Seeking their fortune: puzzle lovers line up for a chance to appear on 'Wheel of Fortune'

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There they stood, big as life, Pat Sajak and Vanna White in the ballroom of the Graton Resort and Casino on Friday night.

“They’re a little stiff,” explained Martin Lublin, the exceptionally peppy host, “after their long flight from Culver City.”

His audience of several hundred people laughed at the joke. Those were cardboard cutouts of the famed Wheel of Fortune personalities. This crowd of several hundred puzzle lovers had gathered for their chance to someday meet the real-life Pat and Vanna. From all over northern California, they’d come to take part in the Wheel of Fortune Contestant Search.

The casino seemed an apt venue for the event, considering the long odds participants faced to appear on the real “Wheel of Fortune,” which averages 25 million weekly viewers.

The search continues Saturday night at the same venue. Walk-ups are welcome. Those who make the cut this weekend advance to a “final” audition, to be held months from now. If the genuine article “Wheel of Fortune” is the big leagues, these casino tryouts were the equivalent of Double-A ball. That said, Lublin, who serves as Sajak’s stand-in, had a number of Major League moments.

Drawing one contestant out, he learned that she was a martial arts instructor. Within seconds, the song Kung Fu Fighting filled the room, as Lublin and his new friend danced. “Well done, sensei,” he said, when the music stopped.

During a different early round, the correct answer was “Playing For Keeps.” Only the ‘k’ and two other letters were missing. Very few people in the room had not solved the puzzle already. Among those few was the contestant who ventured this guess:

“Playing for peeps?”

The next guy got it right. “Hey, my man likes Easter,” Lublin exclaimed, over the laughter in the ballroom. “He’s playing for Peeps!”

At the other end of the spectrum was dauntingly intelligent Sheridan Ex, a 25-year-old Salesforce recruiter from San Francisco. The category was “Hollywood.” With just a single letter showing -- an ‘r’ -- and before anyone else had a turn, Ex correctly guessed “Break a leg.” After a moment of shock, the crowd went wild.

Afterward, she recalled watching “Wheel” with her mother in middle school and high school. “That was kind of our quality time,” she said. Asked to put her finger on the show’s deep, durable appeal, “There’s a timelessness to it. I mean, it’s been on TV forever.”

Actually, it’s only been on since 1975. The genial Sajak, a quick-witted ex-weatherman, took over as host in 1981. A beauty pageant winner named Vanna White joined him a year later.

“I’ve been watching it since I was kid,” said Marlena Ryan, who made the drive from Vallejo. “I watched it with my mom,” said the self-described stay-at-home-mother of 5 children under 10 years old. “And now I watch it with my kids and husband.”

Like so many of her fellow would-be contestants, Ryan often correctly solves the puzzle, while watching at home, before the actual participants. She believes she would do well, if she ever got a shot.

Yet her quiet confidence paled beside the titanic self-assurance of Rohnert Park’s Debbie Johnson-Kirkley.

“People hate to watch the show with me,” she said, “because I always whip their butts.”

Her finest “Wheel” moment? The category was “Revolutionary War.” With only one letter exposed – an ‘n’ – she correctly guessed, from her sofa at home, “Washington crossing the Delaware.”

A bartender at the tavern she once owned in San Francisco would rise early to watch the East Coast broadcast of the game show. When the same show aired three hours later, in California, he would put on the TV over the bar, and place wagers with customers.

“I caught him doing it,” recalled Johnson-Kirkley, “and made him stop.”

Sitting to her right was Laura O’Reilly-Jackson, a Pacifica resident who recalled watching “Wheel” with her grandparents. In addition to being a beloved game show, she pointed out, Wheel of Fortune slot machines are highly popular with Casino regulars.

“A lot of people play ‘em,” she said. “There’s something about it. People just want to spin that wheel.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88

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