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Tales of a Contestant on "Wheel Of Fortune"! Part One
I Love Game Shows
I’ve always been a BIG game show fan.
I remember as a child staying home from school sick and being rewarded with the rare pleasure of watching "The Price Is Right" (only to be terribly disappointed when it was followed by a soap opera). I loved the classics like "To Tell The Truth," and the quiz shows like "Tic Tac Dough," and even the obscure shows like "Bumper Stumpers." My all time favorite game show is probably "Match Game." I think my first crush was on Fannie Flagg! So it has always been a dream of mine to be on a game show.
When my wife and I were first dating, she came over for dinner one night and Jeopardy came on. Well, it just happened to be one of those episodes with some categories that were up my alley, and I dare say I impressed her a bit. She still believes I secretly DVR'd that episode just to show off, but I swear I didn’t! My wife has since encouraged me to try out for Jeopardy, which I did on one occasion. They offer an online test once in a while, but alas, I must have done poorly because I never heard from them. She also suggested going on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? At the time, for the syndicated version, you needed to attend a taping in New York City before being considered as a contestant. We lived in the Las Vegas area, and a trip to NYC was out of the question. Alas again. But then I saw on TV that the famous Wheel Mobile would be in town looking for contestants for a few weeks of “Vegas” episodes. At last, here was my chance!
The Wheel Mobile was to be at a local car dealership one Saturday afternoon, which was very close to my job. My wife, who was 6 months pregnant with our second child, brought me lunch then did a “drive-by” to check out the crowd. Wow! She saw a dispiriting line wrapped around the building, and I wasn't getting off work for another hour or so. I guess I’m getting old, or maybe I just didn’t want it badly enough, but I couldn’t see myself dealing with that crowd. The Wheel Mobile was to be at The Venetian Hotel a couple of weeks later, but I assumed the crowd would be even worse considering all the tourists as well as us locals. Again I decided it wasn’t in the cards for me to be on the show. Not to be discouraged, however, I resolved to fill out the online application where I learned that as part of the “Vegas” episodes they would be having “Sweethearts Week.” Perfect, I thought! I even followed up my online application with an email pleading the case for me and my pregnant wife. Yes, I played the pregnancy card! Did it work? I'm not sure. No one from the show actually mentioned my email, and no one from the show said anything like, “Oh we love having pregnant women on the show!” All I know is, I received an email asking me to come to an audition.
The email I received wasn’t very specific. It wasn’t even addressed to me personally, but to “undisclosed recipients”. Was I supposed to go alone? or were my wife and I both invited to try out for “Sweethearts Week”? Always supportive, my wife accompanied me to the audition secretly dreading the spotlight and hoping to remain in the background. My wife is not fond of public speaking, nor is she the ham of the family, but she’s a trooper. Sure enough they let us both in for the open audition along with two other couples and approximately 100 individuals, all of whom were equally viable contestants for the show, in my opinion. I mean, what were the contestant scouts looking for? Everyone was enthusiastic of course. And if you have ever watched Wheel of Fortune you are aware of the variety of contestants they have on their show, from timid old ladies to burly boisterous frat guys! I was concerned that the last thing they wanted was another "regular guy." But a regular married couple, including a pregnant wife....? I secretly thought we might have a chance.
We were all asked to fill out questionnaires followed by a few mock rounds of puzzle solving. The three hosts randomly called on people to take turns guessing letters in a computer generated game board projected on a big screen, while they observed us like detectives at a crime scene. It was actually rather frantic, not as organized as I assumed it would be for a big time TV show that has been on the air for so long. Every person called was DYING to be the one to solve the puzzle (they gave souvenir hats, t-shirts and tote bags to those who did). But if you called a wrong letter you lost your turn. We got off to a rocky start, each of us making cardinal WOF mistakes. They called on my wife, and she hopped up as quickly as a 6-month-pregnant woman can. Unfortunately she asked for the letter R which had been called already. Nerves? Perhaps. Later they called my name, and it was a fresh game board. I called the usual first letters, R, S, T, N, then bought a vowel, an A then an I. “Wow! I’m gonna run the board and solve this puzzle!” I thought to myself. My guess had barely left my lips before I realized I had it wrong. The solution was CRISP CLEAN MOUNTAIN AIR, not FRESH CLEAN MOUNTAIN AIR! What a blunder! Too late, I lost my turn. My wife and I looked at each other and knew we had blown it.
Then we all took a little written quiz. There were 20 unfinished puzzles, and we had 5 minutes to complete as many as we could. Examples: Phrase, __P YO__R NO__E WITH A R__BBER HO__E. Same Name, T__M AND __ARIBB__AN __RUIS__. Neither my wife nor I were very happy with our performance on our respective quizzes. The hosts then went to grade our tests while we had a break, chatted with the other would-be contestants and watched the 3000th episode of WOF. When they returned, the hosts read off the names of people who made the cut and would remain for another round of mock games. We were blown away to have made the first cut!
This time, we were all brought up to the front of the room to pretend to be contestants. Both of the other couples made the cut, too, so the three pairs were asked to play first. This time we did much better. We had to simulate spinning the wheel, and I was shocked to see my pregnant wife really give the imaginary wheel a good spin! We even solved a puzzle! I GET AROUND BY THE BEACH BOYS, with my wife solving the first part and me figuring out the last part. It was a true team effort. We clapped and tried to be enthusiastic as the others took their turns in their mock games, but the day was getting longer and longer. The audition concluded with the hosts basically saying, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” If we were to be contestants we would get a phone call in the first week of July. All we could do was wait.
We were chosen!
I was watching the calendar. July first was on a Wednesday before the holiday weekend. We didn’t hear anything before Independence Day, so I assumed if we were to receive a call it would come on Monday the 6th. My phone didn’t ring all day. I was depressed. At dinner, my wife asked if my work schedule was open in two weeks because she wanted to take me out for a special date, probably the last one before the baby came, I figured. “But honey, what if Wheel of Fortune calls?” I whined. “If they haven’t called by now, they're not calling,” she said.
But she just couldn’t take looking at my sunken face anymore. “We’re gonna be on Wheel of Fortune,” my wife announced with a beautiful smile! It turns out the people from the show called her earlier that day so she could give me the good news. We received a confirmation packet in the mail that Wednesday with our release forms to review, some general rules about what to wear and how to act, and 6 guest tickets for the taping. No kids under 8 are allowed, so our daughter would have to wait to see us on TV, and we had to decide who to give the tickets to. These are the people that would come rushing up to us after we (hopefully) won the Bonus Round, so it was an important decision. We also learned that if we were to win a trip we couldn’t give it to someone else. Bummer. We would have to either take the trip or forfeit it. With a toddler at home and a baby on the way, I didn't expect to take any vacations within the year. I was hoping for CASH, or maybe a new car. Heck, I was hoping to solve at least one puzzle and not make a fool of myself!
The Day of the Taping Arrived
We were told to report to the Venetian Hotel, where the show would be taped, by 8 am on Saturday July 18th. First we had to drop off our daughter at Grandma and Grandpa's house giving ourselves plenty of time for driving and parking, and we had to be fully dressed when we arrived. If we were late we could lose our spot to the alternate couple. Five episodes (a full week) are taped in one day with Monday's episode not scheduled to be recorded until 3:30 pm. So why did we have to get there so early? Good question! The contestant crew began preparing us by giving all 16 couples a tour of the set, letting each of us spin the wheel a few times, explaining about the used letter board and other aspects of the game, and having the production crew check out our wardrobe on camera. Three make-up artists then had to doll up 32 people for their big TV debuts, which took some time. And of course there was the official paperwork. The show’s producers have a security firm take care of that, and they were all business! The thirty-two of us were corralled together all day, had to go to the bathroom in guarded groups, had to have our cell phones OFF, and were told not to talk to ANYBODY except the contestant crew. Any communication with friends or members of the production crew or people in the audience during the tapings could be construed as an attempt to CHEAT. To avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety these strict measures had to be taken. Finally, we had to tape individual promos for the WOF crew and for our local TV station that airs the show. We were asked impromptu questions about how we met and what we love about each other, real sappy stuff that ended up on the official Wheel of Fortune web site to promote Sweethearts Week.
We eventually had to draw from a hat to determine which episode we would be on. My now 7-month-pregnant wife garnered no preferential treatment in that regard, and, as luck would have it, we would be on the Friday episode. That meant we still had a long day ahead of us. We also discovered that the show we were taping in July 2009 wouldn't air until February 2010! How were we going to keep this a secret for 7 months? My wife and I decided that we would tell friends and family that we were on the show, but we wouldn't reveal the outcome. They would have to wait and see.
In the meantime, we got pretty chummy with a few of the couples in the holding area. We were all in the same boat together, showing off pictures of our kids, discussing our expectations and concerns about being on the show, telling stories about our auditions. But that’s one of the good things about Wheel of Fortune. There isn't an intense feeling of competitiveness. Everyone gets to keep the cash and/or prizes they win, so even the third place couple may walk away with a few thousand dollars. We sat through the first three episodes being taped, watching these people we with whom we had spent the last 7 hours have their moments in the sun. After the Wednesday episode was “in the can” (TV lingo), there was a break for dinner, and that’s when the day started feeling quite prolonged. My wife was a real trooper as usual, but her back was starting to ache and the pregnancy indigestion was kicking in. As for me, this is when I first started getting the butterflies in my stomach. A fresh audience was ushered in for the last two episodes, which revived us a bit. They brought us backstage during the last segment of the Thursday episode for our final restroom trip, some touch up to our make-up and to get outfitted with our microphones. Before we knew it we were in our positions next to the big wheel ready to tape our episode!