The first thing that hits you while walking across the set of "Wheel of Fortune": the wheel is so small!
The old adage that the camera adds 10 pounds is true for inanimate objects, as well. I thought it would be 25 feet wide. But I could probably lie across it, feet and head on the pegs. I restrained myself from testing that theory, however.
But I got to see many such "Wheel" wonders during tapings of the hugely popular game show Friday evening at Navy Pier.
The audience gets a warm-up as we file in — not by some overly cheery stand-up comic but simply by a long video compilation of the "Wheel's" own wacky moments during the last quarter century of alarming popularity. Host Pat Sajak hamming it up, contestants acting loopy, Vanna's first show, they all got the crowd laughing and oohing and ahhing.
And it's a big crowd. And they're waaaaay into it. If Pat would tell them to dress up in costumes, a la Monty Hall's show, you know they would.
As the audience files in, so do the contestants. But they have no leisure time before the taping begins. They're at their posts wheelside, and they're in boot camp. A fierce woman is grilling them on the proper performance for a game show. She has them give the wheel a few practice spins, all the while she and her assistants are clapping in their faces — apparently to (a) encourage them to do so as the wheel spins and (b) to get them used to the sensory overload of a game-show studio. She's barking at them to yell out letters, and coaching them on voice projection. Then she's screaming, "Go! Go! Go!" on to the next contestant. They must hire former drill sergeants for this duty.
Pat, as Sun-Times editor Zach Finken recalled from his "Wheel" experience, is indeed all business. He strolls out with Vanna White, looking sharp in a gray suit and hardly two-thirds of his 62 years. At the first commercial break he yaks a little with the audience, is gracious, is funny, even brings a young boy up and helps him spin the wheel. The boy in question was a fidgety one during the taping, and when Pat stopped in the aisle to remark on him and ask if he could bring him up, his mother sighed, "Oh, yes, please!"
Pat works through the game effortlessly, getting signals from producers just off to the contestants' left sides. They're quick to cue him so he can chime right in and say, "Yes, there ARE four N's in that puzzle..."
Vanna — resplendent in a blue gown and heels nearly as tall as the plywood Hancock Tower in the Chicago set rimming the stage — glides back and forth in real life as effortlessly as she seems on TV. What a gig! She glances frequently to a monitor hanging high in the rafters and angled only toward her, which I'm guessing contains the puzzle answer so she knows where all the letters are and can float right to them.
There's also a monitor facing the contestants showing the full alphabet. As each letter is called, it disappears from this monitor. That still didn't stop one contestant from calling out a T that had already been asked for.
The set is pretty amazing, too. Somebody built exact replicas of most the Chicago Loop buildings, and this whole made-for-Godzilla set rings the stage. It's astonishing in its detail — you think, why bother when it's so far back on TV, but it's gorgeous — and I'd pay good money to have that Hancock replica. They're not going to just trash this stuff after this weekend are they?
The cameramen double as cheerleaders for the crowd, telling us when the crane-cam would be swooping overhead and informing us — with a firm but encouraging tone — to clap like our seats were on fire. I had the feeling if we didn't meet expectations, the seats might actually heat up a little.
Twenty minutes of TV flies by in 45 in real life. This thing is down to a precise science. No flubs, no reshoots. Easy living. And considering they only shoot about 35 days a year (a week's worth in one day), nice work if you can get it.
My only disappointment? At no time during the experience did we get to shout, en masse as an audience, "Wheel! Of! Fortune!"
The episode we watched is set to air May 8. I'm in the second row. Do I look excited enough?