Where Were Pat and Vanna When the Lights Went Out?

The S.F. taping of Wheel of Fortune goes momentarily dark; Spanganga fades permanently to black

It's been eight long years sinceWheel of Fortune traveled to our fair city -- just check the hash marks on our cell wall. When word got out that game show luminaries Pat Sajak and Vanna White were taping three weeks' worth of shows from our very own Moscone Center, a Dog Bites correspondent joined the 15,000 Bay Area game show fans who packed the SOMA convention center over three days:

Though we're really more of a Hollywood Squares type, we excitedly rushed to the first San Francisco-based taping of Wheel (to air in May), expecting the audience to include at least a couple of "Trannyshack" regulars in sparkly ball gowns emulating the Vanna look. Instead, the attendees consisted primarily of suburbanites sporting wool sweaters and Easy Spirit footwear -- for a minute, it almost seemed as if we'd walked into the annual Association of American Podiatrists conference.

Then our disappointment vanished. Wheel of Fortune handlers quickly shuttled us into an interview with Pat Sajak, who, like Dick Clark, seems to possess magical anti-aging qualities. Wearing a teal V-neck sweater (what else?) and jeans, Sajak amicably dodged all the softball questions we lobbed at him during our three-minute conversation. Maybe we're crazy, but we got the sense he'd done this before.

Next came a group interview with Vanna White, who was not yet in a Barbie-esque costume; she wore a brown-and-pink sweater, paisley pants, and her hair in a ponytail. In an illuminating five minutes with White -- who, we were told, holds the Guinness World Record for "Television's Most Frequent Clapper" -- we learned that she shops at Costco, hails Dolly Parton and Marsha Brady as role models, and keeps her hands callus-free by clapping softly. Are you listening, kids?

Sajak and White were soon rushed to wardrobe and makeup, and we were asked to take a seat in the studio, which featured a custom-made San Francisco-themed Wheel of Fortune set. You'll never guess which local landmarks they chose: the Painted Ladies, a mini cable car, and a tangerine-colored Golden Gate Bridge.

Merv Griffin was already wandering the aisles, winsomely chatting up the crowd. ("You're one of the best-looking audiences around!") In a swingy, mellifluous voice, he introduced John, a headset-wearing stage manager, who instructed the audience to applaud when he raised his hand, and to continue cheering until he lowered his arm.

The taping began a few minutes later, when Griffin bellowed into his mike: "From San Francisco's Moscone Center, the stars of the Wheel of Fortune ... Pat Sajak and Vanna White!"

John raised his hand high; the crowd erupted. A lighted "APPLAUSE!" sign above the stage blinked aggressively.

Sajak and White swooped in. Sajak had donned a gray pinstripe suit and White wore a lacy, beaded number by local couture designer Lily Samii; it was somewhat reminiscent of a Victorian lampshade.

Sajak quickly assumed his place next to the contestants: Colleen (from Bay Point; owns a race car), Jeff (law clerk from Novato), and Elsa (grad student from Mountain View; "loves to travel ... go to the movies, and play Wheel of Fortune!").

Jeff won the lightning round and spun the wheel first. He asked for a T, and then bought an E. Jeff spun again, and asked for an S.

And then the lights went out.

"Well, good night everybody!" Sajak quipped. "Wow, I don't think this has ever happened before. Did anyone lean against a switch?" The audience chuckled; we were lucky to be in the hands of a host who knew how to vamp.

"Uh, so Vanna would like to say hi to all of you," Sajak said, then turned to White, who had joined him center stage. "You're not wearing a microphone are you? You want to speak into my chest?"

White leaned in toward her co-host's tie and said brightly, "Hi everyone!" Cheers, applause: Crisis narrowly averted.

When the lights came up a few minutes later, there was no need for John to raise his hand. The audience roared. "Uh, obviously we had a little light problem, and we've fixed it up," Sajak said smoothly, "and we're going to come back, and you notice that Jeff had spun and he landed on $300, so I'm going to say, 'Three hundred,' he'll call the letter, and we'll go from there and edit the whole thing, and no one at home will ever notice ...."

The rest of the game went off without a hitch (well, except for when the wheel didn't spin correctly in the bonus round), and between the end of that taping and the beginning of the next (they were doing five shows that night alone), Griffin floated through the audience to take questions. A.J., a fifth-grader from a Catholic school in San Mateo, posed his question into Griffin's microphone.

"Do you ever do this show live?" A.J. asked.

The audience laughed at the boy's confusion, and for possibly the first time in his life, Griffin was without a charming comeback. "What were they doing up there?" the befuddled Griffin finally asked.

"Messing up," young A.J. responded. (Bernice Yeung)

The Dog Bites Interview: Sean Kelly, Former Owner, Spanganga
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