By S. Clayton Moore,
The success of “Wheel of Fortune” is staggering. Every episode provides an entertaining half-hour for more than 19 million viewers. The show has been on the air, in one form or another, for more than 30 years.
What viewers might not know is that every so often, “Wheel of Fortune” takes its whole production on the road, to tape the show live, in front of fans all over America. Since 1989, “Wheel of Fortune” has taped more than 45 remote segments in 25 different cities, in front of more than 350,000 fans.
Moving the show is no small feat, and is akin to putting a major rock band out on tour. It costs over $2 million to move the show’s custom sets, the 4,000-pound wheel itself, and the Wheelmobile—a 32-foot Winnebago that tests the puzzle-solving skills of thousands of potential players—around the country. The show’s hosts, Pat Sajak and Vanna White, as well as 150 staff and crew, are flown to each site. They stay in local hotels for several days and film promotional spots at familiar tourist attractions.
This season alone, the show has traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Dallas. It even went to New Orleans last August, but had to cancel filming just before Hurricane Katrina hit.
“It was a little windy, as I recall,” Sajak said. “It was weird because we were taping on Saturday night, and Monday, I was at home watching the town go underwater. Happily, all the contestants were all right. We brought the players who were scheduled for that canceled day out to Los Angeles, and they got to play the game.”
In March, the show traveled to Denver, where it was filmed at the Colorado Convention Center. Nearly 5,000 ardent fans gathered to watch 15 shows, filmed over the course of three days. The themed shows will be shown during “Great Outdoors Week,” “College Week” and “Mom & Me Week,” all to air in May 2006.
“It’s great when we travel, because it lets a lot of people who might not be able to travel to Los Angeles see the show,” says Vanna White, the show’s famous hostess. “It’s been on the air for more than 20 years, so it’s exciting for them to see how it really works. Being here with Pat and I and the wheel and puzzle board is fascinating for them.”
The world’s most famous game show
Pat Sajak and Vanna White weren’t always television’s most celebrated spin doctors. Created by television legend Merv Griffin, the original pilot for “Wheel of Fortune” aired in 1974, and was hosted by Ed “Kookie” Byrnes. It made its NBC debut on Jan. 6, 1975, pitting three contestants against each other in the popular “solve the puzzle” contest, similar to the children’s game, “Hangman.” It quickly caught on as a straightforward but addictive viewing pleasure.
Chuck Woolery hosted the show from 1975 to 1981, with Susan Stafford handling letter-turning duties. Owned by the Sony Corporation, it has been distributed by King World Features since 1983.
The show came into its highest popularity in 1981, when Griffin chose Pat Sajak, a struggling Nashville weatherman, as host.
“It’s the great job in broadcasting and I make no secret of it,” Sajak laughed.
In 1980, a 23-year old actress named Vanna White was chosen to “come on down” on “The Price is Right,” the only game show on television that has been on longer than “Wheel of Fortune.” Two years later, White auditioned for the wheel-turning job and became the show’s regular co-host and a genuine American icon.
In September 2005, “Wheel of Fortune” started its 23rd season. It continues to draw a larger audience than most primetime shows and has been ranked as television’s top syndicated series for 86 consecutive sweeps seasons.
Much of the show’s spark comes from Harry Friedman, who joined the series as a producer in 1995, and was elevated to executive producer of both “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” in 1999. He has been an innovator on “Wheel of Fortune,” introducing new puzzles and bonus round challenges, developing the show’s website and viewer loyalty program (the SPIN I.D. program), conceptualizing the Wheelmobile and even updating the famous puzzle board so that the letters change with a touch of Vanna White’s hand.
“Our goal is to keep these shows fresh, stimulating and exciting,” he proclaimed.
One way the show maintains its novelty is through its road trips. In Denver, the show featured custom-designed, state-of-the-art sets that reflect a Rocky Mountain aesthetic. The 5,000 audience members were entertained with performances by the University of Colorado’s band and cheerleading team.
“Taking ‘Wheel of Fortune’ to the majestic city of Denver gives our viewers a glimpse of the great outdoors,” Friedman said. “These exciting episodes showcase the area’s natural beauty.”
During one of the Denver shows, Doug Presley, a senior Air Force Academy cadet from Colorado Springs, matched wits with other college students. He didn’t win the game, but walked away with a few thousand dollars and a great experience.
“It was a blast,” Presley exclaimed. “I had so much fun today.”
“Wheel of Fortune” has been a longtime supporter of the Air Force and other military services, through its regular “Armed Forces Week” themed show.
“It’s always a huge success,” White remembered. “We gave away lots of money. It’s a nice way to get some of our military people on television and show viewers the great job our armed forces are doing.”
Sajak, an Army veteran, feels a real connection to folks like Presley.
“You feel a certain kinship with these folks, because you know what they went through,” he said. “They’re pretty amazing men and women, to put themselves in the armed services, and do it voluntarily with great spirit. I have great respect for them.”
The high-flying Vanna White
Of course, most viewers are familiar with the natural beauty and hostess. Vanna White, a small town girl from North Myrtle Beach, S.C., has become one of television’s most famous personalities. Before the show, she stops by to see guests and visitors backstage, without all the television glamour.
“I usually drop in to where the contestants are waiting, right before I go into hair and makeup, so they get the opportunity to see the ‘real me,'” she said. “I’m right out of the shower, in my jeans and a sweater, and just come in to say, ‘Hello and good luck.'”
She’s made the most out of the job, leapfrogging from letter-turning to commercial endorsements, a nutritional video and numerous fashion layouts. In 1992, the “Guinness Book of World Records” recognized her as “Television’s Most Frequent Clapper.” She averages 720 claps per episode and more than 28,000 claps per season.
White’s career necessitates her frequent use of private jets, in order to make appearances across the country. It’s a little-known fact that she once had a lucrative jet charter operation. She bought her first Lear 35 in August 1994, and hired Clay Lacy to manage the jet out of his Van Nuys headquarters.
“I got involved because my ex-husband (George Santo Pietro, whom White divorced in 2002) was a pilot,” she explained. “We started flying a lot, and I thought, ‘Why not get my own jet?’ We got a jet with Clay Lacy’s help and it was always rented out. So we got another one, and it kind of became a business.”
Within six months of buying the first jet, White had purchased a second $2.1 million Lear. The jets proved to be a very profitable investment, earning an 11 percent return, plus she used them extensively to fly to locations like her home in Aspen, Colo.
White gave up the jet business following her divorce, but has kept up her savvy investments. She has poured some of her “Wheel of Fortune” money into real estate, buying and selling several homes and building one from the ground up. She also buys and collects fine wines.
In previous years, she had more time to act. She starred in the NBC television movie “The Goddess of Love” and made cameo appearances on “The A-Team” and “Full House,” as well as in movies such as last year’s “Dirt Nap,” directed by D.B. Sweeney. These days, though, White spends most of her energy on her biggest treasures, her two children, 11-year-old Nicholas and 8-year-old Giovanna.
“I used to want to pursue more acting and singing, but when I became a mother, everything changed,” she said. “They grow up so fast, and I don’t want to miss any part of their lives. They keep me very busy, when I’m not working on the show.”
White, who received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 20, is still surprised at the show’s enduring popularity.
“When I started on the show, it was only a daytime game show,” she remembered. “I thought, ‘This would be a great run if I could do it for a few years.’ It’s turned into a lifetime.”
Parents have often told her that their children learned the alphabet by watching the show. White believes the game’s simplicity is the key to its success.
“The thing that I think has kept the show alive all these years is that we’ve never changed the basis of the game,” she said. “Everyone loves solving the puzzles. It’s been around so long that it’s turned into a bit of Americana. It’s a half-hour of family fun and when you get everyone in the family to play, it’s fun no matter what age you are.”
You might think Pat Sajak has seen it all, and sometimes, he has—like the contestant who was so excited at winning that he kissed the host’s feet.
“It doesn’t take much to shock me, even after 23 years,” he laughed. “That’s the funny thing about contestants. You want someone who isn’t afraid to speak up in public, but you don’t want someone who thinks they’re auditioning for ‘American Idol.'”
It’s a fairly strange profession for a guy who started out as a typical broadcaster. While attending Columbia College, Sajak started out as a guest DJ on a local radio show, near his hometown of Chicago.
In 1968, he joined the U.S. Army and was promptly sent to Vietnam, where he hosted the morning show on AFVN in Saigon, yelling “Good Morning, Vietnam!”
“It was the biggest market I’d ever worked in up to that point,” he says with a smile. “We had half a million American soldiers there, as well as tons of civilians. It was the real beginning of my broadcasting career.”
Upon returning to the States, he bounced from gig to gig, working as a disc jockey, talk show host and weatherman, before being called up to “Wheel of Fortune” in 1981. He even got his own talk show, briefly, in 1989. He continues to host his own radio show, “The Pat Sajak Baseball Hour,” and occasionally fills in for Regis Philbin or Larry King.
“Doing the talk shows is a fun sideline,” he said. “I like what I’m doing and don’t have any plans beyond this show, which I assume will be the last major job of my life. But it’s fun to sit in and scratch that itch, without having to be there every day. I love doing it, but after a few days of doing a talk show, I’m ready to go back to the alphabet.”
Sajak makes hosting “Wheel of Fortune” look easy and admits the job isn’t taxing.
“I know the logistics of the show well enough that I could do it in deep REM sleep if I had to, but that’s not fair to the people that watch the show,” he said. “It’s why I get the big bucks.”
In fact, Sajak works just a shade over 30 days a year, taping the show.
“My life is a series of two-week vacations, and even on the days we tape, it’s not exactly grueling,” he admitted. “It’s a good way to make a living, and I recognize it. It’s a lot of fun when there are a lot of jobs that are not.”
It sounds so good that even he has to laugh.
“I sound so well adjusted,” he said. “There must be a dark side to me somewhere.”
A big part of the job is making guests comfortable enough to appear collected on television.
“We do these little interviews, not to dispense any great wisdom, but to try to break that terrible tension they have,” he explained. “They’re on TV now, so we try to get them to talk about themselves a little bit and break the sweat.”
Even though a good working knowledge of pop culture and an affinity for Scrabble doesn’t hurt, occasionally even Sajak is surprised at who wins. He recalled one recent contestant who kept catching a break when other players hit the “bankrupt” slot on the wheel. She was able to solve a series of mostly completed puzzles.
“It just kept falling into her lap, and she ended up winning the game,” Sajak remembered. “As we were heading into the last commercial, she turned to me and said, ‘I don’t know where I am.’ That was fairly frightening to hear.”
At the end of the first game in Denver’s “College Week” series, the winning contestant got off to a good start, winning more than $100,000 during her 22 minutes of fame. It’s just another prize on a show that has awarded over $153 million in cash and prizes to contestants over the past 20 years.
Sajak says hosting a show like that is just as enjoyable as it looks.
“First of all, it’s fun,” he said. “As corny as it sounds and as corny as it may look sometimes, it’s a great feeling to hand someone a new car or a hundred grand. You’ve made somebody happy, and it’s not even my money I’m giving them. I’m giving them money that was minted in Japan by the Sony Corporation. It’s a pretty good deal.”
For more information on Wheel of Fortune, visit [http://www.wheeloffortune.com].