800 make the cut to spinBy Burl Burlingame
the 'Wheel of Fortune'
THEY come from every race, creed, color and ethnicity, but they're actually all alike in the way it matters; game-show demographics.
They're bright, they're bubbly, they're enthusiastic, they're smart, they're cheerful, they're good-looking.
You almost want to wring their necks. Being in a room with a herd of yapping "Wheel of Fortune" hopefuls is like being trapped on an elevator with a pack of Cub Scouts on a sugar binge.
Today, "Wheel" begins filming two week's worth of episodes in Hawaii that will run Feb. 15-26. Last week, about 18,000 applicants were whittled down to several dozen during auditions at Hilton Hawaiian Village, where the show is being taped on a specially designed set.
All those applicants were randomly boiled down to 800, said KHON Fox-2 promotions manager Lee Hacohen. These were then screened for "appearance, attitude, aptitude and enthusiasm."
The theme is "best friends," a kind of buddy-system, tag-team approach to playing that has the effect of getting twice as many smiley faces on the screen.
For those who have been struck brain-numb by the Televised Awfulness from Washington, D.C., over the last year, "Wheel of Fortune" is the Merv Griffin cash cow in which contestants figure out a glitzy version of "Hangman," advancing with lucky spins on a prize wheel and informed guesses on the letters of a hidden phrase.
Host Pat Sajak keeps everything grounded with a kind of droll it's-just-a-game-folksiness, and glamorous letter-turner Vanna White bobbity-bobs her head in excitement and chirps "Byee! Byeee!" at the end of the show. Among all the bright lights, Sajak and White come across like real human beings.
The show is a ritual for many. It's not as eggheaded as the Poindexters who watch "Jeopardy," although it does require some skullwork. Smug home viewers generally figure out the answers before the contestants, who sometimes seem to have gone catatonic, seized with brain fevers. At the same time, because of the relentless, spinning wheel, it's also a crap shoot. Although "Wheel of Fortune" may not be a perfect metaphor for the vicissitudes of life, among game shows it strikes a perfect balance of greed, glory and guesstimation.
Which brought all these infectiously happy people in one room last week. The final audition cuts the number by two-thirds, and even if you make that cut, chances of getting on are iffy.
None of these people appeared to care. They were squealing! They were chortling! They were whooping! Howling! Cheering! Huzzah-ing! Even hard-bitten journalists (know any?) found themselves giggling like tickled schoolgirls.
Visually, they fit the ideal game-show demographic; neat, upbeat, middle-class. When's the last time you saw a "Wheel" contestant who was a 300-pound biker in a boozy killing rage? A nun with Tourette Syndrome? A skinhead? A scabby, depressed teen-ager in a 30-year-old tie-dyed T-shirt? A Supreme Court Justice? Your mama?
The pre-game rounds were played with nothing fancier than a cheesy cardboard wheel, flashcards taped to the top of a blackboard and squares sketched onto butcher paper.
The casualness of the "Wheel" coordinators (who were dressed like summer-camp counselors), the intimacy of the room, the deliberately low-tech gamepieces were a canny psychological touch -- the auditionees were immediately put at ease.
It's useless to go into details. Essentially, everyone in the room had a couple of shots at playing the game, everyone took a pop quiz, after which most were excused, and those remaining were asked questions about themselves. They responded with exaggerated gestures and fluent italics. "We're TRAVEL agents!" "We're nuclear SUB-mariners!" "I just gave BIRTH last month!" "I love to MOUNTAIN-bike!" The coordinators nodded sagely after each answer, then the whole group was told "don't-call-us-we'll-call-you." That's it.
In effect, though, the session went like this:
"Let's play another game!" said head coordinator Gary O'Brien.
"YAYYYYYYYYYYYY!" went the contestants.
"It's a bonus game!"
"The winner will get a picture of Pat and Vanna!"
Talking to some of the best-friend finalists during the quiz-correcting break revealed more similarities than differences among them. Trudy Guo and Jill Otaguro have been watching for more than a decade, and finish each other's answers. Tracy Bautista and Lyle Silsby tape the show for each other. Steve Chmielewski and Greg Smith don't get to watch the show on their submarine, because the other sailors prefer watching sports. They have "Wheel"-centric lifestyles.
The coordinators, as it turned out, picked a pretty good demographic. Sent packing were the hesitant, the fumble-tongued, the publicly awkward, those wearing jeans.
Hawaii contestants on "Wheel of Fortune" may look "local," but they're like Wheelies world-wide. At any given moment, deep down, where it counts, this is what they're thinking:
(Click here for "Wheel" puzzle answer.)
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