TV You Were Never Meant to See – Extremely Different Wheel of Fortune Pilots [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]
Every television show goes through a testing phase before making it to air. The first episodes, called pilots, are designed for producers and network execs to judge if a show is good enough for broadcast or if there are any changes that need to be made. Some shows go through multiple pilots and still never see the light of day. NBC took a big chance in the 70’s and made a big score picking up the now classic game show Wheel of Fortune.
Wheel of Fortune scores with a premise as simple as hangman. Spin the wheel, pick a letter, and solve the puzzle. I did a full blogumn on the show’s origins a few years ago. Wheel, like many other shows, went through multiple pilots and hosts before making it to air. For the first time ever, portions of these test episodes have been leaked to the general public.
The original premise for Wheel was to be a Shoppers Bazaar. In the first test pilot, shot in 1973 with a very different set was actually named Shoppers Bazaar. This unusual and clumsy pilot featured a very different version of the now classic wheel. Take a look a portion of this test episode that, until now, only NBC executives have seen.
Look at the wheel! It’s right out of Las Vegas casino floor or a church bazaar. The show took way too much time in set up and all the prizes on the set got in the way. Plus, the contestants were not in control of the wheel, they were simply told to say, “STOP THE WHEEL!” That premise would have gotten old fast.
The puzzle board itself was also a very early working prototype. While it was mechanized, it was very small, and rather unattractive. Chuck Woolery, who did eventually get the job as the first series host does a great job, but you don’t see him until more than 3 minutes in.
Placing the contestants in the middle of a giant set full of prizes was also distracting. When not actively playing, they would sit in a living room set off the game floor.
But, you can see the very early works for the game we would all come to love. However, NBC passed on this pilot and ordered another test show.
For the second and third pilots, actor Edd Byrnes was chosen to host. Online reports state that Byrnes was drunk while hosting this pilot. Take a look at this host, considered before Chuck and Pat Sajack, and judge for yourself. Is he crocked?
So, was Byrnes drunk? He later admitted that he was. He certainly seemed to be slurring his speech at times. I love how he asked if the contestant wanted to “Spin the puzzle!” In his autobiography, Byrnes admitted had a major drinking problem at the time and later received treatment. He claimed he only wanted to have one or two drinks to calm his nerves, but went way overboard. Additional notes from later in the pilot said he was making odd noises as the wheel spun and even chastised a contestant.
He would not get the job after executive producer Merv Griffin heard him reciting the vowels over and over backstage and the test audience gave a thumbs down to his hosting style.
The wheel itself was now positioned center stage. You’ll notice none of the dollar values are green, but the circle in the center is. That was to allow for the control room to chroma key the spinning wheel for the opening shot and end credits. During game play the center continued to change color, but it was still a key.
The unusual BUY A VOWEL space (appears in round 2 with higher dollar amounts) would force a contestant to buy a vowel for $250. It would really suck to land on that, when all the vowels would already be exposed in the puzzle, and it could potentially cost you the game. This space made it to air, but was quickly nixed early in the first season. It would really stink to land on the low value $25 space, too!
This test pilot also introduces us to Susan Stafford. Susan was hired as a last second replacement when the puzzle board could not be mechanically operated in time for the pilot. Susan would stay on for a year after Chuck would leave the series due to a contract dispute in 1981. Susan was replaced by the now legendary letter turner, Vanna White.
An original show staple in the pilot was the shopping round. The winner of the round was expected to spend their winnings on items for sale on stage. The contestant had the choice to spend all the money, or place the remaining portion “on account.” This could then be used in addition to more prize money won in a future round to buy bigger ticket items. The unfortunate gamble was still having leftover money at the end of the game. The prize round would last until the end of the first NBC run, when the current all cash format was introduced.
Wheel’s cool lighting design kept the contestants in the dark, until properly revealed by the hosts. It’s like they beamed in! Another cool visual was how they wheeled in the prize board to hide the prizes during game play.
After signing Woolery as host, Wheel premiered on NBC daytime January 6, 1975. Pat Sajack would begin hosting in 1981. A nighttime version began for local stations in 1983. The show would move to CBS daytime in 1989, before switching it back to NBC for eight final months in 1991. Wheel began its 30th season on September 17th of this year.
Name: Wheel of Fortune
What: TV game show introduced in 1974.
JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS:
It’s so cool to see the early working versions of this series. We were never meant to see this rare glimpse of a very important part of TV history.
For more on the history of Wheel of Fortune, see my original blogumn here.