Wheel of Fortune is a long-running American game show that aired as a daytime series from 1975 to 1991 and has been a primetime syndicated series since 1983. The show is based on the children’s puzzle game Hangman. In each round, contests spin the wheel and take guesses at letters in order to fill in the blank word puzzle. Here are 42 puzzling facts about the enduring game show.
1. Vast Wardrobe
Vanna White has appeared in over 7,000 episodes of the show, and amazingly enough, she has never worn the same dress twice. Sadly for her, she doesn’t get to keep any of the dresses for free, but she has occasionally bought one that she likes.
2. Eight Weeks Work
An entire season of Wheel of Fortune is filmed in less than 40 days, filming 5-6 shows per day, one day a week. The 40 days includes all aspects of the show such as filming on location, commercials and special promos. That leaves them plenty of time for vacation and hobbies!
3. What Letter is That?
In an interview with ESPN2, Sajak admitted that he and Vanna White would knock back a few margaritas at a Mexican restaurant across from the studio before filming the show in the early days. He also confessed that there were times when they could barely recognize the letters of the alphabet, but since nobody’s ever called them on it, he figures the shows were probably decent.
4. Finger Boys
Few fans know, but Pat Sajak has a special way for knowing how many times a guessed letter appears in the puzzle. In the show’s early days, someone sat off camera and held up the appropriate number of fingers. The “finger boys,” as they were known, were eventually replaced with a screen, and are no longer used in the modern version.
5. We Match!
Sajak and white are such a pair that he always matches his tie to her dress. How cute is that—I don’t even coordinate with my spouse!
6. Backseat Game
As a child, the show’s creator Merv Griffin used to play Hangman with his sister in the backseat of his parents’ car on long road trips. Many years later, the TV mogul decided to take that idea and develop it into a televised game show.
7. Chances Are Slim
If you’ve always dreamt of being a contestant on Wheel of Fortune, you’ll need a lot of luck and a lot of enthusiasm! The show receives over 10,000 applications per year, but only 600 people get a spot on the show.
The vetting process for Wheel of Fortune is surprisingly strict. There are a number of criteria that will immediately disqualify a contestant from eligibility. Any person who has previously appeared on any incarnation of the show (even Teen Week) can’t be a contestant. Anyone who has appeared on a game/reality show in the last year or three shows in 10 years is also ineligible.
Of course, you can’t work for or be related to anyone who has any connection to the show. Always read the fine print!
9. First Attempt
Before becoming the Wheel of Fortune that we all know and love, the first edition of the show was called Shoppers Bazaar and players bought prizes with the money they earned on the show. Bazaar still had a mechanical wheel but stopped at the push of a button, had no bankrupts, and $0.00 spaces which meant the contestant didn’t get any money.
Long story short, neither Merv Griffin nor the audience, nor the Vice President of NBC daytime particularly liked the show, so back to the drawing board they went!
10. Epic Fail
Every game show has stories about hilarious contestant fails, and Vanna White’s favorite was a rather raunchy guess. Instead of guessing “Gone with the Wind” as the puzzle’s answer, the contestant said “DONE WITH ONE HAND.”
11. Good Guess!
December 26, 2014, was definitely a happy day for contestant Matt Desantos. He managed to win a record $91,892 before the bonus round! Amazingly, he guessed one of the first puzzles with just one letter E turned over, and then every puzzle after. He didn’t end up winning the bonus round, but his payday was the largest main-game win in the show’s history. Not bad for a half-hour’s work!
12. Big Wins
In the entire history of Wheel of Fortune, three lucky people have won the million-dollar prize. The first winner, Michelle Loewenstein, won on 8.08.08, which incidentally, was one month and a day after getting married. The second winner, Autumn Erhard, won five years later in 2013, and the third one year later during teacher’s week.
There have been some 100K+ winners since then, but it seems like another million-dollar win is due!
13. Paws Off!
Chuck Woolery, the original host of Wheel of Fortune, had a habit of hugging female contestants after they solved a puzzle, but many viewers apparently did not appreciate the gesture and wrote him about it. On a 1976 episode of the show he addressed the letters with this response: “I like to hug folks. I’m a hugger. A lot of people are handshakers; I’m a hugger. And one more thing: if you were here, I’d hug ya too!”
14. Putting it on the Line
After a second failed pilot, NBC Vice President Daytime Lin Bolin still believed that the show could work, and she made a risky deal with the network. She asked them to give her one more shot to put Wheel of Fortune on the air. If the show sucked and failed as the previous two versions had, they could fire her. If it was successful, she wanted a raise.
The risk paid off, and within weeks it became the top daytime television show.
15. Where Will My Name Be?
Producers of The Price is Right once asked Wheel of Fortune hostess Susan Stafford to become a model on their show. In the end, her name in lights was more important than money, and she turned down a larger paycheque when she learned that she would receive no billing on Price is Right.
16. Streamlining the Process
For the first 13 seasons of Wheel of Fortune, taping of the show took almost an hour due to the time-consuming and laborious process of manually pulling and setting up letters for each puzzle. In February 1997, producers replace the old puzzle board with a much more modern and efficient electronic board with touch screens.
Now, all it took to change the puzzle was the push of a button which nearly cut the taping time in half.
17. April Fools!
Pat Sajak and Vanna White love getting into the spirit of April Fools’ Day, and once as a gag they pretended to be married. Viewers apparently fell for the gag, because White told Parade magazine that they had received several toasters as gifts from viewers, all of which they returned.
When Wheel of Fortune started to beat Family Feud in the ratings, host Chuck Woolery approached Merv Griffin about being paid the same as Richard Dawson. Griffin wasn’t totally unreasonable and offered to raise Woolery’s salary to $400K, but that was still 100K less than what he wanted. The network offered to pay him the difference, but Griffin’s response was utterly devastating. He said he wouldn’t stand for it.
When Woolery refused to compromise on his salary demands, Griffin fired him and replaced him with Pat Sajak.
19. Doesn’t Travel Well
Believe it or not, there’s only one wheel used for Wheel of Fortune, and it weighs a whopping 2,400 pounds! Even harder to believe is that when the show films on location somewhere outside of the studio, the wheel has to come too! Altogether, the show travels with over a million pounds of equipment, begging the question—why don’t they have a travel wheel?
20. But He’s Only a Weatherman!
Before hosting Wheel of Fortune, Pat Sajak was a weatherman for a local NBC station in Los Angeles. When Griffin floated him as a possible replacement for Woolery, the network refused, due to his being a relatively unknown local weatherman. Once again, Griffin proved that it does no good arguing with him and refused to tape any more episodes of the show until Sajak was given the job.
Obviously, this would have been disastrous for NBC, so they did the smart thing and caved.
21. Frequent Clapper
Not surprisingly, Vanna White holds the world record for most frequent television clapper, having clapped close to 4 million times. Each show she claps an average of 600 times—which probably results in a really sore pair of hands at the end!
22. Which Hostess Has the Mostess?
In 1982, Susan Stafford decided to leave the show to do humanitarian work. Producers were tasked with finding a replacement. Three women tried out for the role, but White knocked them out of the water and was offered the job. She premiered December 13, 1982, and the first letter she ever turned was a T.
23. A Quick Break
For a period of two years between 1989-1990, Pat Sajak left the show to try his hand at hosting his own late-night show. Unfortunately for him, he proved no match for Johnny Carson or Arsenio Hall, and the show was eventually canceled due to poor ratings.
24. Kid Wheel
For a period of about five months back in 1997, Wheel expanded into a Saturday morning children’s edition. The show, called Wheel of Fortune 2000, was both a success and a failure. It succeeded in that it ranked #1 in children’s programming for CBS that season, but failed in that it only ranked 46th overall.
Ironically, the show still fared better than most of CBS’ lineup that season, but that didn’t save it from the chopping block.
25. Reaching the Limit
The game board on Wheel of Fortune has 52 slots, and the longest puzzle to date “SHE JUST WON A SEVENTH U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIP” used 47 characters including spaces. The puzzle with the most characters not counting spaces is “HERSHEY BAR GRAHAM CRACKER GOOEY ROASTED MARSHMALLOW” with 46 characters.
26. Punctuation Fails
Even Wheel of Fortune isn’t immune to making a spelling mistake in their puzzles. They’ve made one word into two, two words into one, used hyphens when there should have been none, and vice-versa.
27. Absolutely Authentic
Viewers can’t help speculating on whether or not the wheel is fixed to prevent people from winning big, or theorizing that Pat Sajak can actually control the wheel with his foot to make it stop. The editors have sworn that this absolutely is not the case, and the only fiddling done to the show are the edits that remove unnecessary material that would push the show over its running time.
28. Host Swap
One year for a special April Fools episode, viewers were shocked to find Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek hosting with Pat and Vanna as contestants. The episode was all in fun and the money was donated to charity. The next day, everybody was back where they belonged.
29. Can I Guess an R?
Over the course of a game, remembering what letters you guessed and what letters everybody else guessed can be really tricky. To help contestants keep track, a “dummy screen” shows them which consonants and vowels have been used.
30. Passing Her Time
Outside of the show, Vanna White still keeps herself busy. She signs pictures, answers letters from fans, and takes time for crocheting which is her favorite hobby. White even has her own line of yarn called Vanna’s Choice, and she generously donates a portion of the profits to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
31. Never Goes Up
Very few things cost the same today as they did 30 years ago, but one thing that has never gone up in price is a vowel! Since the beginning of the show, a vowel has cost $250.00 and has remained the same ever since. Too bad that doesn’t also apply to rent!
32. Killing the Competition
The prime-time version of Wheel of Fortune was so popular that by the end of 1984 it became the most popular syndicated television show, leading to the cancellations of several other nighttime versions of underperforming game shows. Among the victims that season was Family Feud, but, like a cat, it seems to have nine lives and is back on TV again.
33. Bye Bye Dalmatian!
If you watched the show prior to 1989, you might remember the gallery with prizes like the tacky Dalmatian statue and witch-shaped cookie jar. In a move to speed up the pacing of the game and lower the amount of taxes that contestants were paying on their winnings, the producers scrapped the shopping round and switched to cash.
34. Tips for Winning
For the most part, there’s a lot less preparation involved in getting ready to play Wheel of Fortune than other game shows, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a strategy involved. Other than looking closely at the board, learning which letters of the English language are most common is a good start. Other tips include guessing an “S” when it’s a plural and guessing H&E when a three-letter-word starts with “T”. Good advice!
On the April 9, 2018, episode, one poor contestant lost all of the money he’d earned that round in the worst way possible—by mispronouncing a word. The solution was “Flamenco Dance Lessons,” but the contestant pronounced flamenco as flamingo. Sajak promised to review the footage during a commercial break to be sure, but the mispronunciation was clear.
36. She Knows!
To make sure that Vanna turns the appropriate letters, producers give her the answers to the puzzles ahead of time. Even with the heads up, Vanna has been known to make a mistake, and she admitted to once turning the wrong letter, causing the puzzle to be tossed.
37. Smells Like Vanna
In the mid-80s when the show transitioned to airing in prime time, Vanna White’s popularity grew so much, people began to use the term Vannamania to describe it. Taking full advantage of the opportunity, she capitalized on Vannamania and appeared on the covers of popular magazines, wrote an autobiography, produced a line for a home shopping channel, and had her own fragrance. I wonder if it smelled like money?!
38. Keep It or Spend It?
Back when the show had shopping rounds, host Woolery would take the winner of each round over to the gallery to see what kind of prizes they could buy. If there was any money left when they were done shopping, they had a choice—keep it safely in a gift certificate or keep it in play and risk losing it on bankrupt, or just not winning another round.
Occasionally, when there was a really big-ticket item like a car available, contestants would “bank” their entire winnings for the round hoping to win enough to afford it later on.
39. The Perks of Being a Fan
If you consider yourself a superfan of the show, you can join the Wheel Watchers Club and get a Spin ID, which gives members access to special perks and a chance to win prizes just by watching!
40. Don’t Put My Face On It
On home versions of the game produced prior to 2010, Pat Sajak’s face does not appear. The reason, as Sajak explained on his website, was to protect his kids. They were still quite young, and having his image appearing on a product was not a good way to keep their home lives normal.
41. These are Freebies
In the original bonus round, contestants had to select five consonants and a vowel to help them solve the puzzle. In 1988, the show automatically gave players R, S, T, L, N, and E, leaving them to select three more consonants and an additional vowel. This is definitely a time when all of those tips for solving puzzles come in handy!
42. No Kids Allowed
Despite the success of Wheel 2000 in the children’s market, the one theme they never use are kids. Since the early 90s, the show has never welcomed any children on as contestants. A couple of kids asked in 2013 if there would ever be a kids’ week. The announcer replied that they’d think about it.
I guess they’re still thinking, because one has yet to happen.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21