Jim R's Blog Post
March 4, 2014
I have been a Wheel of Fortune fan all the way back to the original version hosted by Chuck Woolery. My family and I were living in Southern California when Pat and Vanna became the host and hostess ... and I remember watching Pat do the weather on a local news broadcast before he moved to Wheel.
We moved to Marin County, north of San Francisco, in 1985. One day in the late 80's or early 90's, I was coming down the stairs just as a new puzzle was displayed on Wheel. It was an "author and novel" puzzle and -- much to the amazement of my kids -- I knew the answer instantly, with no letters showing. It was "J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye", which I recognized, in part, because I had written my major English thesis in college on that very book.
From that moment on, I wanted to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. And, over the past 7 years, as my fiancée Candy and I watched Wheel every night, she often asked, "When are you going to get on Wheel?"
I signed up as a Wheel Watcher and then, in August of last year, received an email announcing a Wheelmobile event in Northern California, to be held at the Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort in Jackson, CA. About a two-and-a-half hour drive from home -- close enough!
So, on Saturday, August 17, 2013, Candy and I headed to Jackson, hoping that I would be selected for an audition to be a Wheel contestant.
The event was held in the casino’s convention hall, which holds just over 1000 people. They did three shows, during each of which names were selected at random from among applications placed in a big drum. They picked names in groups of five, for a total of about 50 during each show. So, about a 5% chance of being selected for an audition in each "show".
I was not selected during the first show, so back in line for the second. Once again, I was not selected, so back in line for the third show. This time, however, mine was the third slip picked in the first group of the show, so I got my long-shot audition (easily the most difficult part of becoming a Wheel contestant).
The Wheelmobile show’s "Pat Sajak" was a high energy guy named Marty Lublin and there was a substitute "Vanna White" named Morgan. Marty and the other Wheel people kept telling us that energy and enthusiasm (not my best personality characteristics) were important in the selection process, so I decided I needed to do something to set myself apart from the other contestants. Therefore, when it was my turn to be interviewed, I walked over and gave Marty a big hug, rather than shaking hands. He laughed and called it a “bro hug”.
Each group, after the introductions, played one “speed up” round puzzle. I was not the player who solved the puzzle, but the coordinators assured us that solving (or not) this puzzle would not be decisive as to who might be invited to a follow up audition.
We were then told that all of the auditions would be reviewed by Wheel’s producers and those selected for final auditions would be notified in two to three months. I felt pretty good about my audition and looked forward optimistically.
Just a few days shy of two months later, my optimism was rewarded when I received an email inviting me to a final contestant audition. I immediately confirmed that I would attend and, on Thursday, October 24th, it was back to Jackson Rancheria for Candy and I.
Contestants only allowed in the auditorium for these auditions, so Candy visited the casino while I, along with about 100 other would-be contestants, participated in a more intensive competition … followed by a further paring down to 30 or so for the final auditions and interviews.
During this audition, I had a pretty good run, solving two puzzles … a “Before & After” … “Cargo Deck of Cards” … and an “Event” … “Veterans Day Parade” … and was on a roll with a third … a “Movie Quote” which I knew to be "May the Force be With You" … when the hostess spinning the wheel intentionally bankrupted me to give other contestants a chance to play.
We also completed a written set of puzzles -- which proved to be more difficult than I expected -- I was able to solve only about half of them.
Nevertheless, I once again felt pretty good about my audition, but it was back to waiting, which they said could be as long as 18 months!
However, that proved not to be the case, as just a couple of months later I received an email from Contestant Coordinator Alexandra Reeves saying that I have been selected to be a contestant on Wheel and that I had a taping date of Friday, January 17, 2014 (coincidentally, my parents’ 69th wedding anniversary, a good sign, I thought).
So, time to prepare ... well, not really. I had been "preparing" for Wheel for more than 30 years and knew that "cramming" was not going to be much help. The only thing I did was review the capitals and other major cities of countries in Europe, in case one of them showed up in a puzzle.
Otherwise, I just watched the show every night and enjoyed the anticipation of being on it myself. Needless to say, my family and friends were excited and gave me all kinds of advice, such as "buy vowels," "don't guess letters that have already been played" and, most often, "win a lot of money!”
The day before my taping, Candy and I drove down to Los Angeles and checked in at the Culver Hotel, just down the street from the Sony Entertainment Studios. The hotel was built in 1924 and is a wonderful old, flatiron shaped building, with the result that our room had virtually no 90 degree angles, the walls coming together at a variety of acute and obtuse angles.
After having gotten up early for the drive south, I was tired and wanted to be well-rested for my Wheel appearance, so was uncharacteristically in bed and asleep by 10:00 pm.
The next day, I woke up promptly at 6:00 am and dressed in the outfit Candy had bought me for the occasion … black dress pants, long-sleeved grey shirt and solid gold tie … looked very spiffy!
Left the hotel at 7:00 to walk to the studio, which took about 10 minutes, so I was there well before the scheduled 7:45 arrival deadline. I was taking no chances on being late and getting scrubbed! Several other contestants arrived and we were taken to the contestant area, where we spent a couple of hours with the contestant coordinators (Alexandra, Gary, Jackie and Shannon) going over the taping procedures, legal requirements, game rules and playing hints, and getting hair and makeup done. Among the legal requirements was an agreement signed by each contestant not to reveal the results of the show until after it airs.
While all this was going on, Vanna White stopped by to say hello and wish everyone good luck … how exciting!
During this time, we also learned which game we would be playing and in what playing position … of the six shows being filmed, 5 were “European Vacation” theme shows scheduled for viewing the week of March 3-7 … and the 6th was an “America’s Game” show scheduled for broadcast on March 19th.
Of the 18 contestants that day, 6 were men and 12 women and we were divided into show groups of three each by the show’s producers. Not sure how they did that, but each group had one man and two women. Then one person in each group of three was called upon to select one of six numbered golf balls to determine which show that group would appear on. I was the “ball guy” for my show and picked #2, meaning we would be the second show filmed that day and would be playing in one of the European Vacation games, with a trip to Spain as the signature prize.
Then we had another selection process, with each person on our show selecting a small numbered ball to determine our position on the stage. I picked #1, meaning that I would be screen left, closest to Pat Sajak, during our show.
Finally, we also had an opportunity to play some practice puzzles, learn how to use the signaling devices for the toss up puzzles and spin the wheel, which was both smaller and much heavier than it looks on TV. The show’s producers taught us to spin the wheel by grabbing one of the posts with just the bottom three fingers, to avoid banging against the selection flippers, and I discovered that it is hard to get the wheel to make a full revolution. In fact, I was not able to do so.
In the meanwhile, guests of contestants were scheduled to arrive at 11:00, so Candy took a cab from the hotel to the studio and was eventually seated in the special guest section. Contestants were not permitted to have contact with or even communicate with their guests prior to taping, but I did manage to flash Candy a quick “heart” hand-sign to let her know I saw her in the audience.
Guests were entertained with interesting information about the show, including that shows are taped on Thursday and Friday, every other week, that the wheel weighs 2400 pounds, and that 10,000 people try out every year, while fewer than 600 get on the show!
While the first three contestants went through the final preparation for their competition, the rest of us were seated in our own section in the audience, at the opposite end of the audience from the guests, to watch the other shows. The first taping went by very quickly ...
... and then it was time for “America’s Game” … and my appearance as contestant on Wheel ... of ... Fortune!
So, tune in on Tuesday, March 4th, to see how I did ... and then I'll tell you what it was like to be on television's most popular show, hanging out with Pat and Vanna and spinning the Wheel.
March 5, 2014
Now it was time for our show. My fellow contestants, Ashley & Dominique, were both younger and better looking than I, and, as it turned out, quicker on the toss up button. At home, toss ups were always one of my strong suits -- not so much on the show.
The $1000 toss up was a "Movie Title" and Dominique solved it quickly, with just 5 of the 15 letters showing: "MIDNIGHT IN PARIS". Good start for her.
We then did our introductions, for which I had decided that the most important thing of all was to name my fiancée, Candy, who was in the audience, and our combined six grandchildren, aged 1 through 9. I knew the grandkids would get a kick out of hearing their names on TV. I actually managed to do it -- Kohl & Cheyenne, Hannah & Quincy, and Finnegan & McKinley -- without making any mistakes. After which Pat said, "We should give him some money just for getting all that."
The $2000 toss up was "People" and Ashley beat me to the buzzer on this one, but missed the second word of the puzzle, giving me another chance. And, since I am one (of the Cal Bears football team), I was able to solve "FAITHFUL FANS".
This, of course, allowed me to start the first regular puzzle, something from "The '80's", about which Pat said to me, "You & I remember the '80's, but I'm not sure about them." I managed to take advantage of going first on this puzzle by solving it without ever giving up the wheel. I ended up buying four vowels and got four of the consonants, but was hanging around the low value wedges just past the bankrupt every time I spun, so once I knew the answer, I immediately solved it: "WAKE ME UP BEFORE YOU GO-GO". Had $900 at that point, so won the minimum $1000 for any puzzle solve ... and had a "1/2 car" wedge.
When Pat came over to shake my hand, he said, "... I never root for particular players because they're all terrific, but I was hoping you'd solve this. I just wanted to hear it come out of your mouth." We both had a good laugh at that.
Next was a "Before & After" puzzle. Thanks to a missed letter and a "lose a turn" spin, the wheel got back to me with no letters exposed. On my first spin, I was exactly one peg (a third of a wedge) short of a second "1/2 car" wedge. Two S's got me $1800, so I proceeded to buy four vowels, O, A, E & I, then spun a "free play" and won $2000 with four N's at $500 each. With the N's, I also knew the puzzle: "BOWLING PINS & NEEDLES". Once again, because I kept spinning close to the bankrupt, I decided to solve rather than spin again, for a total win of $2800.
The next round, the "Prize Puzzle", proved to be decisive in determining who would go to the bonus round -- in fact, as it turned out, that result depended on the guess of a single letter. This puzzle was an "Event" and Dominique started out strong with two T's for $1800 and three H's for $1350. After buying two vowels, she spun and landed on the Express wedge. An S won her another $1000, upping her total to $4150, and she jumped on the Express.
Then came the crucial guess. The fourth word of the puzzle at that point was HO__SE and Dominique's next letter was a very logical U -- logical, but crucially incorrect. Unexpectedly, my turn again -- and I once again flirted with bankrupt, stopping just one peg short of it, but this time on the high value side on the $3500 wedge. I knew the puzzle, and that it had two R's, so won $7000 for those.
This time I decided to keep going and spun twice more, with an F good for $900 and a Y good for a Ricardo Beverly Hills Luggage $1000 gift tag and $500 in cash. With just a vowel left, I solved "THE YEAR OF THE HORSE" puzzle for $9400 in cash. This also won a prize trip to China & a digital camera, valued at $9097, for a total of $18,497 for this puzzle and $24,297 altogether.
Had Dominique guessed the R instead of the U, she undoubtedly would have solved the puzzle and gone on to the bonus round. That single letter made all the difference in the final result.
That was my last success short of the bonus round, as Ashley & Dominique solved each of the remaining three puzzles.
Dominique was quickest on the $3000 toss up (again), correctly solving "CAREER COUNSELOR".
Then Ashley, who hadn't had much chance to play, joined in on the next puzzle, category "Things". After Dominique had revealed several letters, she missed one, and I whiffed on a guess of L. Ashley then spun the $5000 wedge, correctly guessed P, bought an I, and solved the puzzle "INVESTMENT TIPS" for a $4750 win.
We had time for one more puzzle, with Pat doing the "Final Spin" on a "Place" puzzle. When he spun the $500 wedge, making each letter worth $1500, I knew that I would be going to the bonus round. This relatively short, two word puzzle, proved elusive for all of us. Before we were done, I missed on three consonants (T, M & G), while correctly guessing only two E's. Ashley added an R, but Dominique did the heavy lifting, correctly guessing S, N, L and 2 C's, after which she solved "SCENIC OVERLOOK" for a $7500 win.
After having spent several hours together in preparation, we had been friendly competitors and I was happy to see that Ashley & Dominique had each enjoyed success in the show.
Thanks to my fortuitously lucky Chinese New Year solve, I was going on to the bonus round. This gave Candy a chance to wave to her family and friends on TV ... and me a chance to nearly hit Pat in the head with the follow through of my spin of the Bonus Wheel! After which he said, "Missed me by that much!"
The Bonus Puzzle category was "What are You Doing?" and after RSTLNE was revealed, it looked like this:
__ __ N __ __ __ - S __ __ __ __ __ N __
Not many letters showing! I thought it likely that the last letter was G and was hoping to catch a second one somewhere else, so guessed G, D, M and O, which gave me:
__ __ N D O __ - S __ O __ __ __ N G
And which prompted Pat to say, "Well, I don't know. We'll find out soon, in about ten seconds."
Then, without the thought ever having formed in my conscious mind, the words leaped immediately out of my mouth, "WINDOW SHOPPING", surprising me as much as anyone else. Pat then revealed the bonus round prize of $30,000, and Candy rushed out onto the set for a congratulatory hug and waves to the audience.
I had a final, friendly chat with Pat and Vanna during the filming of the closing credits and then this most exciting day was over. The taping went by so fast, it was mostly a blur and I could not even remember some of the puzzles until the show aired and I was able to watch it myself!
This was a wonderful, literally once-in-a-lifetime, experience. Everyone associated with the show was great to the contestants -- the contestant coordinator team (Alex, Gary, Jackie & Shannon); announcer Jim Thornton, who regaled the audience during the breaks with Wheel stories & trivia; and, of course, Pat & Vanna, American television icons, who were down-to-Earth and very friendly to our group of nervous contestants.