by Kathy Wolfe
If you’d like to buy a vowel, follow along to view the facts Tidbits has spun up on America’s favorite game, “Wheel of Fortune.”
• Merv Griffin was the creator of “Wheel of Fortune,” the game show based on the word game Hangman. As Griffin recalled his childhood memory of playing Hangman with his sister on long car trips, in 1975, he brought the game to the air, with the addition of a large roulette wheel.
• Chuck Woolery was chosen as the host for the new program, along with former actress and model Susan Stafford who turned the letters. In 1981, when the Wheel’s ratings surpassed the popular “Family Feud,” Woolery asked for the same salary that was being paid Feud host, Richard Dawson. When the salary offer was $100,000 less than Woolery’s demand, he refused, and Griffin fired him.
• Susan Stafford started with the show’s debut on January 6, 1975, continuing until October, 1982. She gave up acting and modeling and returned to school to obtain a B.A. in Nutrition, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and began working with cancer patients. In 2011, the original hostess penned her memoirs in the book Stop the Wheel, I Want to Get Off,” sharing insider details of the game show, along with her childhood reminiscences and post-Wheel career.
• The “Wheel” almost wasn’t the “Wheel”! The original name was proposed to be “Shopper’s Bazaar,” since the initial premise was that contestants would use their winnings to shop for prizes in the gallery. Until 1989, winners went on a shopping spree, “purchasing” items like patio furniture, hot tubs, jewelry, travel, and the infamous Dalmatian statue.
• Producer Merv Griffin was a fan of the weatherman on the local NBC news affiliate, Pat Sajak, particularly enjoying Sajak’s charm and sense of humor. When Griffin proposed Sajak as Woolery’s replacement, NBC’s response was a firm “No” to the unknown local, citing his lack of qualifications for the job. Griffin held firm, refusing to tape any more episodes until the network caved. Sajak hosted for the first time on December 28, 1981.
• Sajak worked with Susan Stafford for nearly a year until Vanna White’s first episode on December 13, 1982. There were three finalists for the hostess role, but Griffin was most impressed with White.
• The show’s original announcer was Charlie O’Donnell, a seasoned veteran of announcing, having worked on “The Joker’s Wild,” “The $100,000 Pyramid,” “Card Sharks,” and “To Tell the Truth,” among others. He had also served as announcer on “American Bandstand,” the “Emmy Awards,” and the Academy Awards. When he passed away in late 2010, he was succeeded by current announcer Jim Thornton. Thornton had been a radio and television announcer for years, as well as serving as narrator for a portion of the 2001 film “Monsters, Inc.” and a voice actor in several video games.
• How about Vanna’s beautiful wardrobe? She claims she has only worn the same dress once over her 40+ years as hostess. After Vanna wears an ensemble, it is returned to the designer, and she does not get to keep any of the dresses, although she has occasionally purchased a favorite.
• There’s only one Wheel, a giant 2,400-lb. wheel that has been used the entire span of the show. When the show goes on the road, the Wheel is dismantled and reassembled at the new location. More than a million pounds of equipment are transported with the crew when traveling.
• The puzzle board, however, has undergone some changes. In the early years, the taping of the show took nearly an hour for a 30-minute program. It was a time-consuming process to have the board manually set up for each puzzle, about 10 minutes per puzzle. In 1997, the old board was replaced with a new electronic one with 52 touch screens, enabling the puzzles to be reset with the click of a computer mouse. Taping time was cut nearly in half.
• An entire season of “Wheel” is shot in less than 40 days. The crew works one day a week, filming 5 or 6 shows per day.
• The show receives upwards of 10,000 contestant applications a year, but just 600 land a spot. The “Wheel” has some pretty strict rules for being chosen as a contestant. Anyone who has appeared on any version of the show, including Teen Week, is excluded. Those who have appeared on any game/reality show in the last year or on any three shows in 10 years are barred. Naturally, any relative or employee of anyone with the remotest connection to the show is ineligible.
• Who comes up with those clever puzzles? There’s a whole crew who helps out, but surprisingly, crossword puzzle fan Vanna loves to compose them as well and her puzzles are used on a regular basis.
• Until 1988, contestants were not given the letters R, S, T L, N, and E in the bonus round. That’s the year those letters became automatic, and players now select three more consonants and one more vowel.
• How does Pat Sajak quickly tell contestants if their guessed letter appears in the puzzle? There is a screen off-camera that feeds Pat the info on the chosen letters. That screen hasn’t always been there, however. In the “old days,” there were assistants called “finger boys,” who stood in Pat’s line of vision and held up fingers to give Pat the number.
• Vanna White holds an unusual Guinness World Record, one that will most likely always be held by her. Vanna is “Television’s Most Frequent Clapper,” since she applauds contestants an average of 600 times per episode.
• The million-dollar wedge was introduced in 2008. That year, the first to win the million was Michelle Loewenstein, who won on 08/08/08. She solved the final puzzle with LEAKY FAUCET. It took almost five years until the next lucky million-dollar winner, Autumn Erhard, who solved the puzzle, TOUGH WORKOUT, with only four letters on the board. There have only been three million-dollar winners since the wedge’s inception.
• In the last 20 years, the show has given away an average of $46,000 – $50,000 in cash and prizes per show. But just how much do the contestants keep? Players pay taxes on both cash and travel. A contestant in 2016 won $16,400 in cash along with two trips, a grand total of about $31,700. He did take two beautiful vacations, but by the time he paid his taxes, actual cash earnings were about $6,000.