Wheel of Fortune premiered on January 6, 1975. Its original host was Chuck Woolery (later of “We’ll be back in two and two” fame) and letter-turner Susan Stafford. Pat Sajak and Vanna White didn’t take over the show until the early 80s.
Here’s how I got on the show, and the circumstances surrounding it:
I always knew I was pretty good at the game, especially during the summer of 1975, when I was on a summer swim team (Danny’s Dolphins!). After practice I would often stop by the 7-11 on the way home from the Athletic Field pool, buy a glazed doughnut, and plop down on the couch because I was so exhausted from swim practice. This was right about the time Wheel of Fortune would come on. At that time, it was a daily show on in the morning at 10:30 am. I watched it every day and could sometimes get the puzzles before any contestant had guessed any letters at all.
Fast forward through MANY important life events to four years later, and I was a Marine Corporal stationed at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. From the influence of a close Marine buddy, I was inspired to try out for a game show, since I was only two hours away from that “Mecca” of game shows, Los Angeles. In September of 1979, I tried out for the game show Password, but did not qualify to be on for whatever reason. I knew this was practice for the show I really wanted to get on. Shortly after that, I purchased a book “How to Get on Game Shows and Win”, which gave me a lot of information that I could use at my next tryout.
I got the information for Wheel of Fortune from the marquis card they displayed at the end of each show. I applied, and was instructed to try out at the Merv Griffin Studios, right above the theater where they were currently shooting the Carol Burnett show. By this time, I knew I had an advantage in that I was
A: A Marine (service member)
B: male, and
C: from out of state
as, according to the book, the last thing that game show producers want on the show is “housewives from Southern California”, and they want to include a variety of people from all over the country. Armed with that knowledge, and passing the preliminary test with ease, I felt I had a pretty good chance.
The preliminary audition was in a little room no bigger than half a classroom. The casting agents asked us questions, and in stead of being my normally “reserved” self I felt I had to step out of character and be outgoing, excited, and whatnot, (according to the book’s suggestions) in order to catch the agent’s eye. We then played a pretend version of the game, with a cheap little wheel like you’d see at a charity event. I pretended to be as bubbly as any of those people you’d see on Let’s Make a Deal. It also didn’t hurt that I was damn good at the game, although at this point we weren’t playing for points, they just wanted to see how we would play out on screen. They sent me back to the base (“Don’t call us, we’ll call you”). I thought that was pretty much it, as I’d had the same response from Password.
Surprisingly, shortly I received a postcard that said “We want you for a CALL BACK interview.” I wasn’t sure what a callback was, but have since found that it is a highly anticipated term for actors waiting for parts. I went back to L.A., and through pretty much the same routine, playing the game, and this time answering questions in a one-on-one interview. They sent me back to base again without any definitive word.
A few more weeks went by, and I hadn’t heard anything. One day, I went out for a strenuous 3-mile run during chow break, and had just returned to the reception area of my duty station (Tactical Systems Support). Our Marine manning the phones had just picked up a phone call for me, handed it over, and the person on the other end said “You’re going to be on WHEEL OF FORTUNE!!” I can’t describe what a rush that was, exhausted as I was, I just couldn’t believe it. We made the arrangements, and I was slated to tape the shows on December 7, 1979.
That day, I rode my motorcycle up to L.A. and the NBC Studios in Beautiful Downtown Burbank (the same place where Johnny Carson taped his shows! I even saw his parking space!) I was in my Marine Alpha uniform (I thought Dress Blues might have been a bit much), with perfectly creased trousers, new haircut, and a well-within regulations mustache trim (perhaps trimmed a bit too much…). I was representing the entire Marine Corps here. And as I recall, I did have permission from my Commanding Officer to appear on the show.
They gathered the contestants for that day’s taping, and explained that we would be taping four 1/2-hour shows that day (Friday). I eyed the other contestants to see whose ass I was going to have to kick to win this thing. We got a tour of the Wheel of Fortune studio (much smaller and cheaper than it looked on TV) and a review of the prizes. I don’t think I absorbed much of it just because of the excitement of being there. But there was no ceramic bulldog! That was a prize that I had had sworn, if I ever got on the show, I would buy it and smash it in a million pieces, thinking what a worthless expenditure they had on often as a “prize”. But, that was before becoming a Marine. Since the bulldog is the Marine Mascot, I was disappointed now NOT to see it among the prizes I could potentially win/buy, as I would have kept it as a great memento. There was, however, a ceramic dachshund…
We drew lots, and I was not selected for the first show taping, so I sat in the audience with the remaining contestants. I remember very little about watching that first show with the anticipation of being able to play soon. My friends and fellow Marines, Gits Rivero (who got me into all of this – THANKS BUDDY!), Bob Amburn, and Donna Weber had all come up later in the day to attend the taping of the show and were in the audience somewhere behind me. We contestants were kept separate from the small audience and I think I glimpsed them up there, but we were always watched closely and not allowed any interaction outside our little contestant’s group (12 or 13 people). At one point I walked behind a false wall, in order to find the coffee service we’d been shown before. A stage handler was on me in a second, explaining that I was not to leave the group for any reason. Understandable, considering the lengthy list of rules we’d been given, and the game show scandals of several years before. We were even accompanied to the bathroom (but allowed a bit a privacy, at least.)
The contestant coordinators drew three new players for show taping #2, and I was in the first spot! In the studio tour we had been given a chance to spin the Wheel – and a suggestion that for those with short reach, to reach across and spin it with the left hand, in order to ensure it went around at least once. A choice was also offered (ostensibly to everyone, but meant for the shorter people) to decide if we wanted to use a little box to stand on if we wanted. As I’d found it difficult to reach over the rail and get a good spin, I opted for the box. The fact that it added 4 inches to my height on TV didn’t factor in at all.
We got in our places, the lights came on, the music came up, and I was on WHEEL OF FORTUNE!!
“LOOK AT THESE FAAABULOUS PRIZES!!!”
My final total was $15,441. Not bad for a few hours’ work! I was totally fried at the end of the day and thankfully Gits offered to take my motorcycle back to the base while I rode and recovered in the car with Donna and Bob.
The shows were broadcast on December 27th, 28th, and 31st, as there was a weekend in between. I was off duty those mornings (worked a later shift) so I was able to audio record the shows while watching them in the barracks. At this time I thought it would be the only record (other than the prizes) that I was ever on the show. Fortunately my uncle Delbert was a teacher at a high school and had access to an industrial 1-inch video tape recorder. He was able to get the second two shows on video, for which I am eternally grateful.
I rode very high on my “fame” at the base for a while, because while other Marines from my unit had been on game shows, none had ever had the success I did. However, six days after the last show was broadcast, duty called, and I got my orders to be transferred to Okinawa, Japan at the end of June. I was quite excited about the prospect, but also concerned that there was a one-year limit to take all the trips I had won, and now I had less than six months to do it.
So, in March I went home on leave and had my taxes done (not very well, I might add), and also to St. Louis, Missouri for Gits’ wedding. I was Best Man, which was quite an honor. In April I took my first Wheel of Fortune prize trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with Rich Norman, another Marine friend. Of course Gits had been my first choice to accompany me on my trips as we had become very tight in the last year, but I couldn’t expect him to get married and then immediately take off for a few weeks away from his new wife. In May I went to Italy for two weeks, by myself due to various circumstances. But, I was with a tour group so I got to know the other 30 or so people fairly well. It turned out that five or six of those couples were game show winners also. Unitours (nicknamed Looney Tours) was apparently a sponsor for game show trips. Then in June I was stationed to Okinawa to serve my last year of active duty in the Marine Corps.
That time of January 1980 to June of 1980 was a whirlwind six months, and I had not traveled much previous to my time in the Marine Corps. The trips to Mexico and Italy (I so loved Italy!) prepared me for the culture shock of going to and living in Japan, and it was extremely beneficial. It was an incredible year there, and when I returned to the U.S. in June of 1981, I received my Honorable Discharge from the Marine Corps.
I would be a very different person if not for the Marine Corps and the friends and experiences I had there, and am thankful for all the opportunities it afforded me. Notably for the close friends I’ve made (and kept over the years). Thanks also to uncle Delbert for taping the shows and making this recording possible, and to Mom and Dad for the quick $2000 loan to help me cover the taxes at the last minute.
This is not something I dwell on a lot, as I have done a lot of other satisfying things since, but I always get people I haven’t seen for a long time saying “I saw you on Wheel of Fortune!” It was just one part of a very full life, but an immensely rewarding one!
And yes, I bought the ceramic dachshund!!