Local English Teacher Spins the Wheel Of Fortune
A trip to the Virgin Islands and $41,100. That’s what Truckee-Tahoe High School English teacher Pat Mooney took home after a successful two-day stint on the popular game show “Wheel of Fortune.”
To Mooney, going on a game show sounded like easy money, but he almost didn’t bother trying out.
Mooney found it to be too much of a hassle to drive to Reno to drop off his registration card, so he had a former student, now at UNR, do it for him.
“I guess I owe them now.” Mooney said, laughing.
Tryouts were conducted at the Reno Hilton in December for randomly selected applicants. The 200 potential contestants solved mock-up puzzles for the show’s producers, who took notes on participants enthusiasm, skill and quickness with the board.
After a few rounds, all but 13 were sent home. Mooney was still in it, but he didn’t think he had done well on the written test. He estimated he answered half of the clues correctly.
They endured some more puzzles and producers told the group, “thanks for coming.” Mooney figured his game-show days were over. Two weeks later, a letter appeared in his mailbox, notifying him that he had been selected as a contestant.
Without being specific, the producers told Mooney he would be on the show sometime in the next 18 months. He hoped his show would tape during summer so he wouldn’t miss much school.
But it wasn’t more than a few weeks later that a message on his answering machine informed Mooney they were ready for him. He was given slightly more than a week to make arrangements to be in Los Angeles for the Feb. 7 taping.
After class Wednesday, Feb. 6, Mooney, his wife and two boys packed up the car and drove to Southern California. “Wheel of Fortune” does not pay for travel and expenses, something Mooney called “part of the risk of going on the show.”
At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Mooney was at the studio. He was ushered to an orientation where contestants meet with prize company representatives and employees of independent companies who oversee fairness in game show selection and competition.
After filling out tax information forms, he was given a tour of the studio. He was then given a chance to spin the famous multi-colored wheel and practice shouting out letters.
Typical to most game shows, “Wheel” tapes a full week’s worth of programs in a single day. To give the illusion of the passage of time, contestants and hosts change clothes between each taping.
Mooney appeared first on the Wednesday show. The three highest-grossing players of the week are then allowed to compete on the Friday show.
To prepare contestants for the taping, producers coach them on letter combinations, buying vowels, being loud, energetic and, most importantly, acting happy at all times.
“They tell you if you solve the puzzle there will be a camera tight on your face, so act surprised,” Mooney recalled.
It was also a first for “Wheel of Fortune.” Co-host Vanna White’s job got a little easier that day with a new letter board. In the past, White manually turned letters but, now, thanks to computerization, she simply touches a screen to reveal the letters.
“Pat Sajak was giving her a hard time about that all through the tapings,” Mooney said.
Mooney did not win the first round, but his luck changed with the second puzzle, which was a longer “clue.” With clue puzzles, a phrase is deciphered and extra money is awarded if the winning contestant can answer the question it provides.
Almost immediately, he hit the $10,000 spot on the wheel and successfully guessed a few letters until he hit another jackpot of $5,000. Finally, he solved the puzzle, which read “Document First Signed By John Hancock.”
With a correct guess of “Declaration of Independence” Mooney won an additional $2,000.
With the high score of the day, Mooney advanced to the bonus round, where contestants are given a short one-word phrase to solve. If successful, they win the contents of the envelope.
Mooney’s envelope contained a trip to Tahiti, but he was unable to complete the puzzle which read “_ _ _ _ LE.” He kicked himself when “Giggle” was revealed as the answer.
Still, he was in the running for the Friday show. A high scorer on the “Thursday” show put Mooney safely in third place, just above the cut-off.
His results on the Friday show would be almost identical to those of his previous performance.
A woman he was competing against solved the first two puzzles and won a BMW Z-3 Roadster. Mooney is still jealous of the car.
On the third puzzle, which Mooney describes as “huge,” the woman guessed a “T.” In all the letters, 31 total, there wasn’t a single “T.” It was a break for Mooney, and his last chance to scrape together a win.
With a few more fortuitous spins and $17,000 in additional cash, most of the puzzle was solved, but Mooney was stumped.
“The crowd was yelling, Pat (Sajak) was asking if I wanted to spin or solve and I couldn’t figure out what the puzzle said,” Mooney remembered. “I could tell in his voice, Pat was saying to me, ‘Solve the puzzle, you idiot.’ But I spun again.”
As the wheel came to a stop, a relieved Mooney realized what the puzzle said: “Packers Win Superbowl In New Orleans.”
“I kept thinking ‘Raiders,’ not ‘Packers,'” said Mooney. “I almost said ‘Raiders.'”
But he said “Packers,” winning enough money to advance once again to the bonus round.
Once there, the clue eluded him. It had spelled “fiber.”
Losses in the final rounds notwithstanding, Mooney came out better than most people who spin the wheel. $40,000 in before-tax cash will soon line his pockets and a much-needed trip to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands (taxes specifically not included) is in the works.
Mooney said his students are “genuinely happy for him,” adding, “the most common question is, how do they get on the show?”
Mooney has no plans to give up teaching, but remembers fondly his experience on “Wheel of Fortune” which will air 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26 and 28 on local ABC affiliate KOLO-TV Channel 8.
“It’s all a blur to me,” said Mooney of the experience. “I don’t remember much about it, which is why I’m interested in seeing the show when it airs.”
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