Kicking Back With Jersey Joe: WHEEL OF FORTUNE [From Megahit to Casino and the Best Contestant Ever] Nov12

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Kicking Back With Jersey Joe: WHEEL OF FORTUNE [From Megahit to Casino and the Best Contestant Ever]

I’VE GOT A GOOD FEELING ABOUT THIS.  Could you solve that puzzle with only the L showing?  Long time fan Caitlin Burke of New Jersey just did and it won her a trip to the Caribbean!  But, the Wheel of Fortune as we know it today was quite a different show in the beginning.

Wheel of Fortune is one of the highest rated and perhaps most watched television game shows in the entire world.  With more than 5,000 episodes, it is officially the longest syndicated television show in the United States.  It is also the third longest running syndicated show behind Entertainment Tonight and Soul Train.

Wheel was created in 1974 by veteran game show mogul Merv Griffin.  Griffin was no stranger to television at the time, having produced a number of successful games, in addition to hosting his high rated talker, The Merv Griffin Show.

Three pilots for the series were shot in 1973 & 1974 and only slightly resembled what’s on the screen today.  Originally titled Shopper’s Bazaar, the show featured a vertical wheel (similar to The Price is Right, which did not have one at that time), a motorized game board, and a high class set.  The set itself featured chandeliers and looked as though you were in a high class parlor, with the puzzle board sliding off to reveal the prizes for sale.  The shopping and prizes were the original emphasis for the show.

Chuck Woolery was the host for the first pilot, with actor Edd Byrnes hosting the second and third.  It is rumored that Griffin overheard Byrnes practicing the vowels A-E-I-O-U to himself over and over, and that scored Woolery the job.

The show premiered January 6, 1975 on NBC as a replacement to Griffin’s Jeopardy! which had ended its long run.  Jeopardy! had one year left on their contract, so Wheel was sent into production to fill the time.  However, the show grew and audience and would be a part of daytime television for 16 more years.

The original Wheel board only featured three rows with 39 spaces.  The board was to be mechanically operated for the pilots, but the mechanism never worked properly, and the letter turning model’s co-host job was born with the second taping.  Susan Stafford was the original letter turner with Vanna White taking over in October 1982.  The puzzle board has been upgraded several times, first adding a fourth row of letters in 1981, finally going to electronic television touch screens in 1997, and finally switching to flat screen monitors in 2007.  The original board was offered to the Smithsonian, but they had to turn it down due to lack of space.

The show experimented with an hour format to battle The Price is Right for a month in December 1975.  Two separate games with three contestants each were played.  The two highest totals competed in the speed round, with the winner going on to the bonus round for the big prize.

The biggest piece that is missing from the current version of Wheel is the shopping round.  Can you remember when the contestants would take their winnings after solving the puzzle and spend it in the various rooms that spun on set via turntable?

She should have bought that vanity for $300!

Whatever you couldn’t spend at the end of the round, you could either put on account and gamble to add it to your winnings for solving the next puzzle, or take the safer Service Merchandise gift certificate.  (speaking of retro – how about that old store and its conveyor belts your items would roll down on!)

On of my favorite Family Guy clips is Peter solving the puzzle and then going shopping.  Just had to include that!

Woolery would continue to host the show until Christmas 1981, when he demanded a hefty salary increase.  When Griffin wouldn’t budge, Chuck was let go and KNBC’s weatherman Pat Sajak got the job.

In September 1983, a nighttime syndicated run began airing in addition to the daytime NBC show.  The dollar values and prizes were increased for the evening audience.  The $5,000 wheel wedge was introduced on this version in 1986.

On January 9, 1989, the daytime show would make the first of many major changes.  Sajak left (although he stayed on the nighttime run) to focus on a late night talk show for CBS.  He was replaced by former San Diego Chargers place-kicker Rolf Benirschke, in a major casting mistake.

Ratings took a nose dive as Benirschke stumbled through the show even admitting to not knowing what to do at one point and sending the show to a commercial break.  NBC would cancel the show in June 30 and it was quickly snapped up by CBS.

Bob Goen was hired as the new daytime host and the show was again, slightly retooled, but not for the better.  The nighttime version was giving away big cash and prizes at this point, but the daytime version lowered the costs all around.  A $50 wedge made an appearance on the wheel and the top prize in the bonus round was only $5,000.  (The same amount a letter could be worth in the third round on the nighttime version.)  The shopping round was also dumped in favor of the current all cash winnings.

Goen would stay with the show when it would briefly return to NBC daytime for the last and final time for a few months in 1991.

Meanwhile, the nighttime version continued to build an audience, while continuing to beef up the prizes and payouts.  Starting in 2006, a $1,000,000 top prize was available in the bonus round.  To earn that the contestant must land on the $1,000,000 space on the wheel, solve the puzzle, then advance to the bonus round, pick the $1,000,000 envelope off of the bonus wheel, and finally solve the puzzle.  Not so easy, but it has been done.

The basic premise behind the whole show is quite simple.  It’s a game of hangman and a carnival wheel.  You spin and pick a letter.  It’s in the puzzle, you get cash.  If it’s not, you lose your turn.  You also have the opportunity to buy a vowel for $250.  Solve the puzzle and keep your cash.  The contestant with the most cash advances to the bonus round, where a hard puzzle with all the R-S-T-L-N-E letters are already revealed and the player gets to pick three more consonants and a vowel.  A wild card saved from the wheel entitles them to another letter.

So, how can you be a contestant on the show?  That too is fairly simple.  You must be at least 18 years old and take a test.  You will be given 16 puzzles, with only a few letters revealed, and you have 5 minutes to solve as many as you can.  Those who make it through this round, then go on to play a mock version of the show.

Wheel has been taped at the Sony Pictures Studios in Culver, CA, since 1995.  The show does go on the road multiple times throughout the season and holds auditions around the country.  In 2005, Wheel had to cut their week of tapings in New Orleans short to evacuate the crew days before Hurricane Katrina.

The show’s original announcer Charlie O’Donnell, passed away last week at the age of 78.  He announced the entire Woolery run of the show and left for a time in the mid 80’s to return after the death of his successor Wheel announcer, Jack Clark.

Advancing to the bonus round on the daytime version, earned the contestant another chance on the following show.  They were limited to appearing on three consecutive days.  The nighttime version featured returning champions until 1998, when the top three winners of the week would face off on the Friday show.  Since 1998, contestants are limited to only appearing on one episode.

The wheel itself weights over two tons and originally featured a green center to allow for chroma key shots during the opening and end credits.  The wheel now features electronic spaces and even simple video screens.  The spaces have changed over the years, with the lowest ever being a $50 space.  The worst being BANKRUPT, where you you’re your turn and all your money from the round.

Originally BUY A VOWEL was on the wheel in the early days (which was removed, because you lost when there were no more vowels) as well as the FREE SPIN.  The Free Spin is now just one simple token that is picked up and the player can use it at any time.  In the past, the space could be landed on again and again, while players could earn several to save the day.  A very rare wedge called the STAR BONUS was a hard-to-explain and rarely-played bonus round in the mid 70’s that was quickly nixed.  Other spaces have included various prizes and now the million dollar wedge to earn a chance at the top prize.

I think one of the show’s biggest mistakes was removing the FREE SPIN wedge and limiting it to just one per show.  It was better when multiple contestants would have one or even be able to collect several and use them more strategically later on in the show.  I would definitely bring this back ASAP.

Two toss up rounds have also been added to determine which player goes first to spin and solve the first puzzle.  In the past, numbers were drawn backstage, and the player on the left always went first.  The player on the right was often at a disadvantage, since they usually only got to start one round and would have to wait in later rounds.

Wheel of Fortune has featured 42 international versions and even a children’s version called Wheel 2000 that aired on the Game Show Network.  Clips of the international versions have been screened during special theme weeks.

I have never been to a taping of Wheel, but I absolutely love it’s casino slot machine.  Various versions have been introduced by IGT (International Gaming Technology) since 1996 and is one of the more popular machines in the casino.  Wheel of Fortune Super Spin was introduced in 2005 and features 9 slot machines (some with couches) surrounding a giant wheel.  Multiple machines enter into the bonus round and the giant wheel spins to award a prize.  A smaller 5 machines half wheel size has been introduced for those casinos that do not have the room for this giant, but yet very fun, monster.

In addition to slot machines, Wheel has a full line of video games, board games, cell phone games, card games, calendars, and other merchandise.

The popularity of the game has no signs of slowing down.  The nighttime syndicated show still pulls in solid numbers for stations and has a very loyal audience.  Wheel has introduced a watch and win online game, where you the viewer at home, can also win if you have a special ID number that comes up during the commerical.  It’s a way for the producers to make the fans part of the experience and get them to tune in night after night.

Sadly, original creator Merv Griffin past away in 2007, just after attending the first two weeks of taping for his latest game show creation Merv Griffin’s Crosswords, which only lasted one season. Griffin created the theme music that has been heard since the 80’s.  A small piece of trivia: Growing Pains actor Alan Thicke created the theme used throughout most of the 70’s.

I remember what a treat it was to stay home from school (or on summer vacation) and watch the daytime version of the show.  It was usually paired with a two hour block of other games during the morning.  I would love to see this game return to a network at some point with even a bigger jackpot!

Oh, and how did Catlin solve the puzzle so quickly?  She’s stated to several sources that she’s a major fan of the show and she practices with her boyfriend’s iPhone app.  I guess there’s an app for everything!

OK… one more hilarious Family Guy Wheel of Fortune clip…

THE 411

Name: Wheel of Fortune

Airdates: 1975-1989 (NBC)

1989-1991 (CBS)

1991 (NBC)

1983 – present (Syndicated to local stations)

Reruns air on GSN (Game Show Network)

Length: 30 minutes (except for one month 1975 with 60 minute episodes)


Chuck Woolery (1975-1981)

Pat Sajak (1981-present)

Rolf Benirschke (1989)

Bob Goen (1989-1991)


Susan Stafford (1975-1982)

Vanna White (1982-present)


JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS:  I love this show.  I grew up watching the daytime version on NBC and I still watch the nighttime episodes often.  I used to have the old Nintendo game and I do have a PC version that I play from time to time.  I always play the slot machine version every time I visit the casino, but the newest mega slot version without the wheel, and a $3 minimum bet is a flop.  No one is playing these machines. The show is definitely a piece of Americana.  It has changed with the times, while still keeping itself fresh.  They spruce up the set each season and it definitely has a 21st century look. It’s just plain fun for everyone.  From kids to adults, there is no way you can’t enjoy this show.  It’s fun to try to solve the puzzles and scream at a bonehead contestant!  The show definitely has lots of life left and will be on the air for years to come.  But, if you haven’t caught an episode in a while, check your local listings and do yourself a favor and play along!