It came up "Wheel of Fortune" on the career spins of Pat Sajak and Vanna White, and what followed was immense good fortune for the host and hostess of the highest-rated program in the history of syndicated television.
The show, based on the kids' game of hangman, has catapulted the pair into national celebrity status, a lofty perch they're just getting used to.
"Vanna and I have the advantage of playing ourselves on the show and not characters in a show," said Sajak, who serves as "Wheel's" master of ceremonies. "So when we meet people, it's almost like I was their neighbor, and they treat me the same way. That's a real compliment when people feel that comfortable with you."
During a recent stop in Washington for the opening night of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which benefited the Washington Children's Museum, they answered questions like chummy old friends. That night the crowd zestfully chanted "Wheel! of! Fortune!" as Sajak and White wheeled around the D.C. Armory floor in a chariot and blew a whistle to begin the parade.
Things like that happen to the host and hostess of a show that is on network television (NBC) each morning and syndicated to 208 markets (99 percent of the country) in the evening. The 30.7 million viewers who watch the syndicated show on an average day more than double the viewers for "M*A*S*H," the industry's No. 2 program in syndication. Adding up the network and syndication audiences, about 43 million people watch the big wheel spin each day. (The wheel is actually 7-foot-8. Stand it up and it's an inch taller than Manute Bol.)
"Wheel" is also a very big player in the business world. Coca-Cola recently announced that it was purchasing Merv Griffin Enterprises, which owns "Wheel" and "Jeopardy," among others, at a price reported to be between $150 and $250 million. And King World, which distributes "Wheel" and will get 35 percent of the more than $70 million profit the show is expected to make this year, went public in December 1984. Stock that initially sold for $10 a share split 2-for-1 seven months later and hovers at the $40 mark these days.
In Washington last fall, WDVM-TV moved one of its top seasonal features, "Redskin Sidelines," from its timely Monday night slot back to Saturday rather than moving or dropping a single "Wheel" program.
Little in Sajak's background groomed him for the role of game-show host. Maybe you can go back to when he was a youngster in Chicago, son of a Polish truck driver, who used to play at broadcasting, using a spoon for a mock microphone.
Sajak dropped out of Columbia College in Chicago in his fourth year to join the Army. He went to Vietnam whee he worked as a finance clerk for six months before serving 12 months as a disc jockey for Armed Forces Radio in Saigon. He still gets letters from former servicemen who say they remember his voice. Sajak likes to quip, "How do you tell your grandchildren that you were a fighting disc jockey?"
He picked up his career in Nashville where he hosted a public affairs program and did the weather on television and DJ work on radio. In 1977 he went to Los Angeles as the weatherman on WNBA.
He was still doing that when Merv Griffin, who produces several top game shows, auditioned him for "Wheel of Fortune." Griffin says he hired Sajak to take over for Chuck Woolery because he liked "Pat's whimsical antics." Sajak went to work in December 1981, when the show was enjoying only moderate success as a daytime program on NBC. Sajak figured the show had about a year or two left.
Then came syndication and sweet success. About 18 months after Sajak took over, the evening package was put together. It was a smash hit. Even the daytime show now enjoys its highest ratings.
"Wheel" is the same show over and over, but the repetition doesn't bother the host, "much to my surprise. There are three new people with a special set of challenges on each show," Sajak noted. He should know: He's done more than 1,700 shows, 450 new ones each year. With about 40 shows to do each month, the cast and crew tape for eight to 10 days, doing an average of five shows a day. The one- day record is seven.
The rest of the month is off-time except for promotional appearances. "We've persuaded them to cut back a little. Vanna and I split a lot of trips now, which gives us a little more off-time," said Sajak.
Celebrity status also has its downside. Sajak, 39, now single and living in the San Fernando Valley, used to be able to drive off for a few days and get away from it all, but not so anymore. "I went to Nome, Alaska, and was watching some Eskimo girls doing a dance. That's near the Arctic Circle, and one girl runs up to me and says, 'You're from the "Wheel of Fortune." ' However, I still feel a little unsettled about being called a celeb. Whenever someone says something like, 'We have a celebrity in our midst,' I still look around."
When Sajak began, hosts universally used what is termed "game show gush." Sajak broke that mold with his low-key style. "I just don't know how to do it any other way. And Merv never asked me to do that upbeat delivery," Sajak explained. Today others trying to do game shows tell him they are being instructed to "bring it down. Maybe, I've performed a public service."
Sajak also said he can't understand other hosts who complain that their role is hurting their acting careers. "If they want to act, they ought to quit hosting game shows," he said.
"I try to make people as comfortable as possible, get their minds off where they are and any pressure that might be building. I get them relaxed at the start of the show, and once the wheel spins, the game starts and I fade into the background. It would be nice to be able to say this is the Pat Sajak Show. But it's not, and game shows are not for performers."
No contestant has ever stomped off in anger for going bankrupt or not winning. "We treat our players with respect," he said, often referring to them as "civilians," because just plain folks are contestants, not celebrities. Maybe that's why Sajak can't recall any tight spots on the show. "If something doesn't work, I try a quick joke and move on."
Sajak is in the fifth year of the standard seven-year game show host contract he originally signed, for far less than the $500,000-a-year he is reported to be earning. He acknowledged that the contract was adjusted along the way to reflect some of the show's astronomical growth. "Of course," he added flippantly, "I'd prefer to work for a percentage."
Friends have said Sajak would like to do a talk show down the road. He brushed the idea aside. "I never dreamed I'd be a weatherman, or a game show host. You just have to wait and see what opens up. I could go on being a game show host. Right now, I think we've got a darn good half hour."
Success has brought many encounters with the press as well as with fans. It's not always pleasant. About a year ago Sajak had a run-in with the folks from People magazine over an interview. "They came into my dressing room one night, totally unexpected. They said it was all arranged. I said it wasn't. Then they tried to pressure me into agreeing to the interview and picture session. They went to Merv and he called me the next morning and asked me what this was all about.
"I told him I really don't like the way they went about it and don't want to do it. Merv dropped the whole thing with, 'Don't give it another thought.' I guess I've learned a lesson. I still feel silly because I really enjoy doing interviews and have fun with them, like now."
The magazine carried an article that quoted Sajak as saying, "My relatives don't know anything about me, why should I tell you?" But his face didn't make the cover. "To the best of my knowledge Sophia Loren and I are the only two people ever to turn down a People cover.
"Vanna still gets more mail than I do," said Sajak, deferring to the show's hostess.
In real life, Vanna White is even more attractive than she is in those splashy outfits she wears before the cameras. She has what the show's producer, Nancy Jones, described as a "sort of girl-next- door personality."
"I don't pick out any of the clothes I wear on the show," said White. "The designer sends them in. I'm a size 5 and they all fit me fine. Nancy picks what she thinks will look good on TV. No, I haven't liked every outfit I've worn."
White, formerly a high school cheerleader from North Myrtle Beach., S.C., a student at the Atlanta School of Fashion and Design and a top model in that city, is 5-foot-6 and and carries between 105 and 111 pounds on her 36-23-33 figure. "Weight is no real problem. I love to eat. Mashed potatoes are my favorite. I also like to eat a piece of pie or two. I used to weigh 132 (before "Wheel"), but that was when I ate the whole pie. I now do a lot of excercising, sit-ups, push-ups and jogging."
White is 29 and dresses offscreen nothing like the way she does on. "I'm a sweat pants, tennis shoes and pony tail girl," she said. She has her own home and has been living with John Gibson of "The Young and the Restless" for four years.
"She's the only person in Hollywood Hills who walks down the street and into the market in curlers," said Sajak, as they fell into a bit of two-part repartee. White bounced back, recalling that one of the biggest compliments she ever got came when she was in a market dressed like that and a woman came up and said, "You look just like a young Vanna White."
The real Vanna White's main job on the show is to turn the letters on a large word- puzzle board as three contestants try to add missing letters to a phrase or name on the board and guess what it says. For this she makes more than $100,000 a year. She doesn't offer an exact figure but agreed that "my cats, Ashley and Rhett, eat well."
White shrugged off criticism from feminists who see her role solely as a decorative sex object. "I disagree with them," she said flatly. "I don't see anything wrong with what I do. I don't see why anyone should be put down for doing their job. I'm a working person, like everyone else."
But not every working person is hounded for autographs. White said she has signed countless autographs on all sorts of items, "but broomsticks top my list."
White is proudest of the fact that in four years she has never turned a wrong letter, although she once fell "flat on my face" when she rushed to congratulate the winner of a car and missed the step down to the showroom floor.
"She just bounced right up and rushed over to the winner as if nothing happened," said Sajak. "Merv tells people she got the job, for which some 200 women auditioned, because she turned the letters better."
White recalled being very nervous when she auditioned for the show. Even when she was one of the two finalists, she didn't think she would get it. "The other girl was just the opposite -- brunette, blue eyes, and very professional."
Sajak added that during a two-minute taped interview with him to see how the two would interact, White was so agitated that her lip never stopped quivering. "I remember saying she won't get it, she's too nervous."
Merv Griffin made the choice. Since then, White has come a long way for a woman who drove a U-Haul across country to take a shot at movieland in 1980. She has had roles in "Looker," "Graduation Day" and the TV movie "Midnight Offerings."
But it is "Wheel of Fortune" that has made her a household name. Literally. Many of her fans have namedtheir daughters after her. Sajak said one day "this country is going to be full of Vannas." Said White, "It's an honor."
Which led Sajak to point out that "in San Diego a developer is going to have a Sajak Avenue and a Vanna Street. They don't intersect."
"My goal," said White, "is to have a boulevard."