Elizabeth Wellington: LeVar Burton's first night hosting 'Jeopardy!' gave me the Gen X goosebumps

Elizabeth Wellington, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Entertainment News

I enjoyed Ken Jennings’ stint. I was impressed with Anderson Cooper’s quick wit. I thought journalist Bill Whitaker was effective and that NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers delivered a smooth performance.

But Monday night when LeVar Burton joined the cadre of guest hosts filling in for the late Alex Trebek on "Jeopardy!," that’s when all was well with my universe.

Burton, of course, produced and hosted public television’s "Reading Rainbow" from 1983 to 2006. That’s 23 years, y’all.

Always jovial and perennially polished, he introduced generations of children to the magical worlds of books. I know he had a hand in making sure children like myself — and 47-year-old Jennings — had a shot at answering "Jeopardy!" questions down the road.

He instilled within us the virtue of learning for the sake of learning. I’d go so far as to say "Reading Rainbow" was one of the key reasons I’m an avid reader and write for my living.

"I can be anything. Just take a look. It’s in a book. A Reading Rainbow." The words to the theme song still swirl around in my head. So it’s Burton who I really hope will follow in Trebek’s mighty trivia footsteps.

When "Reading Rainbow" debuted the summer of 1983, I was 9 years old. I remember wanting to go outside to jump double Dutch with the girls on my block. But I wasn’t allowed to head out until I watched "Reading Rainbow."

It was important to my mom that we read something every day. We’d often check out the books we saw featured on "Reading Rainbow" on our Saturday trips to the library.

Also, back in the early 1980s, there were very few Black people on television who weren’t acting silly in sitcoms. So in my mom’s eyes, Burton was a role model. He was intelligent. He was hip. He was handsome. He wasn’t preachy or finger-wagging. And he didn’t seem concerned with status, in an our-kind-of-people way. Respectability politics wasn’t important. He just wanted kids to be smart.

If "Reading Rainbow" was my ’80s show, "Jeopardy!" was my mom’s. Its current daily-syndication era began 1984, and Trebek served as its host from then until his death last November.

And my mom still watches it every night. When I’m visiting, I watch it with her. My mother was — and still is — a "Jeopardy!" whiz. She’s that lady who yells the final answer at the television accompanying it with a smart comment, or two, to the loser.

Perhaps the loser should have watched "Reading Rainbow" as a child. But I digress.


Burton’s appearance on "Jeopardy!" this week is one of those pop-culture moments that’s bringing my life full circle. A bona fide silver fox now, Burton was impeccably dressed in an olive suit and matching striped tie Monday night for his first go behind the "Jeopardy!" lectern.

He was clearly nervous at the beginning of the show, but that’s understandable. After all, the man is auditioning for what could be considered the smartest job on television. After a bumbling first few minutes, though, Burton quickly regained composure. The right answers rolled off his tongue, and he chatted it up with contestants like an old pro.

Burton was made to be the next host of "Jeopardy!" And I’m not alone in stanning for him. Back in April, "Jeopardy!" producers added him to the tryout lineup after 250,000 fans signed a petition urging them to make him the next host. I know Gen X has something to do with this. Who says we don’t have any sway?

But what did mom think?

“He was good,” my mom said hesitantly Monday night as we debriefed Burton’s performance. She added: “I need him to calm down a bit, though. If he’s nervous, I’m nervous. If he’s tense, I’m tense. He doesn’t give the answers as fast as I need him to. I need him to validate what I already know quicker.”

“But mom, LeVar knows everything,” I said. “You, LeVar Burton, and Morgan Freeman [Easy Reader on "Electric Company"] taught me everything I know about reading.”

My 73-year-old mother took a beat before responding.

“Yeah, but I’m rooting for Aaron Rodgers,” she said. “Why not give the millennials a chance?”

Oh brother!


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