Part III of a III-part Series:
The day to make the quick 24-hour trip to Culver City had finally arrived, and I was ready to live out this once in a lifetime dream. Since the theme of the tapings was Greatest American Cities – The San Francisco Bay Area, we knew that some puzzles would have a San Francisco or Bay Area topic, so my girlfriend was getting my mind ready by quizzing me on all landmarks, places to visit and anything that might represent our area. After checking in to the local hotel across from the studio lot, we met a few fellow contestants who were staying there as well. All of us began to swap stories and similar thoughts and feelings we were all experiencing. I knew that I needed a good night’s sleep, so I called it a night early; however, it was well known that I would not be sleeping too much.
When my alarm went off, I began racing around to get ready and have something light to eat. My grandmother and girlfriend could not accompany me at this time as they had to drive over at noon when all the other guests could arrive. The contestants were being picked up at 7:00 a.m. by the Wheel Shuttle and arriving early to begin practice, get make-up and go through all kinds of legal paperwork. On the ride over, there were six of us in the van, and we all continued to share and help each other to relax. It was such a wonderful time getting to know others who I was to compete against.
The moment the van pulled up to the studio lot, and you looked up at the big Wheel of Fortune Wall, it truly began to sink in: that I was about to live out a dream and compete on America’s Game Show. After signing in, we all took a seat in the contestant room and waited for our instructions. We met all the contestant coordinators, and they told us what to expect throughout the day. There were going to be six show tapings with a break in the middle. Since there was no live studio audience at this time due to the pandemic, all contestants not being taped became the audience and watched from the studio. However, before we got to that point, we had approximately four hours of learning all the rules, signing legal documents and getting made up.
At one point while we were all going through the papers, we had two special guests appear to say hi and keep us calm. One of them was the executive producer at the time, Harry Friedman, and the other was none other than Vanna White. She was in sweats and no make up and looked as good as she does on TV. She was so down to earth and talking to us and giving some great advice, which helped me when I was on stage.
After all the paperwork was done, and we went over all the rules, we were able to do a practice run spinning the wheel and calling letters. It was truly amazing. I remember the studio being quite cool in temperature and the wheel being smaller than seen on TV. However, the wheel is quite heavy and weighs approximately 2,400 pounds. Doing the practice rounds helps to get the nerves out and the contestant supervisors get to remind you what to do. Many things you needed to remember were to keep smiling, keep clapping, buy those vowels, annunciate clearly and above all be prepared to call your next letter.
Back in the contestant room, we were randomly put into groups of three, and one of us picked a number from a bag which was to tell us what episode we were going to tape. I knew I did not want our lead to pick 1 or 6 for obvious reasons, and as luck had it – we got 2, so we went second. They then had all three in my group stand up and pick colored marbles, which was then going to tell us where we were going to stand on the podium, and again as luck had it, I got to be next to Pat Sajak.
The nerves really began to pick up when we watched the first group tape, and our group went in to get final make up and wardrobe checked. We had the microphones attached and were all ready to go. As we got called out and I took my place next to where Pat would stand, I was taking in every moment. I looked up for my grandma and girlfriend to make sure they got there okay. As the intro music began, Pat and Vanna did their walk, all the while I was clapping, smiling, taking three deep breaths and was ready to win at the wheel.
The first two puzzles are toss-ups where letters come up randomly and you ring in when you think you know the answer. I remembered that you do not want to wait too long, but always ring in right after a letter comes up when you could guess. I was able to do that for the first two and guessed right: Delicious Clam Chowder and My New Smartphone. The first one was quick for me, because my girlfriend and I practiced all San Francisco items on our drive down, and clam chowder was at the top of our list. In between those toss-up puzzles you get a chance to introduce yourself and that is where you get to interact with Pat a bit more.
On the very next puzzle, a crossword style one, I was able to spin first because I answered the second toss-up. I was so thankful that on the very first spin, I did not hit ‘bankrupt’ or ‘lose a turn.’ I do not remember what the first letter I called was, but I do know I landed on the wild card wedge and the million-dollar wedge and got them because I called a letter that was in the puzzle. However, I got down to the last few letters and called a wrong one. A couple of spins later, the puzzle was solved and there went the chance at a million dollars for me. But I still had $3,000 from the first two rounds and more than the show minimum of $1,000.
The fourth round was controlled by the second contestant as she did not relinquish her turn and solved the puzzle. The fifth puzzle was the prize puzzle, and I was the second one to begin choosing letters. When it was my turn, I kept control all the way and solved the puzzle with one letter left. I know many of my friends and family were yelling at their TVs as they most likely had the puzzle, Exceptionally Luxurious, long before I did. But I built my bank, finally solved, and won a trip to Antigua, which I am taking at the end of April 2021.
After the second to last commercial break, there were three more toss-ups that were $2,000 each, and I was the first to ring in on each of them (again, something you were advised to at least give yourself a chance). I was able to get one out of the three and have a total of $17,800, a $9,000 lead by this point. On the last puzzle before the bonus round, Pat gave the wheel a final spin and each letter was worth $1,650. My first guess provided me with $8,250; however, the next contestant also guessed a letter that was in the puzzle five times for $8,250. It went around a couple more times, and Pat mentioned a lot was riding on this puzzle because now one of the two of us would win and go on to the bonus round. My turn was next, and I knew “Connecting to the,” but Internet was just not coming to me and the n’s, t’s and e’s were provided. It was heartbreaking to say the least after the contestant next to me solved it and went on to the bonus round. A tough pill to swallow for sure, but nonetheless, I had the most amazing time.
I went upstairs to the prize room and began signing documents for the cash and trip. This dream came full circle when I noticed a familiar face in the room. I turned to look at the individual to ask her how long she has worked for Wheel, and she replied about 17 years. This woman was the one who was the stand-in Vanna in 2004 turning the letters on my proposal puzzle when Wheel was on location in San Francisco. She laughed and could not believe what a small world it was. It not only is a very small world, but one that allows you to take chances and follow your dreams: you just never know where they might lead.