Editor’s note: Ellsworth American reporter Johanna Billings, a big “Wheel of Fortune” fan and lifelong word puzzler, couldn’t resist the chance to audition for the hit ABC show. Here’s her account of how it went.
ORONO — “Freelance writer.”
It was an apropos answer to the “Wheel of Fortune” puzzle I found myself on stage solving during auditions June 21 for the ABC game show created by Merv Griffin in 1975.
Having spent about 12 years earning my living as a freelance writer, I felt a personal connection competing to become a contestant for the ABC show’s 37th season. News had spread of the Wheelmobile’s scouting expedition to eastern Maine and auditions held at the Collins Center for the Arts on the University of Maine campus in Orono.
Come Friday night, the first of the game show’s two live audition sessions, I was among the hundreds of hopefuls mounting the stage to put my decades of word puzzle-solving to the test. “Wheel of Fortune” hosts Mallory Harden and Marty Lublin said they sought applicants with smart, clear answers and personality.
The audition process
Applications were placed on stage in a steel mesh drum from which five names were selected at a time. Instead of playing a full game like those shown on TV, the group of five came on stage to solve a single puzzle in a fashion similar to the last puzzle on TV, after the bell has sounded indicating time is short.
I was the first person called for the third show on the first night. I had my picture taken with a Polaroid camera and then was instructed to stand on an X on the stage floor along with my co-contestants.
Marty, an animated guy, told us they are looking for people who enunciate and speak loudly, and who choose “logical” letters. Before beginning to work on the puzzle, each contestant came to center stage for a short interview. Marty stressed that the interview was an important part of the process — just getting on stage does not guarantee a call back. In fact, solving the puzzle doesn’t even guarantee a call back.
I started by telling Marty I was there with my husband, who was in the audience with a camera. Marty and I then struck a pose. I said I was a newspaper reporter, prompting him to ask what kinds of things I write about. I also used my standard line — sorry for those who have already heard it a dozen times — about my living in the far side of nowhere.
“The far side of nowhere?” Marty asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “When you get to the middle of nowhere, keep going.” Hopefully they liked my joke.
None of us actually got to spin the wheel. The host spun a much smaller wheel to determine what prizes — assorted Wheel swag — contestants would take home.
The game board was smaller and much less technologically advanced than the one used on TV. The co-host, Mallory, set up the puzzles by turning the letter panels by hand and using a dry erase marker to write letters in the appropriate blocks as they were called.
The category for my puzzle was “occupation.” I was the first person selected and so I was asked to pick the first letter. I remembered Marty saying we could and should call vowels. I chose an E and there were four.
As the fifth contestant chose his letter, I figured out the answer. When Marty pointed the mic at me for my second turn, I confidently chose the letter F, solving the puzzle.
I didn’t get any additional prizes for my solution. Everyone in my group of five got the same thing — a hat, a flashing “Wheel of Fortune” pin and a “Wheel of Fortune” keychain.
Those who did well during this audition will get a letter or email sometime over the next several months inviting them back to a final audition, also to be held in Maine. Those who didn’t make it on stage also have a chance to be selected at random to come to that final audition.
I have no expectations that I will be called back. If I do, great. If not, I’m still happy with the fact that I tried out. I got to see some of what goes on behind the scenes and I had fun. It was a great experience — and it came with really cool “Wheel” gear.