“Pat, I’d like to buy a vowel”: HFC alumni win on “Wheel of Fortune”
Who gets to be on Wheel of Fortune?
Debi and Mark Beier, who met at HFC (then called Henry Ford Community College) as students in 1976, auditioned for the long-running game show Wheel of Fortune on a lark in 2019.
It took four years – they were delayed due to the pandemic – but they finally appeared on the Feb. 15 episode as part of “couples week,” where they won $27,507, plus a trip to Aruba.
Mark, a veteran of the U.S. Navy and the play-by-play announcer for the University of Toledo Rockets, gave the play-by-play about how their participation in Wheel came about. It is quite an odyssey!
Letting the wheel of fortune spin
The Wheelmobile appeared at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre in Detroit four years ago, looking for new contestants. The Beiers, who live in Temperance and have been married for 42 years, happened to be there.
More than 1,500 people wanted to be on Wheel. They filled out a card and Debi – who took her prerequisites at HFC and worked as a dental hygienist for 40 years – was about the fourth person called onstage. She was part of a tryout for the actual game.
Two weeks passed, Wheel producers contacted Debi, wanting to interview her for the show. Mark interviewed as well. At this point, producers were talking to 60 people.
After more rounds of interviews and a written test that was similar to the board game Hangman (which Mark admitted he “bombed big time”), the pool of potential contestants was pared down to 20. By the end of the evening, the Beiers were told if they made the cut that they would receive an official invitation in the mail within two weeks.
Those two weeks came and went, but there was no invitation.
“There was no letter in the mail. We checked on Tuesday, no letter. Wednesday, no letter. Thursday, no letter. We called one of our sons and asked him to check our mail because we were taking a trip to New York City. There was still no letter in the mail on Friday!” recalled Mark.
The Beiers had Saturday dinner reservations at 6:00 p.m. at the Manhattan-based restaurant Sardi’s, in the heart of the Broadway theater district.
“We walked in promptly at 6:00 p.m. and the maître d' handed us a letter,” said Mark. “It was our invitation from Wheel. We were excited. Apparently, our son knew we would be at Sardi’s. He scanned the letter and contacted Sardi’s to deliver it to us.”
Sworn to secrecy
The coronavirus pandemic delayed their time on the show.
“After you get selected, the producers tell you you’re in the system for 18 months. If you don’t hear anything after 18 months, you have to re-audition. In our case, we were more than two years past our expiration date!” explained Debi.
They decided to let it go. However, in late October 2022, Debi received a voicemail from the Wheel producers out of the blue. They were informed Wheel was bringing back “couples week” for the first time in more than three years.
On Nov. 17, 2022, they flew out to Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, CA, where Wheel is filmed. On Nov. 19, 2022, they taped the show, which aired a few months later, including locally on WDIV-TV (Channel 4 in Detroit). During that time, they could not speak about what they won on the show.
“We were sworn to secrecy,” said Mark. “It was hard on Debi’s mother, because we couldn’t tell her how well we did.”
Added Debi: “The whole buildup was pretty fun.”
Easier to play the game in their living room
As much as they enjoyed their Wheel experience, it wasn’t without its challenges.
“There were external stressors: Air travel, we didn’t sleep well, we didn’t want to say something stupid on-air,” said Debi. “We needed to be coherent.”
Added Mark: “We went in there as a team. We had talked about how to conduct ourselves. We even coordinated colors for that week!”
They agreed it’s much easier sitting on your couch and solving the puzzles than being onstage with all the cameras pointing at you and realizing there are countless thousands of people watching. Even though Mark was a TV reporter for WKBD-TV (now CW50) from 1996 to 2001, it was still nerve-wracking.
“Granted, there’s a familiarity there,” he said. “What I did on TV, however, I would have control of. If I was standing there like (host) Pat Sajak, I would be fine. But to be a contestant and not have control, that’s a completely different experience.”
“Every commercial break, they would take you off-stage, fix your hair, touch up your makeup, and tell you what’s next. They really want contestants to succeed!” said Debi.
Mark even did a spot-on imitation of Wheel announcer Jim Thornton, a popular figure among the fans, particularly on the show’s social media platforms. Thornton was impressed and sent a producer to see Mark. They did a skit together, which appeared on Instagram.
Booing and cheering
“We learned a lot of what goes on behind the scenes to produce a show of this caliber. We came to really appreciate just how good the production is,” said Mark.
Added Debi: “Pat Sajak and (co-host) Vanna White are as nice in person as they are on TV. They were terrific.”
When the Beiers’ episode aired, they hosted a watch party in a private room at The Blarney Irish Pub in Toledo. Their guests didn’t know how they did until they saw the episode.
“When you wait 3½ years for this, you have to enjoy the moment. The most fun we had was the watch party,” said Debi. “People booed and cheered. I never had this much fun watching a game show.”
“They booed when I went bankrupt,” Mark recalled, laughing.
The Beiers plan on taking their trip to Aruba later this year.
“It was all in good fun,” said Mark. “We had a great time.”