Wheel of Fortune

updated 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Kiss off, Richard Dawson and the gushing contestants on Family Feud. Move over, Monty (Let's Make a Deal) Hall, Bob (Trivia Trap) Eubanks and Dick ($25,000 Pyramid) Clark. What's the hottest game show in the history of Western civilization? It's that mercantile mandala, Wheel of Fortune, with host Pat Sajak.

If you ask yourself, "Pat who?" get with it. A staggering 42 million people see Sajak's Wheel every day, which makes it not just the most successful show ever syndicated but also one of the biggest audience grabbers on television today. Early in January, Wheel achieved what many experts considered impossible by drawing a five-day average rating higher than the seven-day average for each of the three major networks. Not since the infamous $64,000 Question of the 1950s has there been such a high-stakes game-show phenomenon. Wheel has revived good, clean American greed. The Texas-size roulette wheel on the show lights up like the Las Vegas Strip when contestants hit it big. And hit it big they do. Each nighttime Wheel gives away about $20,000 in prizes ($10,000 for daytime), not the usual tacky dinette sets but big-ticket items like cars, jewelry and trips. "Viewers seem to have been waiting for a show like this," says Merv Griffin, the talk-show host who created Wheel. "The game is simple, and the audience at home can share in the vicarious thrill of a shopping spree. It's like being let loose on Rodeo Drive."

Wheel started as a daytime entry on NBC 10 years ago. It was a solid hit but nothing for the Guinness Book of World Records until Griffin created a second, nighttime Wheel last September. That glitzy, prize-heavy version zoomed to the top of the ratings. Today Wheel is knocking out the competition, such as Entertainment Tonight and P.M. Magazine, wherever it spins. And, along with megaratings, the show is generating megabucks. This humble little enterprise (each show costs a virtual pittance to package) will make $68 million in profits this year, 65 percent for Griffin's production company and the rest for the distributor, King World.

The popularity of Wheel (celeb devotees include Mick Jagger and Dr. Armand Hammer) has made an unlikely folk hero of Sajak, 38, who hosts both shows. A former Los Angeles weatherman with a pudding face and a Howdy Doody haircut, the surface Sajak is pure Plastic Man. His push-button geniality has made him the butt of jokes for hip comics such as Saturday Night Live's Martin Short. But Wheel fans dote on him. And Sajak, perhaps emboldened by success, has been letting a wry wit poke through.

For many men, of course, the star of Wheel is Pat's appealing second banana, Vanna White, 28, a former model from Myrtle Beach, S.C. Vanna turns the letters on Wheel's puzzle board while showing off her curves (36-23-33) in the most gloriously tacky outfits this side of Frederick's of Hollywood. Her enthusiasm for the alphabet has won her a loyal following.

Vanna is a throwback to a time when men were boys and girls were cheerleaders. "When you see someone trying to win a car, you just have to root for them," says Vanna, who once clapped so hard for a contestant that she fell off her puzzle platform.

What's it like behind the scenes at this national obsession? PEOPLE traveled to NBC in darkest Burbank to find out everything from how contestants are selected to what (besides money) greases that wheel.

The wheel comes up fortune for Pat and Vanna

If Pat Sajak were being auditioned for Wheel of Fortune, his personal life would barely fill the 3 x 5 index-card summary of a contestant's life. He seldom sees Wheel staffers, including Vanna, outside the show. Says his friend, Wheel creative consultant Paul Gilbert, "He's a genuinely shy guy." Sajak runs from a reporter's questions, protesting, "My relatives don't know anything about me—why should I tell you?"

After much digging, here are the details: Sajak was born and raised in Chicago, the son of a Polish-American truck driver. (As a child, he turned spoons into play microphones.) A 1967 dropout from Columbia College in Chicago, he started out as an English-language announcer on a Spanish-language station in the Windy City. His military service in Vietnam consisted of working as a disc jockey at a government radio station in Saigon. He wonders, "How do you explain to your grandchildren that you were a deejay in the war?"

After the war, as a weatherman in Nashville and Los Angeles, Pat quickly distinguished himself with humorous takes on sun and smog. In 1981 he was hired to replace departing daytime Wheel host Chuck Woolery. "I loved Pat's whimsical antics," says boss Merv Griffin, "and I thought he had the right characteristics for a game-show host, which is a guy who looks like your favorite son-in-law."

Sajak and his wife, Sherrill, live in Glendale with her 17-year-old son, Mason, whom Pat has adopted. Pat earns more than $500,000 a year for working a few days a week (the 40 daytime and nighttime shows are taped over an eight to 10 day period each month), plus traveling to promote the show. His agent is currently negotiating for even more money in Sajak's new contract (veteran Price Is Rightmost Bob Barker makes $2 million a year). Although Wheel has taken off during his tenure, Sajak demurs, "The game's the thing. My job is to make the contestants look good and to keep the game moving."

Friends say that Sajak dreams of being a talk-show host like David Letterman. Sajak denies such ambitions, protesting, "I could be happy being a game-show host for the next 20 years."

There is a little bit of Dolly Parton between Vanna White's blond mane and wide blue eyes. "I know people are laughing at me because I'm a dumb game-show hostess," she confides in her rich Southern accent. "But I'm laughing all the way to the bank."

Paid more than $100,000 a year for board work and squealing "bye-bye" at the end of each show, Vanna, surprisingly, sees her Wheel role as a blow for feminism. "I'm not like one of those Price Is Right girls who just model the merchandise. I have my own introduction, and I play an important part in the show, turning the letters around and cheering on the contestants."

The puzzles are selected at random just before taping—they are known only to Vanna and a few crew members. "It isn't easy when you're up there on the puzzle board," she insists.

It must not be. Three years ago Vanna was selected from among 200 applicants vying to be the new Wheel hostess. "She had that girl-next-door quality," says producer Nancy Jones. Today Vanna's fans range from grandmothers to young boys whose mothers write, "My son waves bye-bye to you every night." So important are her fans that Vanna is loathe to reveal that she has a boyfriend. "It's nice for the fellows at home to feel they have a chance," she explains modestly.

Sorry, guys. Vanna lives with former soap actor John (The Young and the Restless) Gibson, 36, in the Hollywood Hills. "He's just adorable," she says, "and he's not threatened by my success." Vanna keeps her weight at 110 pounds by working out with weights. Perhaps as an antidote to her bustle-tight Wheel wardrobe, off camera she favors sweatpants.

As a child in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., Vanna "always dreamed of being a movie star." She became a model in Atlanta before moving to L.A. in 1980. She landed roles in minor films (Looker, Graduation Day) and TV guest-shots before being cast on Wheel. Since the game show, she has had offers to do a series of her own, but she's planning to stay put. "A series could go or not go," she reasons, "and I've got a 30-year mortgage to pay."

Even though she is the soul of practicality, Vanna says Pat is not. "He cuts up off camera," she says. Like the time she gave Pat a little something for Valentine's Day. "I brought him a chocolate heart," she recalls, "and he gave me a plastic pancreas. He's a funny guy." But serious too. "Pat really cares about the contestants," says Vanna. "After a show, he'll say to me, 'Wasn't it too bad she didn't say a "T"?' "

A day in the life of the Wheel

It's showtime in Wheel-land, where the five nighttime shows of the week will be taped in one day. Up close the Wheel set looks surprisingly cheesy. In one corner the seven-foot-eight-inch roulette wheel lies unlit and motionless, looking like an old Christmas ornament with its worn, green-carpeted base and ring of white lights. The leftover yuletide motif extends throughout the large, chilly soundstage. The 13-foot-high puzzle board is covered with iridescent green paper; the three revolving platforms of prizes are trimmed in wilted tinsel.

Half of the Wheel merchandise is purchased by the producers, the other half donated by sponsors in exchange for on-air plugs. The big prizes of the day are impressive, but their symbols (a moth-eaten toy Ilama for a trip to Chile) beggar the imagination. The only prizes that look as good on the set as they do on TV are the new cars, a $21,374 classic Saxon roadster and a $15,090 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Crew members take turns screeching them into bookend position.

Downstairs in a briefing room the 17 contestants (including two standbys) of the day sit meekly with first-name-only name tags plastered on their lapels. The group is mostly white and mostly female and they have been assembled since 11:45 a.m. These contestants are the cream of the crop from Wheel auditions (the producers receive 200 inquiries a day), which are held weekly in Hollywood and about 20 times a year in cities around the country. Out-of-towners pay their own way.

Wheel hopefuls take a written puzzle test, then try a mock game. Says Wheel producer Nancy Jones, "We're looking for people who can play the game and enjoy themselves on TV. We want a cross section of real people, not just Southern California beauties."

Wheel is an empire based on Merv Griffin's childhood passion for games. He combined Hangman with roulette to create Wheel and devises many of the Wheel puzzles, even writing down phrases on napkins. "There's one TV personality," he confides mischievously, "who talks in so many clichés that he's a virtual gold mine for me."

Here's how Wheel works: Three opponents in turn spin a wheel that stops at different cash amounts. The first contestant guesses letters in the puzzle, which is a person, place, object or common saying. As long as a contestant keeps calling letters correctly, a cash "bank account" is accumulated with which to go "shopping." If a contestant misses the letter, the next contestant takes a turn. The top dollar amount on the nighttime wheel is $5,000; on daytime, $2,000.

In the Wheel briefing room, associate producer Robin Kenner mixes reassurance and pep talk in her orientation of contestants. Since all game shows are a seamless commercial for products, it's crucial to make the prizes look good. "If you have to buy that ceramic dalmatian today," Kenner tells her charges, "look happy about it." (Mischelle Allanson, 26, of Cleveland was happy to take it home.) Contestants hear good/bad news about their potential winnings. The good news is that they may win top prizes. The bad news is that contestants' winnings are reported as income to the IRS. Even worse, as on other game shows, the price tags on the prizes are figured at top retail dollar, which means that a winner who sells a prize may be in for a rude awakening.

Since the quiz-show scandal of 1959, game-show contestants are under tight security. Once they enter the studio the Wheel group is impaneled and isolated like a sequestered jury. They are allowed to talk to no one but fellow contestants and the Wheel coordinators, a gracious group that seems immune to contestant burnout. "We make phone calls for them, and we even go with them to the bathroom," says coordinator Harv Selsby.

After a cafeteria-style lunch, the contestants are taken for wheel-spinning practice on the set. The wheel, which can be electrically operated, requires healthy elbow grease when contestants operate it manually. Coordinator Greg Muntean (who has since joined Jeopardy!) stands in for Pat, who wanders across the set almost unnoticed in a gray sweatshirt and pants.

Vanna, however, clearly enjoys pressing the flesh. Teetering on impossibly high heels in a ruffled chiffon number, she goes out to greet the audience: "How are ya'll doing?"

Vanna's form-fitting outfits (and Pat's more conservative blazers and suits) are loaned by Los Angeles department stores in exchange for a plug on the air. "This time of year they're pushing their prom line," Vanna mutters under her breath.

At 3 p.m. it's time to begin the first round of the day. Greeted with enthusiastic applause, Sajak introduces the first three contestants. He gently runs through their life histories ("mother of three, enjoys making her own Christmas cards"). A woman in the audience whispers, "Isn't he cute! I'd just love to tweak those cheeks!"

Sajak reassures a nervous Harry Owens, 60, an ethics teacher from Brockton, Mass., "Harry, you're amassing a lot of money—and looking worried about it." Harry relaxes—and wins a $4,000 fur coat. Later, while his daughters, Paula and Linda, happily take turns trying on the coat, Harry observes, "I'm really delighted for the girls even though I'm a little concerned about paying my taxes."

In the next round of contestants, Carolyn Epple, a homemaker from Overland Park, Kans., correctly guesses the puzzle (BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE) and goes home with a $12,500 gift certificate from Tiffany's. "Who needs a car when you have jewelry," she says gleefully. "When the show airs, I'm going to have a party so that all my friends can see me!"

Poor Dee Brinlee, 28, from Salem, Oreg. is leaving Burbank with nothing but those "lovely parting gifts," a supply of small household goods. "I played better at home," she says sadly. "But it was great to meet Pat and Vanna."

The biggest winner of the day is Denise Pillion, a 29-year-old nursing supervisor from San Diego. The audience explodes when she wins the Olds Cutlass in the winner's bonus round. From the audience, her sisters, Diane and Julie, who have been nervous throughout, rush onto the set. Pat and Vanna put the women, waving, into their new car.

After signing the required forms for delivery of Denise's $25,000 worth of prizes, the trio races to a pay phone to call their mother in Ottawa, Ill. Denise shouts, "Mom, pack your bags, we're going to Hawaii! I won a car, a vacuum cleaner, everything!"

It's 8 p.m. and Wheel has stopped turning for another day. The Wheel is dismantled, the prize cars are parked and other bounty is stowed. "This was a good day," says producer Jones. "The best shows are the ones where everybody wins something."

While Denise is calling her niece in San Diego, Sajak leaves his tiny dressing room to go home. "Pat!" Denise screams. "Would you talk to my niece, Shelley?" Sajak is, as ever, embarrassed by the commotion, but decides to oblige. "Shelley," he says to the voice on the phone, "don't believe anybody who tells you he's Pat Sajak."

That's sound advice from a man—sitting on a gold mine—who can't believe it himself.

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