Spinning the wheel: then and now

By LeeAnn Brown

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Many of us have tuned in to test our knowledge on the popular game show “Wheel of Fortune.” Perhaps, as in many childhoods, it was a group effort when over at the grandparents’ house for weekly dinner.

Oakland University has had two faculty members take their knowledge out of the living room and all the way to the California studio — one this year and one in 1985.

Spring break contestant

Allyson Forest, public health program coordinator, was recently on the “Spring Break” episode of “Wheel of Fortune,” which aired March 31.

Forest went through first-round auditions last May when Wheel Mobile came to Chene Park in Detroit. There were mock-up game trials, complete with a stand-in Pat Sajak and Vanna White.

“Once on stage, you had to introduce yourself and be a standout to the host and Wheel Mobile crew,” Forest said. “The host asked what I liked to do, and I told him ballroom dance. He put on music, and my fiancé runs down the aisle and we danced on stage. Everyone went crazy.”

After the second round weeks later, Forest was told to look for an official letter in the mail. She got one.

Once on the set in Culver City, California, Forest noticed a few differences from watching on her television set at home.

“The set is tiny. The seating area for the audience only goes back about four rows, and half of the audience are contestants,” she said. “There’s a lot of TV magic that makes the show appear grand.”

Forest won the puzzle that read, “We’re calling it a day.” She said it was frustrating because even if you know an answer, the wheel may not be on your play, or you may get bankrupt, which she did once.

Despite hitting the bankrupt piece, Forest finished the show with $3,300. But, she won more than money.

“Being a contestant on a game show was an item at the top of my bucket list,” she said.

As for her winnings, Forest plans on either having a great birthday or putting them toward a new car.

Going back thirty years

In 1985, now adjunct journalism instructor and Oakland Post adviser Holly Gilbert spun the wheel.

Her appearance on the show was a result of a story she was writing while she was television editor at The Oakland Press. Having gone to the Renaissance Center in Detroit for the try-outs – in search of good copy – Gilbert got involved.

“Remember, this was primitive television era, pre-cable. Network programming was all we had,” Gilbert said. “There were hundreds of people there, and I figured I didn’t have a chance.”

The try-outs consisted of playing the game on paper in timed sessions. Gilbert kept making the cut until she was a finalist.

“We got interviewed and then they told us they’d let us know – watch the mail. That’s snail mail, no email yet either. It took weeks to find out,” Gilbert said.

Although Gilbert had watched “Wheel of Fortune” occasionally, once she knew she was a contestant, she said that she not only watched it, she studied it.

Despite plenty of preparation, Gilbert’s nerves did not fade when the cameras rolled.

“I was very nervous. Especially when they paired me with the long, tall Texan with a bassoon voice and a 10-gallon hat, which I couldn’t believe they let him wear – he was probably thinking the same thing about my jacket,” she said. “And then I couldn’t reach the wheel to spin it, and they had to find a peach crate or something that I could stand on. I was mortified.”

Everything considered, Gilbert said it was a fun experience. She still remembers the puzzle she “blew.”

“’Let momma kiss it and make it better.’ I got most of the letters for that one and then experienced a complete collapse of intellect – maybe even consciousness. Thud.”

Gilbert didn’t win any money, but back then contestants got $25 of merchandise from each of the show’s sponsors (they now get $1,000).

“Have you ever seen $25 of Fleishman’s yeast? In 1985, it was a lot,” she said. “When the show would rerun, I would know, even if I hadn’t seen it because weird shit like maxi-pads and cordless screwdrivers would start arriving in the mail.”