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Wheel World

A contestant search turns game-show fans into winners and a mall into a star, for the day.



If you happened upon the diverse crowd that weekend to gawk and munch, the entertainment was something akin to fishing: like wasting time and not minding so much that you did. But if you were one of the thousands of people like Kellie Johnston, 21, who arrived early, convinced that fate and the ability to solve word puzzles would one day forge fortune, then the open audition was as exhilarating as "Survivor" with equal pulp.

On the Saturday that the contestant search began, 40-mph winds and rain haven't deterred the devoted.

"This is my third go-round," says Johnston at 3 p.m., hastily filling out another blue application that must be dropped in a box for the chance to play. Johnston, a student at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, has been at the mall since noon, an hour before the contest started. Johnston says she's "Wheel's" biggest fan. She knows all about bonus rounds, logical letter combinations and the three-second rule — all the particulars that give the show its supple edge.

Meanwhile, Bradley Glenn, a bona-fide New York actor and quasi Pat Sajek, introduces five lucky candidates whose names have been drawn from a red spinning barrel. They rush up to the miniature "Wheel of Fortune" set. Here, contestants don't actually spin the wheel or even touch it. The vertical version is flagged with promotional "Wheel" giveaways instead of cash. When letters contained in the puzzle are called out, Glenn's assistant marks them on small square dry-erase boards, hardly the white blocks that light up and ding on TV. But fans see only the luster of the "Wheel" and smell fortune in the Cinnabon-scented mall. Glenn introduces the five contestants onstage. The audience — mothers, fathers, grandparents, singles, teen-agers and kids with balloons — shouts and applauds.

"All right folks, let's spin the wheel," says Glenn, setting it in motion. The category for this game is — Phrase.

Johnston sidles up to the herd, then stands tiptoed to see.

"I'm going to ask each of you to call a letter and you have three seconds to solve the puzzle. Vowels are free," chimes Glenn.

The contestants take turns calling out letters: T, R, S, N, D, L, O, E, and Y.

The hum of a pitch pipe warns players when time is up. During "quiet rounds" Johnston keeps answers, if she has them, to herself. The hushed audience is courteous this way. At last a middle-aged contestant guesses right. "Only On Eight!" the woman announces. People seem tickled by the phrase.

"You don't have to be polite," Glenn tells everyone. "Boom it out. We want your enthusiasm. Bring it on!"

The players exit the stage clutching "Wheel of Fortune" mementos — a hat, T-shirt, or fanny pack — and, beaming, join loved ones who appear quite proud.

In the two hours since the mock games began Johnston has, like other diehards, grown accustomed to circling to the back of the line to try again. "They randomly call out five names, and you just hope that one of them is yours," she says. "They're doing it again tomorrow, so I'll be back." If Johnston's name isn't announced there's still a chance she could be picked to play on TV.

In a few weeks the show's contestant department will visit Richmond to pore over applications and randomly draw additional names, says Suzy Rothenburg, promotions director for "Wheel of Fortune." A written word test will be given. Strong personalities will be sought. Thirty souls chosen. "We know they're some great puzzle solvers out there who didn't get called. And we want to see some enthusiastic Richmond people on our show."

It's 4 p.m. and the stage is empty. Glenn, the host, and the "Wheel of Fortune" search crew sit at a foldout table. They break to sip soda and chew on some fries. Nearly deserted, the Food Court is Willow Lawn once more. Meanwhile, the queue winds back to Regis beauty salon, eager for the signal to flood back in. Johnston is among them, cheer apparent. "I've been wanting to be on 'Wheel of Fortune' ever since I was old enough to solve the puzzle," she says. S

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