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Having A Wheel Good Time

KEYSVILLE – It was June 21, 2011, and Bonnie Gilliam and daughter Julie Gilliam were in Roanoke for a James Taylor Concert. Bonnie, a long-time Wheel Of Fortune fan, learned that the Wheelmobile (which hosts auditions around the country) was in town that weekend and figured they ought to give that a whirl as well.

“It was there and, of course…being a big Wheel fan I thought, you know wouldn't it just be cool to audition for that show-never really had any faith that it would happen,” Bonnie, a Keysville resident, recounts.

The two went to a room with a fake wheel and stage setup and some 25-30 names were drawn from a pool of about 300 to play pretend game.

Ah, the fortunes of chance.

“They drew my daughter's name, not mine,” recounted Bonnie, in vivid memory. “They drew her name and she…went to the stage and they did their little thing and they asked her who she was and so forth and they asked her what did she like to do. She said, 'Well, I like to sing' and they stopped her immediately and said 'Oh, you sing? Well, would you sing for us?' And she said, and I quote, 'Not without my mama.' And they said, 'Well, is your mama here?' And she said 'Yeah, she's right there.'”

Bonnie continued, “So they said 'Come on up here, mama.' And so, man, I hit the stage like a light, you know, and then…we looked at each other with this deer in the headlights look that said what are we gonna sing?”

Bonnie, laughs, then continues, “And she looked at me and said Amazing Grace? I said, 'Yeah.' And so we sang like just a few lines in harmony of Amazing Grace. Everybody gave us a big hand and I waved and left the stage and, as I left, I heard from the folks that were making notes over there, they said, 'What's the mama's name?' So they got my name and they called us both back for the next round of auditions.”

That, of course, was just the start. On Monday, October 8, you can catch Bonnie's appearance on Wheel Of Fortune standing in spot number one. When we caught up with Bonnie earlier this month, she had just returned from her appearance on the show.

“It was a great experience,” Bonnie said. “It really was.”

But it's a long way from Keysville to Hollywood.

The first stop occurred about two weeks after the Wheelmobile. There were two groups of about 50-75 from Danville and Roanoke. Each was put through similar paces as the first-playing a pretend game and demonstrating their personality (which Bonnie exudes). There was also a written puzzle test where contestants were given (as Bonnie remembers) 25 word puzzles with various filled in letters and five minutes to solve them. She was sure she got 23.

The number was cut down to 25 and-while Bonnie was still hoping she and her daughter would get to go on the show together-it was not meant to be. Only Bonnie made it through to the next round. Still, it was not guaranteed; would-be contestants were told they would be notified by letter if they were chosen in two weeks.

“On the fourteenth day of the two weeks, I got a letter in the mail that said you have been selected to be a contestant on the Wheel Of Fortune. And…it's like wow,” Bonnie laughs.

She was told that it could be up to 18 months before she would be called.

“She was just as happy for me as she could be,” Bonnie says of her daughter. “You know, I was sad that we couldn't both go…I wanted us to go on the mother/daughter team or the family team or whatever and I still hoped that that would happen, but it didn't. It didn't end up being that way. But she did go with me, though.”

(She would end up taking her daughter with her and paying her way.)

After Bonnie received the letter, however, she began waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

No call came.

After close to a year, she called to verify they had her information. So she waited another month, and still didn't hear anything.

She called again.

“…I was like they might just throw me out of the…pool of people and I might never get to go,” Bonne recounted. “And this is too big. I just want to go so I called again and they said well, we won't resume taping until July.”

July 1 came, again, no call.

Finally, in mid to late July, Bonnie called one last time.

“…They were like 'Sure, you're in. It's no problem about the time. You're good. You're in. I've just got to find your paperwork.' Well, they never found my paperwork.”

Bonnie ended up having to fill out the paperwork again and sent another picture. Within a week, they called and told her to come-August 24.

“So it really was lost and if I hadn't followed up, I would probably never have gotten to go. So sometimes it pays to bug people, I guess,” she concluded with a chuckle.

August was a tough time for Bonnie, the Director of the Estes Center for Southside Virginia Community College site in Chase City. Classes were set to start that week for her. And, for Julie, a principal, it was the first week back for the children.

“…I just said yes, 'cause I've waited too long,” Bonnie said. “I'm not gonna put it off. He said we have other tapings, but you know I just said I'll be there.”

So Bonnie took Julie and her other daughter Cheryl Tharp, a teacher, on flight to California. Her husband Spider, who has qualms about flying, didn't make the trip, though he did offer to drive. (Bonnie is also uncomfortable flying. The most nerve-wracking part about planning the trip, she says, is that she knew she had to fly.)

From the time of the call to the flight, the excitement began to rekindle (there was about two weeks between the call and the taping of the show). There was, of course, much to think about-what to wear, whether your hair is cut the right length, and questions about make-up.

Contestants receive a packet that outlined a lot of specifics-not to wear any rings on your spinning hand, no cartoon characters on men's ties, they must do their own hair and that they would touch up your makeup, and not to wear white or bright red or loud prints or stripes.

Bonnie wore the brightest pink she could find.

They arrived August 23rd, a Thursday, took a tour of Sony Studios-which she says was good because it sort of took away a little wonder about the place (and even saw actor Will Smith). On that Friday morning, Bonnie says she awoke about 5 a.m. and was to get to the studio around 7:30.

“…The whole morning is spent with indoctrination and training and makeup and signing legal papers and…practicing spinning and doing that kind of stuff. And the wheel is incredibly, incredibly heavy,” Bonnie recounted.

She offers that it's literally so heavy “you can barely get it to go around.”

Before taping, contestant teams of three practiced spinning and calling letters.

“You have to say it really loudly and I thought I had a loud voice, but apparently I don't project it…I don't yell a lot,” Bonnie said. “So, you know, we were yelling out Ts and Ss and Bs and they would say again and you'd have to do it again so they really, really practice you a lot…Actually, when you get there for real, you're on automatic pilot. You have been trained; you have been taught. You know what you're supposed to do and you're nervous. And you're on automatic pilot for the first, like two puzzles.”

She noted, “You understand why people sometimes make what they call dumb mistakes on Wheel because you could easily not look at this board or that board or say the right thing or just call the wrong letter…”

The puzzle board, she offered, is “gigantic.” Next to that board is the used letter board and the used vowel board is under it. Beside that is a small board that has the category. To the contestants' left is another board that has the contestant's names, how much they're playing for at that moment and how much they have in their bank.

“…It's real intense, it really is,” Bonnie said. “And you relax about the end of your time.”

Six games were filmed on the same day involving 18 contestants. Teams were divided and they drew to see which team went first.

She picked for the team, which went first.

They then picked for their positions at the wheel, and Bonnie's lot was to be at the first position.

“I was kind of glad to be in the first game,” she said, “But it did kind of build the nerves just a little bit to be the first one up.”

And then…

“Well, they had a problem with the wheel. It was making some kind of a noise…It was clicking or something,” Bonnie said.

Technicians came from everywhere, she cited, and literally took the wheel apart. Contestants were taken for more prepping.

“And then when they brought us back up there, I wasn't sure if we were gonna do some more practicing or what…so I got up there and the three of us were on our little marks and I looked up at the contestant next to me and I said 'Is this the real thing?' He said 'I think this is the real thing,'” Bonnie laughs. “…And it was. And out came Vanna and out came Pat and there we went.”

There was a lot of interaction between contestants during the day. Bonnie notes they were great people, all chosen for their personalities because they kind of stood out in some way. She noted that it was a great cross-section.

“Now I fell into the old category,” Bonnie laughs. “There's one other guy and me I think that represented the mature audience.”

The contestants in her game included a young lady from Florida and a young man who she notes were “great-just cute.”

There are no retakes, she cited. What you see is exactly the way it was done. (Commercial breaks, even in filming, aren't long.)

“I like Vanna a lot,” Bonnie said. “I think she comes across as being such a down to earth nice person. That's the way she presents herself. And, you know…she grows zucchini and cans tomatoes and crochets and she really does do those things. She…came out to see us when we first went into where the wheel is in the studio-we were all in there-and she came out. She had a bag on her arm and her hair up in a knot on her head-looked like she just got out of the shower. No makeup. And she had food in her hand and she came out and said…'Hi, guys, I just wanted to wish you all luck today and hope you have a great day…' just as cute as she could be. She said, 'This is what I eat.' And she said, 'Yogurt and dingdongs.'”

Bonnie laughs.

Contestants didn't see host Pat Sajak until he stepped onto the podium.

Families of contestants are seated in a special section and both the contestants and the families are discouraged from interaction.

Players are encouraged to clap (though it's OK if they don't) and Bonnie found herself at times trying to solve the puzzle and forgetting to do so.

“The game itself goes by so fast that you honestly can hardly remember parts of it,” Bonnie said.

While, understandably, Bonnie can't tell us too much about how things turned out (we'll just have to wait for October 8), she did note: “…I feel like I can comfortably say my greatest concern about being on the show was that I would be the one that got the $1,000 default and had to say 'I had a good time,'” Bonnie laughs. “I was not that person. I didn't have to do that.”

She also adds that she was not the one that went to the bonus round, but was very happy for the one that did.

“It was a great experience,” Bonnie said. “It really was.”

She would love to have a do-over. She knew the puzzles, but it has to be your turn. They don't call it the Wheel of Fortune for nothing, she says.

Her grandson, who plays golf for Hampden-Sydney College, advised Bonnie before she left that it's not about the score or the money, but the game.

“'…Just go and have a good time,'” she remembers him telling her. “He said, 'It's just like playing golf. It's not about the score, it's about the game…It's about the game. Just have a good time, don't worry about the money. It's not about the money. It's about the game.' And so I tried to remember that and I was like, it really was about the experience and the game and the meeting of all these people and interacting with people…it was about that. So, you know, we had a nice trip, we had a great time and great experience.”

And Pat put Keysville, Virginia on the map in her introduction.

Contestants rehearse what they will say in their introductions and in practice Bonnie says she got everything in just like she wanted. When the cameras went on, she neglected to include her husband's name.

She laughs at the thought. She and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in September.

“The puzzles are easy,” Bonnie reflects. “Any contestant up there can solve every one of those puzzles. Any one…that's why they were chosen…They're good puzzle players and every single one of us could solve any puzzle that came up. It's just a matter of who got the luck of the spin, who hit bankrupt, who hit lose a turn, and whose turn it happened to be at the time. It's all about luck.”

Bonnie admits she skipped watching it about a week after her experience.

There's usually a friendly competition between she and her husband to solve the puzzles first in the Gilliam home. (She's still a fan of the show, noting “…If anything, probably a little more so because you really see what goes into it.)

She also plays the game with her eight-year-old granddaughter on her iPad.

With the Wheel experience behind her, Bonnie and her daughters took in Hollywood the next day, visited Grumman's Chinese Theatre, took pictures of the Hollywood sign, had dinner with some friends living in the area Bonnie had not seen since 1981, and took an early morning flight back to Richmond.

“…What money you do win, you don't get for a very long time,” Bonnie laughs.

She notes it's like 120 days after the show airs, which makes it early February. Also, she found out, if you win more than $1,500, California takes seven percent.

“…I thought that wasn't nice,” Bonnie laughs.