ST. PETERSBURG — Beneath the hot stage lights, Maureen Baltzer squinted at the puzzle: Two words, eight letters. An occupation.
She decided to buy a vowel.
"A!" she squeaked, adrenaline pumping.
"Yes!" replied a substitute Pat Sajak. "We have an 'A!' "
Baltzer, 62, feared she might pass out. The miniature wheel, the wall-to-wall audience in the Mahaffey Theater — it was a dream come true, almost exactly as she'd fantasized.
She and her twin sister, Marleen, drove from Siesta Key early Sunday to audition for a spot on Wheel of Fortune, their favorite television show. They jumped and screamed when the stand-in game show host drew her name from a big drum.
Every half hour from 2 to 6 p.m., groups of five hopeful contestants competed in "mini games" for T-shirts and glossy pictures of Vanna White. Some, armed with Starbucks cups, had arrived before dawn. By midafternoon, a line snaked five blocks around the theater.
The "Wheelmobile," a 39-foot Winnebago that tours the nation in search of contestants for the game show, rolled into St. Petersburg just after 8 a.m. Sunday.
Tour manager Matt Erbstein, who drove the bus from Dallas, paced up and down the line, directing traffic and offering advice. He figures the next stop will be Phoenix.
"We're looking for naturally enthusiastic people who guess logical letters," he said. "The kind of people you'd root for on your couch. The kind of people who you'd truly want to win a million dollars."
Candidates selected from the St. Petersburg auditions, which end this evening, will advance to the next round somewhere in Tampa Bay. The dates and times will be revealed weeks from now to the winners.
Casting judges may select three people from the St. Petersburg auditions, Erbstein said. Or 300.
There's no quota or limit. It's about quality over quantity, he said, spunk and star power.
Terri Lucas, 60, walked into the theater determined to shine. She wore silver hoop earrings and held a homemade sign: "I want to spin the wheel of fortune!"
Lucas, who lives and tends bar downtown, watches the show every day at 7 p.m., even when she's working. Sometimes patrons turn it into a drinking game.
"It's my thing," she said. "Everyone knows not to talk."
Inside the Mahaffey theater, wriggling in her seat, Marleen Baltzer tried to send her twin onstage a brainwave message: TV anchor! It's TV anchor! But someone else solved the puzzle.
"No matter what, we had a blast," Baltzer said. "We're still going to watch the show every time it's on and text each other the answers."
Danielle Paquette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4224.