s yet to realize his dream of hosting a national TV game show, George is grateful to be entertaining around Western New York.
“I get so many compliments,” he said. “People ask, ‘do you realize how good you are?’ It’s a special talent, but it comes very natural to me. It’s my own little niche. I’m very lucky.”
© 2019 by Jeff Schober
Dennis George's music trivia question: Which female had the best-selling song of the 1980s? What’s the artist’s name and the song title?
Answer: Olivia Newton-John, “Physical.”
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