By Jacqueline Monahan

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Wheel of Fortune Spins into Las Vegas, Tapes 30 Shows: My Experience as a Contestant Guest

The popular game show Wheel of Fortune, now in its 28th year, filled the enormous Hall A of the Sands Convention Center with its giant letter board, shiny showroom floor featuring a rotating car, and of course, the large, colorful wheel, containing dollar amounts, Free Spin markers, vacation packages, and the dreaded Bankrupt designation.

Pat Sajak, Vanna White, and the rest of the Wheel of Fortune crew, including 16 semis loaded with set decorations and equipment, were in town to six weeks worth of shows on July 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, and 20.  Five shows were taped on each of those days, with air dates that ranged from New Year’s Eve to late March, 2011.

The Show's Official Website

Your humble correspondent procured tickets for the last day of taping, July 20, through friend and standby contestant Philip Cousin.  Thinking that this was a coup, I dragged a date along to the taping, eager to absorb the unique experience that started out as a Merv Griffin brainchild.

My first hint of uncertainty came from the face of the ticket itself.  “Doors open – 12:00, Doors close – 1:15,” it said.  Right there was 75 minutes of waiting time, built right into the front end.

The first large area of Hall A contained a metal detector and numerous security guards who pointed in one of several directions depending on the type of ticket presented.  Mine said Contestant Guest, so after having noiselessly passed through the electronic doorway, and having a flashlight search conducted on my purse (no cameras or picture cell phones allowed) we made our way to an expansive, though sectioned, holding/seating area to join a handful of others.

Most people joined a herd-like processional that wound around long rows of chairs like a giant labyrinth.  This line moved swiftly and disappeared into a brightly lit studio.  Meanwhile, our little group along with those in the V.I.P., Gold Star, and Wheel Watchers section of seats in the waiting area had our own assigned handlers, who banded us (right wrist, bright orange for Contestant Guests) and slapped a name sticker on us – not our own names, but the name of the contestant we knew.

My guest and I wore a large white Philip Cousin sticker and gathered around our handler, Matt, for further instructions.  He carried a clipboard and wore a headset and politely made it clear that we weren’t going anywhere without an escort.  Matt presided over a small meeting with those of us who were fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough as it turned out) to know a contestant, whether they were friend or family.

Phillip Cousin

For legal reasons, it was necessary to treat our group like the proverbial red-headed stepchild of the production.  Matt told us that we’d be assigned the worst seats in the house; the camera would never venture over to us for reaction shots.  If we so much as waved at a glimpse of our contestant friend, we ran the risk of having him disqualified, us ousted from the premises, or both.  

Bathroom breaks had to be escorted by Matt or his assistant with the ominous-sounding name of Dragos.  General audience members would be allowed to fill in empty seats if they were better or closer than the ones they were given.  They’d also be allowed to play trivia games between show tapings for prizes.  None of these applied to us.

“Sorry,” I said to my guest, whom I had led to expect special treatment.  I was technically right.  He took it in stride, saying, “It’s an experience.”

Matt led us into the studio and to our section of seats, far right and without a decent view of anything on the lavish stage.  I could only make out parts of familiar objects, perhaps four entire blocks on the letter board and half of the famous wheel.  A large stationery camera setup obscured the center of the stage.

Chandeliers hung from the ceiling while the arm of a black crane-like piece of equipment held a roving mobile camera for audience shots.  Only one section of seats at the back of the studio was in stadium format, where the rows gradually rise from bottom to top.  Everyone else sat in red velvet banquet chairs arranged all on one level so that taller audience members got a better view than those that were more vertically challenged.

We waited while more audience members were seated, and viewed a video retrospective of some of the most memorable moments in the show’s history.  The video celebrated the completion of Wheel of Fortune’s 4000th show and contained amazing cash wins (some by guess), humorous contestants (one kept patting Pat Sajak’s backside whenever he approached) and spectacularly incorrect solutions (someone declared a “ group of pill-pushers” instead of the intended “group of well-wishers.”

A female employee was giving the three selected contestants what looked like a “Wheel tutorial” really whooping it up with loud enthusiasm and gestures that looked like she wanted them to swing an imaginary lasso over their heads.

An announcer addressed the crowd, telling us how much fun we were going to have and alerting us to the dire consequences of blurting out a puzzle answer within earshot of a contestant.  They’d have to forfeit their guess and all of their accrued prizes while the bigmouth got bounced from the studio.  We practiced applauding for the mobile camera, which steered clear of the Contestant Guest section as promised.

When Pat Sajak and Vanna White were introduced, it was their hair I saw more than anything else.  Vanna’s was straight and beveled at the shoulders.  Pat seemed to have a puff of hair right above his forehead.  Vanna’s gown was a floor-length sea foam silk print, while Pat wore a gray suit.  The two appeared totally at ease on stage, as if it were their second home.

We had to rely on a large video screen to view the show even though we were in the same room as the live action.  An applause sign lit up incessantly because, as you know if you watch the show, the audience claps for every spin, letter turn, and correct solution.  My companion started out obligingly enough, but I reminded him that his hands would give out if he continued.  We left the applause for the die-hard fans in the good seats.

Ticket for the Last Day of Taping

Among the items you get to see when you’re on the Wheel of Fortune set that are never shown on your television screen are the electronic board that removes letters as they’re called, leaving available ones displayed, and the contestant board which lists each of the players and their totals.  This one is reminiscent of the screen which records bowling scores.

Roving production crew members made their way down the aisles, their index fingers pressed to their lips as a constant visual warning for audience members to be quiet.  That’s the hardest part, keeping your tongue straight-jacketed when you know the answer.  My hands frequently clapped onto the sides of my face to force myself into silence.

Three contestants, vowel buyers all, vied for monetary superiority in a swiftly moving show that broke frequently for the commercials that would be inserted later.  Pat Sajak took the opportunity to walk the aisles during one such break, shaking hands and cracking jokes with those in the audience who could be acknowledged without lawsuits attached (i.e. Not Contestant Guests).  The friendly host made it all the way to the fans at the back of the studio before racing onstage to take his place at the wheel.

At this taping, Molly, a Las Vegas local was the big winner, and advanced on to the final round where the phrase “Food For Thought” (and $30,000) ultimately escaped her.  That left the poor girl with only $22,000 in cash and prizes.

Oh, and you know how a contestant’s friend or family member runs up to them from out of nowhere if they hit a big final prize?  That person stands just off camera but within view of the contestant as they attempt to solve the final puzzle.  In this case it was Molly’s mother in the cheerleading section although she didn’t get to make an onscreen appearance.  

As Pat, Vanna and Molly all stood chatting, the show paused for a final commercial break.  The last minute of taping featured the familiar banter between Pat and Vanna who then gave the official goodbye to viewers both in the audience and through the camera lens.

This was only the first of five shows that would tape that day, necessitating an outfit change for the two hosts after each one.  My companion and I, keenly aware of our pariah-like status as Contestant Guests, looked around for Matt to let him know we were leaving.  We were welcome to stay the entire day, but once you’ve seen a taping, there’s not much variation in the action, and I was afraid of impending lockjaw from keeping my mouth shut so much.

Souvenir Wheel Pin (it flashes)!

Since Matt was nowhere to be found, I stepped into the aisle and was immediately met by another headset-wearing fellow who nearly ran up to me.  I erased his concern by saying, “We’re leaving for the day.”  And just like that, he let us go.

It was enlightening to be a Contestant Guest at a taping of Wheel of Fortune.  Curiosity satisfied, puzzle solved.  And now I even get to go to the bathroom by myself.

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