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Put to the Wheel Test

Frances "Call me Granny Franny" Neiman said she had done this sort of thing before, so everyone kind of gravitated toward her. A 64-year-old grandmother from Gainesville, Granny said she was a contestant on The Price Is Right and Let's Make a Deal back in the '70s when she was raising her four kids in La Canada, Calif.

"Pro-ject, honey," she was telling someone in the small crowd that had gathered outside conference room D at the Yacht Club hotel next to Disney World. "They're looking for energy. Don't just stand there." But for the time being anyway, that's all anyone could do. The sign on the door read:



Do Not Enter

While we waited, a young woman said she made her husband play the home version of the game the night before. Another woman said she's a regular reader of "Wheel of Fortune Newsletter," which actually exists.

"Good," Granny said. "But it takes more than that."

Some of us, however, wondered how difficult the test could be. "For Pete's sake, it's a game show test," one man said. "Not the Harvard law exam."

There were 90 of us waiting outside the door and along the hallway _ men and women in business suits, elderly people reading paperbacks, and teenagers sitting cross-legged on the floor playing gin rummy.

We had come for a chance to win a Corvette or a trip to Spain. But most of all, we had come for the chance to stand at the rail, spin the big wheel, and compete on one of the most popular quiz shows in America.

Off in a corner holding a clipboard, Wheel of Fortune producer Nancy Jones, who has been with the show since its beginning in 1975, said everyone who showed up had sent in a card saying they wanted to try out for Wheel when the show came to Orlando.

Last Friday afternoon, our big chance arrived. Host Pat Sajak and famous letter-turner Vanna White weren't around yet, but they will be this week when, from Monday to Thursday, 15 shows will be taped at Disney-MGM Studios. And naturally, they need contestants.

In all, 375 serious Wheel watchers had made the pilgrimage from as far away as Fort Pierce and St. Augustine. Of those 375 people, about 30 will qualify as potential contestants. Friday's group was one of three that would be tested.

"We're looking for people who are having fun playing the game," Jones said, adding that Wheel is steeped in family values. "It doesn't matter if you're black or white, fat or thin," she said. "It does matter if you're a nice person."

It also helps if you can perform well under stress.

"We've selected people and had them freak out totally when they got in front of the audience and the lights and the cameras," Jones said. "One man completely lost his voice. A couple people passed out. One woman said the psychic vibrations were terrible, and she ran off the stage."

At 2 o'clock, our group went into the conference room with our forms and our "I Tried Out for Wheel of Fortune" pencils. We had to try to solve 16 puzzles in five minutes. Each puzzle had at least three or four words, and hardly any letters. For example, one was -a-d-'-/--t---/---l. (daddy's little girl.)

It became instantly obvious that if you don't watch the show, the test was like trying to translate the Dead Sea scrolls.

At the end of the five minutes (which went by like 30 seconds), Jones told everyone to put their pencils down. She was met with a chorus of groans. After a few minutes, the results were in. Jones read off the names of 38 people.

The rest of us, including Granny, were thanked for our participation. None of us seemed overly disappointed _ more like embarrassed that we had been humbled by a glorified version of Hangman.

The test, however, was far from over.

The next two rounds consisted of actually playing the game with a miniature wheel. If one of the staff didn't think someone had the right reactions, the wheel would mysteriously stop at Bankrupt. But if the person was assertive and enthusiastic and kept shouting "Big money!" when the wheel was spinning, they played on.

Jones and her staff left the room and made the second cut. Now there were 10 _ six women and four men _ sitting in a row facing the judges. It was interview time. Everyone seemed sincere and a little nervous when asked to "tell a little about yourself," except for the stockbroker who wanted to be on the show so much that he claimed, with a straight face, that his hobbies were golf, cooking and watching Wheel of Fortune.

Off to the side, someone snickered.

Once more, Jones and her staff filed out of the room. When they returned, they announced the finalists _ three high school students, a University of Central Florida graduate student, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel and a UCF fraternity adviser. (Mr. Get A. Life, the stockbroker, was out.)

They had their pictures taken and were told to go home and wait for The Call. The final decision would be made by Jones and her staff, with approval of the show's creator _ the big guy himself _ Merv Griffin.

Outside the room, a crowd already had formed for the 5 o'clock test. And like the group before them, they were nervous.

"I heard the test is pretty hard," one woman said.

"Yeah," her friend replied, "but we'll make it.

"All we have to do is be spontaneous."