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A Hundred Won Dalmatians

Getting and Spending on "Wheel of Fortune"

Patricia Vigderman

In Poland, to buy a washing machine or a refrigerator is complicated and time-consuming. You have to have documentary proof that you are under thirty-five, have been married less than three years, own your own apartment, make a certain amount of money, and have a special bank credit to buy the appliance.

Or, you can happen to be in a department store when a shipment arrives. Only a portion of the appliances is reserved for document-certifiables; the rest are thrown to whoever gets to the counter first.

Or, you can hire a stander, an entrepreneur who contracts himself out to stand around in department stores so as to be there when the item you want is thrown. Consequently, in Poland a washing machine isn’t a neutral piece of machinery in the corner of your house. It says something about who you are and how the authorities or gods feel about you.

In the United States, where an unchecked river of merchandise flows through our lives, you would think appliances have less meaning. And yet, a refrigerator with a little ice water dispenser in the door still has the power to make a statement about its owner. Nor is it just the latest technology, the microwave ovens or CD players that testify to our status on earth and in heaven. The lowliest of our possessions can speak up. Snap on the TV and see a couple of toilets gossiping about their owners, the lids flopping up and down as they complain about not being cleaned well enough. Or watch a series of cough remedies in various strengths, for various times of day and different members of the family, float across the screen: back lit, self-propelled, the stuff is the good news, radiant with the power of healing.

But these commercials are only rosary beads, small, repetitive invocations to the economic system of the West. For the real celebration, the high mass of consumption, tune in to a game show. Watch Keith and Maureen on "Break the Bank" trying not to suffocate with excitement at having just won a trip to Palm Springs and $2,200. Nobody can take that away from you, they are assured by a man known as the host. Maureen raises her eyes to the studio lights in gratitude. The couple is then led into the Vault an inner sanctum of flashing neon stacked with cash and flanked by a refrigerator, a set of expensive china, a red Mazda.

To get a sense of the elaborateness of the ritual, turn on the venerable "The Price is Right" on a winter Monday. A fiftyish woman wearing a cherry-colored pants suit is smiling up at host Bob Barker. Her name is Dorothy, and before her on a set of little platforms are several items you might buy in the supermarket: a jar of mayonnaise, a box of cornbread stuffing, a candy bar, a can of garbanzo beans, a package of premeasured rice. Simple items, but each one gets the full treatment. You can’t fail with this fluffy white wonder, intones a disembodied voice over the rice. Dorothy is going to guess the prices.

Or rather, she is going to try to pick the packages that cost less that $1.33. Each time she gets one right, her money increases by a factor of ten. She starts with a dollar; she picks the garbonzo beans. A sign under the can flashes 93 cents. Now Dorothy’s dollar is $10. The assortment of provender includes a can of German potato salad whose old-fashioned virtues the Voice has described convincingly, but Dorothy knows a can of potato salad isn’t worth much. Now she has $100. Next she goes for the Krackle candy bar, which proves to cost only 79 cents.

Dorothy can head out with $1,000 if she stops right now. But she is going for 10,000--she’s going to guess which of the remaining items costs less that $1.33. As she prepares herself, the camera pans over the mayo, the corn stuffing, the prebagged rice. All over America we join her: it’s probably not the rice, we think--that premeasured stuff is always costly. O Dorothy! Selige pro nobis.

Well, she stumbles. It’s not the cornbread ($1.39), it the mayo (only $1.25). She’s a good sport about losing the $1,000, though. "That’s all right, she says. It was an invisible grand anyway, not a dining room suite, or a Mediterranean style pool table, or a matched pair of snow-mobiles.

How did Dorothy become part of this ceremony anyway? Well, first of all, she wrote for tickets from Goodson-Todman Productions, and on the appointed day stood in line outside CBS Television studio in Los Angeles. The show’s co-producer, Phil Wayne, picked her out as one of those people who feel good about themselves. By the time she filed into the studio wearing a big badge with her name in block capitals over her heart, her name had been tossed into a basket with those of the other chosen people--nine from the studio audience of around three hundred. At some point in the show, her name was called, and she leapt from her seat to take her turn bidding against four other contestants on a wash/dryer on a French-style American pine secretary or a vacation at Lake Tahoe. She was the one who came closest to the right price, winning both the stuff and the chance to play her own game.

Perhaps because in this show contestants are picked from the audience, it has some sort of the ecstatic fervor of a tent revival. The particular contestant struggling with the slippery demon of price represents the whole congregation, any one of whom could be the next to speak in numbers.

Take the case of Maurice, a black business student from Saddleback College. Having correctly estimated the price of a set of golf clubs, he was led into a secondary game called Temptation. On-stage before him slithered a brass hall mirror, a pair of crystal lamps, a trash compactor (a recurring motif on these shows). At this point, it’s all his, absolutely free, orrr--here comes the temptation--he can try to guess the price of a neeew Pontiac SUNBIRD, either adding that to his pile or losing the boodle entirely.

If there’s anything that gets the decibel count up on these shows, it’s the cars. Up to the appearance of the car, Maurice has been polite but unmoved. Now, engulfed in the hullaballoo of his fellow seekers, he raises his closed eyes to heaven, clutching his hands to his heart. All the way down from Saddleback he prayed for this.

One by one he guesses four digits in the car’s price. Then he gets a chance to change one number. The transported audience is crying for a zero at the end; he obliges them. The Barker--the devil’s agent--tempts him again. In a slow, swooping voice, he again offers Maurice aaaall the rest of the merchandise (mirror trash compactor, etc.) or going with the price he’s put together and losing it all if he’s wrong. Maurice keeps the faith. Get thee behind me, unholy jumble of junk. I am going for the sacred Sunbird.

Well, he loses, and not because of the zero (that was correct). However, later in the show others will be saved. A charming woman named Rhonda will he absolutely showered with stuff, including a small truck. The finale of each show always includes a thematically linked "showcase"--for Rhonda, it’s a glorification of camping equipment. This is the hallelujah moment. By the time the credits roll up on the screen, we have found our redemption in Rhonda and forgotten all about Maurice. His path to glory will presumably have to lead through business school, although this soul-searing experience might lead a guy to humbler work--a stander in a Polish department store, maybe.

The complicated plotting of "The Price is Right"--the variety of secondary games, the audience participation, the climactic shower of merchandise--seems almost quaint compared to today’s most popular game show, "Wheel of Fortune" from Merv Griffin Enterprises. While the formula is the same (both require a small show of skill, feature congenial regular personalities, use ordinary people as contestants, and give away expensive junk to general oohs and aahs), I the newer show the "story" is spare, coo, and deliberately evangelical. Its good news is packages to involve the millions at home watching their sets, rather that the ones who have already found their way to the studio. "We consistently try to bring out the best in our viewers," says the show’s producer, Nancy Jones, apparently in all seriousness.

Ask the fans why they like "Wheel of Fortune" and the answer is always, "I like to guess the puzzles." These puzzles, words or phrases in common use from Maine to California, first appear as a series of blank squares on a wall board, and are filled in by contestants guessing consonants and "buying" vowels with money they’ve racked up from correct guesses. The moment when the solution suddenly becomes apparent (which usually happens to the relaxed viewer at home before it happens to the sweating contestants on the show) is a infinitely repeatable epiphany. And anyone can have it five or six times in half an hour.

CLOSER TO PLAYING with alphabet blocks than doing a crossword puzzle, the game is a triumph of form over content. It’s the shape of the word, the pattern of the letters that matters, not the meaning. Gone is the cumulative drama of "The Price is Right," as well as the implied connection to a world outside the studio--that marketplace full of quirky pricing.

The award for a correct guess is determined by spinning the brightly sparkling Wheel of Fortune. A prolonged ordeal like Maurice’s has no place on "Wheel of Fortune." Whether your efforts are rewarded with $150, $5,000, or (for the truly unfortunate) Bankrupt, is a matter of speedy, indifferent luck.

Moreover, the emotion of a big win is immediately guided toward its proper recreational goal: shopping. The winners on "Wheel of Fortune" spend their money right on camera in themed showcases such as the "Southwest den," where they "buy" an electronic typewriter or a rug with an "antique stencil design in a decoy motif." Even on the syndicated evening version of "Wheel of Fortune," where contestants do go home with cash such "bonus prizes" as a glittering gold and diamond brooch serve to remind all and sundry that money really means shopping spree. The redemptive event is active rather than passive: t win is to choose rather than to be endowed.

The difference between the to shows probably depends less on eschatology than on history. "The Price if Right" was born in the fifties, sharing the air with shows like "The 64,000 Question" and "Queen for a Day." On the former, contestants were solemnly sealed into a soundproof booth and quizzed about facts of history, science, or culture. The latter was a competition of sorrow: contestants told personal stories of loss and grief. For an audience who believes in the power of both encyclopedic knowledge and abundant commodities, the household goods that rewarded "Queen"’s best sob story had the status of solid objects in a world of emotional catastrophe, even as in Poland they are solid objects in a world of political catastrophe. The ornate rituals of "The Price is Right" still imply some such continuity with real life. On "Wheel of Fortune," in contrast, the skills that win and the merchandise for "sale" happily imply a world of trivia and junk.

TRIVIA AND JUNK on the consumer’s side, that is. For the producers and purveyors of expensive vacations and appliances and furniture, games shows and their rapt millions are a piece of the rock. Richard Storrs, of Pic-TV in North Hollywood, works as program representative for "Wheel of Fortune." He can arrange for a hotel in Puerto Vallarta to donate a vacation trip or the Tappan Company to donate a microwave oven in exchange for an eight to ten second promotional spot on the show. This includes a picture of the product and eighteen to twenty-two words of audio copy. "It’s a way of getting broad awareness out to the American public," says Storrs, "and people are more likely to watch the promotional spot than a commercial since it’s part of the show."

Kiddie shows based on toy products like Strawberry Shortcake of GoBots have drawn sharp criticism in recent years: "They sell a product while claiming to be entertainment, and I think that’s unconscionable," Dr. William H. Dietz of the American Academy of Pediatrics told the New York Times. "If there were a show for adults based on vacuum cleaners, it would be boycotted." He is, of course, wrong. Whatever the opposite of a boycott is, game shows enjoy it. Furthermore, most of the audience would willingly take part in the exploitation Dr. Dietz deplores. Periodically, "Wheel of Fortune" conducts tryouts for the show in cities across the country; when these are announced, the show’s phone lines are instantly overloaded with calls. Only a lucky thousand or two get through, and eventually get letters telling them where and when to show up for interviews.

In New York that was early last March at the Doral Inn at Forty-ninth and Lexington. The show’s producer, Nancy Jones, contestant coordinator Harve Selsby, and several other members of the production team were in town to cull contestants from the New York area. Hopefuls, mostly from the suburbs, arrived in groups of 125, four times a day. They lined up in the corridor outside the Lincoln--Washington Room on the sixth floor, and were eventually given numbered tickets and shepherded to rows of chairs in its drably lit interior. Then they found out they had to take a test--to solve a series of fifteen puzzles, just like on the show, in five minutes. This is part of the streamlining that makes the show work: in five minutes you can eliminate the folks who have no natural ability to play the game.

The image of "Wheel of Fortune" belongs to Vanna White, an apotheosis of legs, teeth, and hair whose role on the show is to turn the blank spaces on the puzzles into letters. Vanna toils not, neither does she speaks; she’s called "co-host," describes herself as "basically . . . a cheer-leader," and looks as if she spends her off-hours in a Coke ad. (Coca-Cola, as it happens, owns Merv Griffin Enterprises.) The contestants are different; when the unseen fourth player in every round is the viewer, the "just folks" imperative is in full play. "We love to see a gambler spin the wheel till it falls off its hinges," says Harve. "That kind of person is usually outgoing, verbal. Looks aren’t that important. We’ll take our share of beach bunnies--you bet we will--but that’s not what we’re looking for."

The folks behind the scenes are different, too. Nancy and Harve, Felicia Richards, Gary O’Brien, and Lisa Palmigiano are successful business people--smart, upbeat, personable, and very professional. Harve jokes easily as the group prepares for the test. He knows how anxious they are and he knows how to put them at ease. He mispronounces Plantagenet, and then accepts a correction from a woman in the crowd with, "Thank you. You should be on ‘Jeopardy.’" The crowd laughs with pleasure and relief. He explains how to do the puzzles: solve as many as you can, do the easy ones first--and remember, the category "People" means well-known people. "So if your brother-in-law’s name fits, don’t put it in." The crowd laughs again. But when the test begins the room is full of tension. Some people are scribbling, others are biting their "Wheel of Fortune" pencils. Many of the faithful are staring stunned into space, never having expected a quiz at the pearly gates.

And then it’s over. The papers are collected, an the room erupts in nervous chatter. "I didn’t pass." "What did you put for the first person?" "That was really hard." "How many do you have to get right to pass?" A whole row lights up cigarettes. Meanwhile, in the back Harve, Gary, and Lisa are standing at a table whipping through the tests, discarding the ones with fewer than eight correctly solved puzzles. It seems like less than five minutes before they are done. Now it’s time for some fun.

"How many of you ladies have dreamed of being Vanna White?" Harve asks. It seems to be unanimous: "Oh yes, definitely," cries a woman halfway to the back of the room, jumping up and waving her arm. "And how many of you men have dreamed of being as witty and charming as Pat Sajak?" (Sajak is the show’s host.) Basso enthusiasm. A lady names Maybelle and a man names Bob are chosen to come up and pretend they are Pat and Vanna. Maybelle does a Vanna spin, Bob produces a witty comment on cue. Then they pick numbers out of a silver chalice, numbers corresponding to those on the tickets the folks got at the door. A dozen totemic prizes are raffled off--"Wheel of Fortune" baseball hats, computer games, tote bags, pad and pen sets, and a couple of big play-at-home "Wheel of Fortune" games.

Then comes the bad news for most of this congregation. Gary reads off the names of the people who have passed the test. The number if less than twenty. The nonelect are thanked very nicely and told to take a little bag of chocolate cooking on the way out.

The chosen then settle into chairs at the front of the room, before a chalkboard and a small portable version of The Wheel. The event becomes more like school than church as Harve reveals the secret of getting on the show. Be enthusiastic, like the contestants you like to watch hat home. "You don’t want to watch those nervous people with thin lips," he reminds them. A good contestant is also someone who wants to win THE LIMIT. Not someone content to win a little and then safely take it home, but some one who’ll "give it an extra spin, have a little nerve." They are looking for people who are "going home with the Corvette or they’re going home with NOTHING," he ends on a stirring note. "So don’t stop on $100, play for the Mazerati convertible," he concludes to enthusiastic cheering.

In Burbank, he goes on, the pressure is intense. You have to overcome your nerves. "We put a lot of stock in nerves of steel," he adds seriously.

Energy. Enthusiasm. Nerves of steel.

So. Don’t lose your concentration. Keep the game going. And if 50 percent of the puzzle is filled in and you don’t have a clue and the guy next to you has a grin ear to ear, what do you do? "Buy a vowel," they chorus.

Then they play the game. . .over and over and over. Greek Columns, Hamburger and Hot Dogs, I Saw It Coming a Mile Away, Now and Forever, Dirty Harry flash by: Luanne hits $900 on the wheel, her letter comes up three times in the puzzle, and Harve calls out, "You got yourself twenty seven hundred DOLLARS!" Eric calls for a T, and Gary cries "TWO TEES!!" The aspiring contestants try to show enthusiasm and nerves of steel. Later they will be asked to stand and say a few words about themselves. Many describe themselves as devoted communicants: "I’m a game show addict." "I have two delicious children who play ‘Wheel of Fortune’ with me on the computer and they’ll kill me I you don’t pick me." "I love fishing, I love dancing, I love your game." These are upfront, eager Americans. They’ve been through the school system; they have hobbies and families and pets, attachments and jobs. And they really want to be on TV.

Ken identifies himself as a stock option trader with two dogs. Later he tells me he’s not the typical contestant; he’s just looking for an excuse to go to L.A. But who’s a typical contestant? The woman who sings with the Ramapo Valley Sweet Adelines, writes children’s books, works for the New York City police force, and likes to ski? The daughter of a "major league player with the New York Giants"? The mother of a "major size family--eight daughters and one son"? The common denominator seems to be wholehearted participation in the spirit of the show--faithful adherence to the dogma of fun.

Is there anything weird happening here? Nancy Jones explains carefully to the group that contestants only appear at the show’s discretion, and that a pool of contestants is necessary as "our insurance policy." From the phone call on their bills, to the trip to Burbank at their own expense (if they’re lucky enough to be selected), to that "pool" of contestants, to their happy smiles at acquiring some manufacturer’s product, their resources are at the disposal of Merv Griffin Enterprises. Today Harve and Nancy and Lisa and Gary and Felicia are on salary and expense account, but you, Mr. and Mrs. Cross Section f the New York Audience, are simply missing a day of work. In exchange for your good humor and steel nerves, you are being offered an opportunity to shrink yourself like Alice until you fit the little screen in your living room. "I know how to act like a jerk," one savvy woman told me as we waited for the elevator after the audition.

So why do they do it, these educated, well-fed citizens with their hobbies and children and careers? "It’s our feeling," says Harve, "that almost everybody in America wants to go on the show."" If you like the show, you can picture yourself on it. And if you can imagine yourself winning the car or the vacation, you can certainly imagine buying a ticket to L.A. The number of people who show up at the Doral is limited only by the stamina of Harve and Nancy and the rest, not by the number of people who’ll invest a phone call. "People think, ‘so it’s going to cost me $500, but I get a chance,’" Harve explains.

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the millions of faithful fans as dummies or dupes, clapping their hands for fun, luck, and faierie gold. When the entire population of a retirement hone in Naples, Florida, watches "Wheel of Fortune" every night, when teenagers prefer it to after-school specials on drugs and divorce, when it cuts into the audience for the evening news, the show’s simple ritual of spelling and shopping is offering something more than the opportunity to be a jerk. As stripped of baroque trappings as Unitarianism, Wheelwatching is a communion of getting and spending that appeals to an enormous spectrum. But whether they are spare and direct or encrusted with ritual, game shows are a celebration of the wealth that justifies all Americans. Fun is, after all, the spiritual life of abundance. And all the glittering stuff says clearly that even if you’re not personally rich, at least you’re not in Poland.

The trip to Burbank, then, is a pilgrimage: simply being there, mingling with the other faithful, seeing the shrine with you own eyes, is a faith-affirming experience to remember all your life. Sure, it would be great to win $25,000 or a trip to some tropical beach, but a trash master, a love seat shaped like a pair of lips, a case of room deodorizer. . .any token of the event will do.

Perhaps in recognition of the prizes’ symbolic nature, the showcases on "Wheel of Fortune" feature some offerings that have not been traded for promotional spots. Ceramic Dalmatians, for example. Pic-TV’s Richard Storrs says that when contestants cruise the prizes before playing the game, "Lots of times what they’re looking for is the ceramic Dalmatian. And no matter what else is in there, they’re disappointed if there aren’t any ceramic animals." Nancy Jones has suggested that the prizes contestants choose "signal new product trends and offer an insight into our hopes and dreams as a society." When a ceramic dog glows with desirability like a Polish refrigerator, surely it represents more than a new product trend. The kitschiest images of saints and martyrs may still be expressions of true faith.

It would be naive to suggest that greed has no part in this ritual. Indeed, the satisfaction or frustration of greed is part of its dramatic structure. But it seems undeniable that the prizes on the game shows are valued neither because they imply social or personal solidity, nor because they pretend to fulfill any particular need. They simply affirm that it is good--even meaningful--to acquire. Like the medium that feeds off them, they promise that beyond foolishness, beyond the disappointment of getting and spending are happier, freer, maybe miraculous lives.

Originally published in the June 1988 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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