Meet the First-Ever Jeopardy! Champion From 1964
On March 30, 1964, Jeopardy! made its television debut on NBC and crowned a witty 26-year-old homemaker with Southern charm as its first-ever champion.
Mary Cabell Eubanks won the first official game and unknowingly cemented a spot forever in American pop culture history.
“I’m very proud of it,” Mary said of her win. “I was just stunned over the whole thing. It never occurred to me as to whether it [Jeopardy!] would be on for forever and ever.”
A few weeks prior to auditioning to be on the show, Mary moved with her then-husband to New York City from her family’s farm in Candor, North Carolina.
“He had a new job and was going to New York to take a course for his position,” Mary said. “We found a place to rent an apartment in the Village.”
To keep busy while her husband worked, Mary would spend her days hanging out downtown with a friend who lived in her apartment building.
“The women had nothing to do all day,” Mary said. “So, we would try out to go on various programs where people entered to win something and others were simply fun programs to be an audience in.”
One day while standing in line to be an audience member for “The Price is Right,” Mary was approached by a gentleman who presented her with a unique opportunity.
“He came saddling up to us and said, ‘How would you like to be on a game program? They’re auditioning for positions. Why don’t you go?’” Mary recalled.
After finishing “The Price is Right” taping, Mary headed over to the Seagram Building in Manhattan and found herself in a room full of people auditioning to be on a new game show called “Jeopardy!”
“In the front of the room was Merv Griffin, Art Fleming, and executives of the broadcast,” Mary said. “We just talked and they listened. They had a standard question kind of thing.”
About ten days later, to her surprise, Mary received a call asking if she would like to be a contestant on the show.
“I said, ‘Yes, I would. What would I wear?’” Mary asked the caller. “‘Nothing white,’” he responded. “And that was the only instruction I received.”
Mary selected a rich, pink blouse and a skirt to wear to the taping. When she arrived at the studio, she was placed in the same makeup room as the show’s creator, Merv Griffin.
“He was sitting beside me doing his makeup,” Mary said. “He was just as nice as he could be.”
When the game began, one thing was clear—Mary was a natural. She wooed the audience and host Art Fleming with her personality and Southern accent.
“I wasn’t the least bit nervous,” Mary said. “I was just having fun. I think they planned some of those words like food so that it would be funny the way I pronounced it. The audience just had a fit over it and so did Art for that matter.”
By Final Jeopardy!, Mary was in the lead and, after placing a wager of $115 and coming up with the correct response of “What quote was made to Hamlet?,” she won the game and took home $345.
“I knew the answer because I had been an English teacher,” Mary said. “I loved reading and was pretty much into all things literary at that point in my life.”
While $345 may not seem like a lot of money these days, it was the perfect amount of cash for Mary to get her theater fix attending Broadway plays.
“I went to every show that was in town,” Mary said. “I loved drama and shows and plays and everything. So I spent my money going to those. They were a lot cheaper at that point in time, obviously.”
Today at age 84, Mary lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, and is a mother of two and grandmother of four. She is a retiree of the American Red Cross but still works part-time at a furniture store. When she’s not working, she spends her days relaxing and enjoys retelling the story of her time on Jeopardy! and how it impacted her life.
“I love being a part of this particular show,” Mary said. “It’s kind of been like the theme of my life in a sense, to not worry about doing new things because I started out early. As long as you just enjoy it, and as long as you have fun, everything will be good.”