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'Wheel' Rolls Into Town, Looks for Right Faces

By Leanne Potts
Journal Staff Writer
    To be a good game show contestant, you need to be the sort of person who gets uncontrollably excited at the prospect of winning a T-shirt.
    Stony-faced people aren't good, nor are people who talk in hushed voices or contemplative sorts who want to think about what they say before they say it. And introverts? Forget it.
    "I'm looking for personality that shows up on camera," Lisa Dees, executive director of marketing and promotions for Sony Pictures Television, said Saturday as she looked over a line of people who had come to Sandia Casino to try to get on Sony's long-running game show "Wheel of Fortune."
    Dees and a crew of "Wheel" staffers travel across the country each year recruiting contestants and promoting the 21-year-old syndicated show. This weekend, they're in Albuquerque, passing out key chains and fanny packs with the "Wheel" logo and deciding who gets a chance to go on TV and win money.
    Around 2,500 people came to the first of two days of auditions, a process that consists of playing a mock round of "Wheel" onstage before hundreds of people.
    For five hours Saturday, people were chosen at random and marched onstage five at a time. They chatted with a mock Pat Sajak (played by David Sidoni, an L.A.-based actor whose previous experience in show biz includes playing Farmer Dave on a children's video) and called out letters to a mock Vanna White (played by Holly Brooks, a wasp-waisted, stiletto-wearing California blonde who wrote the letters on dry erase boards instead of turning lit-up squares.)
    The puzzles were easy, the prizes were modest (think baseball hats, travel coffee mugs) and the rounds were short, lasting no more than five or six minutes.
    While they played, Dees sat off stage holding Polaroids of the hopefuls and watching them, deciding who had the right stuff and who didn't. On the table in front of her was a plastic, foot-high chest of drawers; she placed the photos of those with "Wheel" potential into the "yes" drawer on top, the ones who might do into the "maybe" drawer in the middle and the ones who would never stand on stage with the real Pat and Vanna in the bottom "no" drawer.
    The cut was a tough one. After an hour of tryouts, there were just two Polaroids in the yes drawer, four in the maybe drawer and a pile in the no drawer as thick as a deck of cards.
    "That's a good one," Dees whispered to a reporter as she watched a plump woman in a red shirt cackle and wiggle while she hugged the fake Pat.
    "Let's she if she has game-playing skills," Dees said.
    Translation: If she picks an "X" when it's her turn, no amount of animated jumping and host-hugging will get her on the show.
    The effervescent woman in red chose an "R." Good. She spoke loudly and clearly. Good. She didn't solve the puzzle, but her Polaroid still ended up in the "yes" drawer.
    Even that won't guarantee the woman in red a spot on the show. Dees said the yesses will be called back for a second, "more intense" audition next February, and the contestants will be chosen from that group.
    How many will make it on TV? Of the 5,000 expected to sign up this weekend, Dees says about 160 people will get called back, and at least nine or 10 of those will make the show.
    "It's hard. It's like getting into Harvard," Dees said.
No guarantees
    Tryouts didn't start until 1:30 p.m., but people had started lining up at 8:30 that morning. By early afternoon, a line of people snaked around the outside of the casino.
    They were secretaries and homemakers and engineers and receiving clerks from places like Artesia, Veguita and Rio Rancho who had dreams of winning big and being on TV. Some had driven hours for a shot at playing their favorite game show on TV instead of on their sofa.
    "I watch 'Wheel of Fortune' every night, and everybody I play against at home says I'm good and I should try out for the show," said Leman Taylor, a maintenance technician who had left his home in Alamogordo at 5 that morning and driven to Albuquerque so he could be one of the first in line.
    Getting there early didn't guarantee an audition, though. After standing in line in a misting rain for hours, contestants filled out an application that was tossed into a big gold barrel onstage.
    If your name was drawn, you got to go onstage and audition. If it wasn't, you got to stand in the bingo hall and be an audience member.
    Sarah Yuma was one of the lucky ones who got to go onstage and audition. "It's so much easier when you're sitting at home on your couch," said the Santa Fe financial specialist after she came off stage. "I was nervous!"
    Taylor didn't make it onstage during the first round of auditions. He planned to keep getting in line and keep putting his name into the drawing for a chance to audition.
    "I'm staying in Albuquerque all weekend," he said. "I'm staying here all day and coming back tomorrow, too."