Downtrodden mentality turns Polish 'Wheel of Fortune' into a somber serial

December 04, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

WARSAW -- The new Polish version of the "Wheel of Fortune" is a big hit, but the producers have a serious problem: They can't get the contestants to smile.

In Poland, where the average wage is about $200 a month, winning money is no laughing matter.

"People are fighting for money in the show -- money and cars. They're not smiling," said Wojciech Pijanowski, the show's host. "It's not fun. It's a battle."

Director Pawel Hanczakowski says: "They don't smile because they don't know how to smile. They're coming out of the Middle Ages."

He theorized that decades of communist repression have made his fellow Poles so downtrodden that they can't relax and enjoy themselves.

"We'd love to have an atmosphere like in the United States, where they smile and joke," said Mr. Hanczakowski, who used to live in Los Angeles. "We try to warm them up, but only maybe 2 percent work out."

Maybe they just need time.

In any case, "Wheel of Fortune" started two months ago and already ranks just behind "Dynasty," the most popular show here, and is about tied with the prime time news, said Marcin Winiarski of Polish State TV's advertising department.

The show even has a version of Vanna White, a young woman named Magda Masny.

On Tuesday night's episode, three uptight-looking gentlemen in suits and ties stood soberly on the set. Sparse applause greeted them; they did not smile.

"Great emotions are ahead of us," the host, Mr. Pijanowski announced hopefully. He pointed out the day's top prize: A new red Suzuki auto.

"Do you like the color?" he asked the first contestant.

"It's all right," the contestant replied tensely.

"You're nervous. Why is that?"

"Because of the TV."

The game was on. With lackluster enthusiasm, the contestants spun the wheel and tried to guess letters, words and phrases.

The third contestant began winning, ending up with a TV set, vacuum cleaner and a coffee maker, among other things. At one point, he flashed a quick smile, revealing that he was missing a few front teeth. The other two men, poker-faced, stood rigidly.

"Could you try to push the wheel stronger?" Mr. Pijanowski asked a contestant. The man tried. "That was much better," the host said approvingly.

"No," the contestant replied forlornly. "It was actually quite weak."

The show's subdued nature hasn't gone unnoticed. Writing under the headline "Gray Fortune," TV critic Tomasz Raczek had this to say in the popular magazine Wprost:

"I can hear from my living room the sad ticking noise of the wheel going around. The noise is broken only by complete silence and from time to time a sad statement."

Participants, he wrote, are "tense, shy, hiding layers of complexes. Let's look at their clothes -- suits just taken out of mothballs, not worn for years. . . . It's not their fault that they're poor, overworked."

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