I’d Like to Buy a Vowel
On Feb. 7, 1996, I caught this ad in the events section of The Daily Cougar, the school newspaper at the University of Houston.
Wheel — KHOU-TV (Channel 11) is looking for 120 college students to try out for a chance to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. Students must be between 18 and 24 years old and able to test in Houston Saturday at 11 a.m. or 3 p.m.
At this point in my life, things were starting to turn around from the academic implosion I was going through at the time. I had met a girl, and I had finally gotten around to asking her out on a first date. That date? Yep, the same Saturday as the “Wheel of Fortune” audition. That’s more of an aside, though.
I called the number, and before the end of the day, I got a call back from KHOU. She said I had been one of the 120 students selected to audition for the show, and I needed to show up to a local hotel Saturday morning for the 11 a.m. audition.
I remember being super nervous about the audition. I had watched a couple episodes of the show between getting the call and heading to the audition, and thankfully, the rules had not changed much in the two decades the show had been on the air. I familiarized myself with some of the new puzzle types such as “Fill in the Blank,” and felt pretty confident. Still nervous, yet confident.
When I got to the hotel, I checked in at a table and was led to a room where the audition would take place. I’m not lying to you when I say I nearly passed out. There were about 200 people in the room. I was part of a cattle call. Moooo.
The audition process was pretty simple. The contestant coordinators played a mock game, and each person from the front row to the back introduced themselves and could pick one or two letters for the puzzle. A few puzzles occurred ahead of me, and by the time it got to me, I figured life would be better if I could just solve the puzzle as quickly as possible. Yes, I solved it. Some folks stood up and called out stupid letters like Q and X.
The next phase was the written test. There were about 16 puzzles in various states of not-solved, and all I had to do was fill in the blanks for the puzzles I could figure out. As I recall, we only had five minutes to complete it. My strategy was simple: answer the ones I immediately figured out (several) and then use the remaining time to ponder the ones left over. One of the puzzles on the test was:
People: _AN _AL_N
We watched a video while the tests were graded, and when it was over, the contestant coordinators called out 12 names for a final round of auditioning. I was one of the 12, and that’s when I realized I had a high probability of getting on the show.
They took our picture (remember Polaroids?), and we played a final round. I honestly can’t remember if I solved it. Anyway, the audition ended, and they said that if we were selected, we would receive a letter within two weeks. I received mine within the week. I would be appearing on the show, and my name would be in the contestant pool. When it was my turn to go, I would get a call about two weeks in advance. Interesting tidbit: my mother appeared on two episodes of “Card Sharks” with Bob Eubanks in August 1987.
Months passed. The spring semester ended followed by the summer semester and the winter semester. Finally, over winter break, I received a phone call in my dorm room. It was a nice woman named Jackie, one of the contestant coordinators, and she asked me if I was interested in appearing on the show for a January taping. Like I was going to say “no.” Of course, I accepted, and I scheduled a flight to Phoenix. That’s where the shows were taping for that week.
My girlfriend and I flew off to Phoenix on a Friday night, and I proudly had one of my best hair days the next day – shooting day. Here’s how it works for game shows. You shoot five episodes in a single day, and you swap out audiences a couple of times. I was on the second episode to be shot. I made quick work of the first round as you can see in this sneak peek. Sorry for the quality. This tape has been in storage for 15 years.
I knew the next two puzzles but never had a chance to solve them. The third contestant ended up catching about $30,000 in cash and prizes in a single round. There was little chance of catching up at that point. I figured I just needed to solve one more puzzle, and I would be happy. Let me tell you… when it came to solving puzzles, I delivered.
I came away with $4,100 cash, and I didn’t have to pay a dime in taxes on it. I had no steady job in 1997, and my winnings did not come anywhere close to becoming taxable income. Over the summer, I continued to take courses and work on special projects for the university. My “Wheel of Fortune” check covered more than enough of my tuition.
Although winning the cash was great, it’s not the thing I remember most about the experience. When we hit the first commercial break after solving my first puzzle, the late, great Charlie O’Donnell put his hand on my shoulder and said to me, “Brad, why in the hell would you want to get into this business?” It was such a great encounter with one of my TV heroes, and it was the most illuminating 10 seconds of my life in 1997.
I was in the television business because it was the only thing I could do well at the time. I had dreams of becoming an announcer or an actor, and although I’ve had a little experience at some of that, my forte was working behind the scenes. I worked in TV in some form or another from 1992 until 2004. I moved on to other things since, but I’ll always have fond memories of this experience. By the way, I never bought a vowel.