Spinning Wheels, Part 2

In Spinning Wheels, Part 1, I took a look at the troubled first pilot for what we now know as Wheel of Fortune. That show, called Shopper’s Bazaar was truly a bit…. bizarre. But the insanity didn’t end there.

Merv Griffin and his creative team knew they had the basics for something special, but they weren’t quite there yet. So, they went back to the beginning and started fresh with two new pilots.

The wheel idea was working, so they kept that, but wisely decided to place it horizontally this time and let the contestants take turns spinning it.

Unfortunately, in those pilots, the wheel was very loose and actually required a stagehand to lay underneath slowing it down with his feet.

They also ran into problems with the puzzle board. If you watched the Shopper’s Bazaar episode, you could clearly see the people behind the board revealing the letters.

This time, the plan was to have a fully automatic board. Unfortunately, that board never worked as planned, either. In a serendipitous turn of events, they decided to bring on a hostess to turn the letters. Susan Stafford was brought aboard and continued with the show for the first seven years (’75-’82).

If the board was automatic, we’d never have met Vanna.

This was also when they introduced the showcases I discussed in Part 1. However, they were much busier and not nearly as smooth as they would later appear.

The last big change was the host. Chuck Woolery was fine in the first episode, but the suits at NBC decided they had a better choice. Enter Edd Byrnes.

Folks from an earlier generation may recognize him as “Kookie” from the classic 77 Sunset Strip.

And some from a later generation may recognize him as Vince Fontaine, America’s favorite dance host from Grease. Wheel was expected to be his big revival, but never came to be.

Vince Fontaine, before he tried to drug her.

Regardless of your personal feelings about him as an actor, Byrnes was clearly not meant to be this kind of host. He was clearly uncomfortable and read from cue cards for much of the episode.

He looks offstage like this for the entire episode.

He later confessed in his memoir (“Kookie Like Me“) that he was “scared to death” and had far too much to drink before filming. That becomes obvious pretty early on.

Unfortunately, history has erased much of the video evidence, but through the glory of YouTube, we are able to see the first 10 minutes of the first pilot.

Right from the opening moments, we see it looks much more like what we are used to from the actual show. The contestants are now standing up (Goodbye comfy chairs!!) and able to spin the wheel themselves.

As soon as Edd Byrnes was introduced, he seemed to be awfully shiny. Maybe he refused makeup or the alcohol was already sweating through.

One interesting thing about the pilot is that player introductions are done by the lovely Susan. I’m not sure if that was a trend for that time – I remember Summer Bartholomew doing them on The Sale of the Century, but nothing else comes to mind. Nowadays, of course, those are handled by Pat Sajak.

Summer Bartholomew handled Wheel hostess duties briefly before Vanna was hired

Thankfully, they toned down the “do you want to buy a vowel?” from the first pilot. He does ask a few times, but he also throws in his own commentary:

Byrnes: Can I sell you a vowel for $250? They’re cheap. They’re on sale!

He actually squealed “WHEEEE!” as the board came in

Clearly this is just a test show because they have a few egregious errors they need to work on before any shows will go to air. For example, they first prize is solved, but Susan neglects to turn over the last letter.

A bigger issue concerned basic math. A contestant with $700 spins and lands on $225. She guesses ‘L’ and gets 3 of them.

Byrnes: There are three ‘L’s. Each one is worth $225. You just won $775!

Um….. 225 x 3 = 675, not 775.

The funniest part is that they initially added $675 to her total, but after he announced it, they added the extra $100 to match what he said. I can just imagine the crew in the control room:

Accountants: But the math’s not right – we can’t just give money—

Director: Shut up, he’s on a roll. Just go with it!

I have a confession to make – I’m not that familiar with Byrne’s body of work. I knew of his reputation. In his prime, he was one of the biggest names in show business. He recorded a single with Connie Stevens in 1959 that reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.

According to Picture magazine, in 1961, he was receiving 15,000 fan letters a week – those were Elvis Presley type numbers in that era.

He was locked into a television contract with Warner Brothers and was forced to turn down roles in films that may have catapulted him to another level of success. He was unable to film Ocean’s Eleven, Rio Bravo & The Longest Day. He was even the first choice to play John F. Kennedy in PT 109, but JFK reportedly didn’t want to be portrayed by someone named “Kookie”.

His constant clashes with the studio led to his earning a reputation as difficult. He made a number of guest appearances on television and variety shows, but never again came close to his early success.

That may have been why he was so incredibly enthusiastic about hosting. As much as I have said he wasn’t cut out for Wheel, it certainly wasn’t because he was boring. In fact, his antics make this much more enjoyable than Shopper’s Bazaar. And his not-at-all 70’s flirting is just icing on the cake

Here are a few of his most memorable moments.

Byrnes: Do you want to go shopping or guess the puzzle?

Pretty Blonde Contestant: I want to go shopping.

Byrnes: Can I come?

Contestant: I want…. the…

Byrnes: Brass bed.

Contestant: Yes, the brass bed!!

Contestant: I’d like the picnic basket. Oh wait, I can’t afford that.

Byrnes: I’ll lend you the fifty dollars.

Byrnes: Spin the puzzle and solve the wheel!

Sadly, test audiences didn’t feel that Byrnes fit as the host and he was replaced before the show went to air.

On January 6, 1975, Wheel of Fortune debuted on NBC with Susan Stafford and new host… Chuck Woolery. Apparently, the suits at the studio decided that Merv knew what he was doing and brought back his first choice.

Woolery stayed with the show for six years.

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