In search of their fortune

Contestants: Thousands show up at the Maryland State Fair to compete for a spot on a popular television game show.

August 30, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Susan Krichten told her family she wouldn't be able to drive her eldest daughter back to college in Pennsylvania. Her daughter, a sophomore theater major at Wilkes University, would have to understand.

The Wheel of Fortune contestant search was calling.

"She moaned and groaned for a bit, but she understood, I think," said Krichten, 50, of Westminster. "Gosh, I feel a little guilty. I hope I don't sound like a poor mother."

Krichten was one of thousands who flocked to the Maryland State Fair in Timonium yesterday for a chance to be a puzzle-solver on the long-running television game show. Many arrived as much as three hours before the 1 p.m. starting time for the contestant search. The diehards sat perched in lawn chairs in front of the stage with water bottles by their side, while others carried umbrellas to shield them from the sun that scorched the midway.

The odds were stacked against them. Of about 1 million applicants each year, Wheel of Fortune selects about 500.

The contestant search began with a series of mock shows, in which wannabe contestants tried to show their puzzle-solving abilities and enthusiasm for the game. The state fair was one of about 25 stops around the country that Wheel of Fortune contestant searchers will make this year.

Would-be contestants filled out application cards that were placed in a giant drum and chosen at random by Shelby Luke, known as Wheel of Fortune's traveling Vanna White, the real show's letter-turner. Playing the part of Pat Sajak, the show's host, was Marty Lublin, who interviewed the people whose cards were chosen. After that, they competed against each other to solve a word puzzle.

After four long, hot hours, Krichten's name was called. She sauntered onto the stage, grabbed the microphone from Lublin and began introducing herself to the crowd, winning raucous applause.

Although she didn't guess the puzzle, she was impressed with her performance.

"I'm a go-getter," she said. "And it's all in fun."

The goal isn't so much to win the game, but to wow the searchers with "stage presence," said Lisa Dee, executive director for marketing and promotions for Sony Pictures Television, which produces Wheel of Fortune, as she watched the contestants.

And that's just the beginning of the long road to prime time. Although nearly 6,000 showed up at the fair yesterday and Saturday for tryouts, only 150 will get a call back for the next round: a closed interview and a written puzzle test in Baltimore.

From there, anywhere from 15 to 40 people will be placed in the contestant pool to be selected for the show. Actually appearing on Wheel of Fortune could be a couple of years away, Dee said.

Showing enthusiasm, or, as some contestants said, making a fool of yourself, was the quickest way to make an impression. So they sang, shouted and impersonated celebrities and farm animals.

Lorraine Smith of Ellicott City's shout could be heard over the din from the Crazy Mouse kiddy coaster nearby. She brought her mother, grandmother and two friends to the fair yesterday for a chance to be picked for the show.

"Call my name!" she screamed, as Luke, wearing a Vanna White-inspired, blue-striped asymmetrical dress, searched the drum for another contestant's application card.

"Andrea Baylor!" said Lublin, the host.

Disappointed, Smith yelled, "That's not my name." If she made it to the show, Smith had a plan for the money she was intent on winning. She would give her mother 10 percent, give some money to her church and go on a trip with friends.

Minutes later, another name was called. This time, her friend Brian Green of Essex would have a try at the puzzle.

Although Smith was supportive, screaming his name while he was on stage, she couldn't help but be a bit envious.

"He did OK," she said. "But he was trying to be too cool. He wasn't enthusiastic enough."

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