“I don’t really talk about any of this on the show.”
Nor does the single mother — divorced from restaurateur George Santo Pietro — talk much about her enviable taping schedule. “Wheel’’ tapes only 35 days a year, five to six shows per day, mostly in a 160-person studio in Culver City, Calif. Her contract, estimated to be worth millions, gives her the freedom to dabble in real estate and crocheting, hobbies she’s since turned into business ventures. Among knitting enthusiasts, Vanna is known for her popular line of yarn, from which she recently donated $1 million to St. Jude’s Hospital. And as for those 330 days a year when she’s not taping? She’s a hands-on mom to her 16- and 19-year-old kids, a feverish cookie baker, a woman who lives a markedly “simple life.”
“Prior to having my first child, I had a huge ambition to go into movies and TV,” she said, noting that she has always considered herself ambitious. “But after I had my children I just became . . . mother was my first job. I’m lucky, I can be a full-time mom and do this. And let’s face it, I was never a very good actress.”
Before & after
Over 90 million Americans have been born since the day that the syndicated version of “Wheel of Fortune” premiered. Those who’ve watched “Wheel” since the beginning might notice its slow evolution: People stopped bidding on prizes in the early ’80s, and Vanna traded in her boxy suits for more flashy evening attire. The winnings jumped from five to seven figures over the years, but the premise of the show and its people never changed. The price of a vowel never rose with inflation.
“We like to say it’s reliable, never predictable,” said Harry Friedman, the producer of both “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” tasked with leading these game shows through their twilight years. “We’ve never lost sight of the composition of our audience. It’s families.”
While its true that “Wheel of Fortune” hasn’t changed much in 30 years, the fortunes of middle-class families, its target demographic, have. Many of the players who hit “Bankrupt” on the wheel have felt loss in their real lives, too. Since the 2008 economic crisis, the game has become more generous to losers, giving every contestant $1,000 just for showing up and playing.
“We’ve tried to stay sensitive to what’s going on across the country,” Friedman said. “It used to be that on game shows if you were a non-winner, you got some lovely parting gifts. Well, for someone who’s held a lifelong dream of being on the show to win nothing, Rice-A-Roni is not a real comforting consolation prize.”
But somehow, despite changing tastes, changing times and the torrent of “Breaking Bads” and “Honey Boo Boos,” “Wheel” has endured, remaining one of the top syndicated shows on television. The flashy carnival wheel may seem dated or hokey to some, but that’s why a lot of people still watch.
“We’re kind of a throwback,” Sajak says. “If you went into a network to pitch this show, the pitch wouldn’t last long. They’d say, ‘Who are you going to vote off? Who you going to embarrass? But for some reason, in the life cycle of the show, we reached a critical mass and became more than a popular show. We become part of the popular culture. We’re part of people’s everyday routine.
Vanna, as usual, agrees with Sajak, offering a simple, sweet analogy.
“We’re like vanilla ice cream,” Vanna says. “You can have maple nut ice cream or chocolate fudge ice cream, but it all starts with the vanilla. You never get tired of vanilla.”
The 31st season of the syndicated version of “Wheel of Fortune” (30 minutes) starts Sept. 16 and airs at 7 p.m. on WJLA.