Shawna Perez’s happy scream brought her three children rushing into the room.
“You guys, I got on ‘Wheel of Fortune,’” Perez explained breathlessly. “My mind is blown right now.”
Perez, a single mom and cheerleading coach who teaches first grade at Miller Elementary School in Santa Maria, is one of two local women who will appear on “Wheel of Fortune” in coming weeks.
Unlike past contestants, they experienced how much the coronavirus pandemic has changed the popular game show.
“Wheel of Fortune” returned to the airwaves in September with a new audition process, a redesigned set and new rules designed to keep COVID-19 in check.
Hosted by Pat Sajak and Vanna White, “Wheel of Fortune” is the longest-running syndicated game show in U.S. history.
Contestants solve hangman-style word puzzles in hopes of winning vacations, cars and cash prizes.
But the novel coronavirus has significantly changed the way “America’s Game” is played — shutting down production for months, eliminating live studio audiences and requiring new social distancing rules.
The Culver City set of “Wheel of Fortune” now features a new curved monitor and a redesigned wheel with an extended platform that allows for 6 feet of space between Sajak and each of the contestants, according to a news release.
Instead of directly spinning the wheel with their hands, contestants have their own so-called “spinning caps” that fit over the wheel’s spokes, the release said.
There’s rigorous coronavirus testing for show contestants, talent, staff and crew, as well as personal protective equipment for people working behind the scenes.
“Everybody has a mask on in the morning when we’re going over everything,” contestant co-producer Shannon Bobillo explained, although Sajak, White and the contestants do not wear face coverings on air. “They take it off to start to tape their show.”
COVID-19 also transformed how “Wheel of Fortune” finds its contestants.
Rather than trying out for the show in person during traveling Wheelmobile events that draw dozens of participants, would-be contestants now apply to audition virtually in small groups. It’s a method that comes with its own challenges; technical problems such as flagging WiFi connections are frequent, according to Bobillo and contestant co-producer Jackie Lamatis.
Tips for Game Show Auditions
So what makes an ideal “Wheel of Fortune” contestant?
Bobillo and Lamatis said they’re looking for people familiar with the show who have “good energy” and the ability to stay focused under pressure.
“We want good game players and good puzzle solvers,” Bobillo said. “We’re also look for people who play with a nice, natural enthusiasm and a nice, big voice.
“People say how easy (the show) is, but when you’re up there and you have Pat Sajak standing 6 feet away from you and you’re playing for real money, it’s a little different.”
According to Erica Laible, who handles publicity and promotions for “Wheel of Fortune” at Sony Pictures Entertainment, it’s never been easier to audition for the show.
Whereas an in-person audition might last up to three hours, not counting travel time, it takes a maximum of 45 minutes to try out online from the comfort of your own home, Laible noted. Plus, she added, it’s easy for Southern California residents to travel to Culver City to tape if they’re selected for the show.
Central Coast Residents Try Out Via Zoom
Three Central Coast residents got to experience the new “Wheel of Fortune” audition process firsthand in mid-September, when they tried out for the show via Zoom.
Perez, who called in from her Miller Elementary School classroom, was joined at the virtual audition by Shell Beach resident Davinia Palmer and Nipomo resident Kurtis Newton, logging on from their respective homes.
As Lamatis watched, each person had a short time window to finish filling out four word puzzles in four separate categories: “Phrase,” “Proper Names,” “Thing” and “Before & After.” The contestants also competed to complete toss-up puzzles.
Like Sajak, Lamatis encouraged the would-be contestants to talk out their answers. “Just let us know what you know, even if you know half of it,” she said.
During the audition, “I felt excited and nervous and worried that my brain would freeze,” said Palmer, a mom, radio personality and voice-over artist who’s studying psychology at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.
Palmer said she’s been a “Wheel of Fortune” watcher for more than a decade, ever since she moved to the United States from Wales. It’s now part of her bedtime ritual with her 4-year-old son, Sully.
“I like playing along (at home),” Palmer said. “It makes me feel good. I give myself an internal high-five when I get a question right.”
Growing up, Perez said, she used to watch “Wheel of Fortune” with her grandma after dinner. “We loved Vanna White and her beautiful dresses,” Perez recalled.
Perez now watches with her 14-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 7 and 12.
She’s also a fan of the official “Wheel of Fortune” app, which she often plays on her phone before bed or while making dinner. She even played the app during her audition downtime: “I was cramming,” she explained with a laugh.
“I’ve always loved words and spelling. It’s just a really fun game for me,” Perez said.
When to Watch Their Episodes
Palmer and Perez discovered in October that they had made it on the show.
Perez was sitting in her classroom at Miller Elementary School, working alongside her children, when she found out via a Zoom call that she would appear on the show.
“That is an amazing surprise,” she said. “I’m so honestly shocked. My face is going to hurt. I can’t stop smiling. I’m so happy!“
After taping their episodes this fall, she and Palmer are eagerly looking forward to making their “Wheel of Fortune” debuts on the air.
Perez is scheduled to appear on a “Happy New Year”-themed episode at 7:30 p.m. Monday, nearly about a week and a half before the Jan. 7 premiere of the new “Celebrity Wheel of Fortune.” Palmer will appear in an episode scheduled to air in early February.
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