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April 18, 2014

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A ‘Wheel’-y Big Show

Herein, some unknown truths about "Wheel of Fortune":

Vanna White wears 7 1 /2-size pumps (her own brand), has a penchant for Big Red gum, which she shares freely, and is still wearing the Pea in a Pod maternity pants that she wore throughout her recent pregnancy. Pat Sajak has spent more years with Vanna than his own wife, denies there was ever a time they didn't get along, and is incredibly more witty than you'd ever think by watching the show.

As the Big Wheel rolled into the City of the Roulette Wheel for three days of filming at the Hilton Center, which ends tonight, 3,000 Las Vegas fans (and a friendly neighborhood reporter) decided to forego the Super Bowl to witness a taping, hoping to gain entry to some of the many behind-the-scenes secrets of The Making of "Wheel of Fortune."

"Oh, there's no secrets," says White, dubbed "the world's most frequent clapper" by the 1992 Guinness Book of World Records, sitting an hour before show time in her trailer-turned-dressing room, wearing a sea green sweater over a pair of stretch pants. "What you see is what you get."

If there is a secret, it may be this:

Even if you haven't tuned in to "Wheel of Fortune" (weeknights at 7 on KVBC Channel 3) since the Reagan years, you'll be relieved to know that creator Merv Griffin's brainchild is still doing remarkably well. The show is in its 15th year of syndication, attracting 100 million weekly viewers worldwide, including 51 overseas markets. In Las Vegas, it beats "The Simpsons," "Entertainment Tonight," and even "Seinfeld" as the No. 1 show in its time period, according to KVBC Program Director Judy Reich.

And to everyone's jubilation -- except the competition's -- the show is renewed through 2002. Sajak and White both admit they have absolutely no idea why the show has been so wildly successful -- but she counts her blessings daily that it is, and Sajak, a former L.A. weatherman and host of a failed late night show, simply jests that he "is glad it has worked out for his mortgage holders."

Not to jinx the streak, but what do they see for the future? "I have no thought beyond this, because there doesn't seem to be a 'beyond this.' The show may never end," Sajak says, somewhat despairingly. "Who knows, I could fall on the wheel, be impaled on the stakes and spun to death," Sajack says, with what almost sounds like wishful thinking.

But Sajak is resigned to securing his bizarre footnote in history. "Assuming this would be the highlight of my career -- which is a fairly safe assumption -- I guess having hosted the No. 1 show in syndication for 80 gadzillion years, there are worse things they could say about you," Sajak muses. "It'll be a fine legacy, a fine thing to have on my tombstone -- they'll put a little wheel on it."

And White confides that she is thinking of bringing her talents to the world in the form of song -- "You never know," she adds playfully, "maybe as a Las Vegas lounge act."

Picking the Fortunate

"Wheel"-mania had hit the city in the last few weeks, when thousands of Las Vegas "Wheel Watchers" lined up for a spin on Channel 3's "Wheelmobile" and the chance to win tickets or an audition for the Las Vegas shows, which will air for two weeks starting Monday.

Those chosen to audition took the "Wheel" aptitude test, a set of 16 sample phrases, things and places only partially completed. Sajak claims to have taken the test once, and gotten them all right. White said she took the test -- and failed. Luckily, getting on the show is like "getting in to Harvard," says "Wheel" Promotion Director Lisa Dee. "It's not only your test scores, it is intangibles -- like, are you fun to watch?"

Those who seemingly were fun to watch and made the cut included a model who is appearing in an upcoming issue of Britian's Maxim magazine, a boxing manager looking for a champion, UNLV students and some proud, stay-at-home moms.

In an attempt to dispell the notion of Las Vegas as no place to raise a family, the producers have dubbed this "Family Week," where blood relatives play as a team, surprising the rest of the country that there are families living in Las Vegas.

It has taken an entire entourage -- 70 production members from L.A. -- to tote everything here, including every producer/director chair with their names printed on them, and a pink one for White.

For the show's first-time filming from Las Vegas, aptly-named production designer Dick Stiles designed the Las Vegas set highlighting the hotels of the Strip, featuring everything from the Mirage's white tigers to the already-defunct Aladdin. When told of this seeming discrepancy, he says, "I'm glad we're getting it in, then."

Sad but true to learn: Up close, the wheel is nothing more than an assembly of lightbulbs, gold glitter and plastic -- but it is now handicap accessible. There is also a phone behind it -- in case anyone needs to take a call. And a sample tug reveals that it is a lot harder to spin than it looks.

Everyone knows that since the show installed the electronic puzzleboard a year ago, White no longer turns letters -- she activates them.

But exactly how is the deed done? It is not activated by the heat of her touch, as you might expect, or even by remote control. It is a pressure-sensitive surface, which forms a connection with two sheets of metal when it is pressed on by White.

"It's the carpel tunnel syndrome," Sajak jokes, flicking his wrist to repeatedly mimic her former job description. "So she had to stop turning."

Time to spin

The countdown to showtime has begun. Extra seats have been added to accommodate the crowd that has filled the Hilton Center. The promos urging viewers to "watch us on 'Wheel of Fortune's' family week from Las Vegas!" have been taped. The contestants have been rehearsed, and are now being made to chant the alphabet as a warm-up. The five game puzzles have been loaded into the highly-guarded computer system behind the puzzle board, waiting for the operator to run.

White has slipped out of the sea green sweater and into her skintight gown. "I've been doing it for 15 years, so I can almost do it in my sleep," she admits. "Still, I get excited for the players, I feel for them, they go through a lot to get where they are. Every show is still like the first show ever." Sajak has been handed a set of index cards debriefing him on the players, and he mentally rehearses what he is going to say to each of them.

Finally, the music swells and announcer Charlie O'Donnel booms out "Pat Sajak and Vanna White!" as the applause signs light up -- but the crowd needs no prompting.

White swirls out in a sparkling silver gown -- just one of the 10 beaded, floorlength, and pricy dresses she will model this week, all bought in local shops -- Charisma, Marshall-Rousso and Cache. And no, White doesn't have a houseful of closets like Alicia Silverstone in "Clueless" -- the 200 dresses she wears are either Fed Exed back to the designer or store, or auctioned off for charity for thousands of dollars. But White's favorite outfits? She'll come in raving about a $20 sweater she bought at the Gap, says costume designer Kathi Nishimoto.

At first, Las Vegas is not proving to be especially lucky. Not only did White lose her Super Bowl bet on this night, and Executive Producer Harry Friedman has been losing money on the "Wheel of Fortune" slot machines, but two sisters from North Carolina have won the first game, beating both of the Las Vegas families.

But by the second game, the luck, as it tends to do, has shifted.

Las Vegans Zidonia and Zenobia Sanders lost the final round but still walked away after the first game with $4,750.

And brother and sister Zak and Meredith Bagans, both UNLV communications majors, didn't come in first place, but they won $1,000 -- more than they'd ever won gambling in Las Vegas their whole lives. "At least we won something," Meredith Bagans says. "We could have walked away with nothing."

So do experienced Las Vegans make better risk-takers when playing on the "Wheel"?

"Sometimes I'm surprised people aren't a little more riskier," Sajak remarks. "You're playing with house money here. Unlike in Vegas, if you get bankrupt here, we don't take your house and car. But anytime someone says 'I'm a big gambler,' (on "Wheel") they become the most conservative people, they've got $9 and they solve the puzzle."

Of course, there is one final "Wheel of Fortune" secret left to be unearthed: The week's champion player. But, as White says, there are no secrets -- what you see is what you get. So, to find out who won, you'll just have to tune in -- and see for yourself.

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