By Barry Dutter
It almost sounds unpatriotic to say it, but September 11, 2001 was one of the greatest days of my life. No, not because of the horrible tragedy that befell this great nation when the terrorists struck. I was as outraged and horrified as any red-blooded American at the events of that fateful day.
But in addition to being the day when we experienced the first ever attack on American soil, it was also the day I was picked to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit.
It was on September 1, 2001, that I saw an ad in the local paper saying that Wheel was coming to town. I figured I would try out. I had been a fan of Wheel ever since Chuck Woolery hosted the daytime version back in the 70s. But I never thought I would actually be on it.
Wheel of Fortune is based in Hollywood, but several times a year, the show travels to other cities around the U.S. in order to spice things up a bit (and give someone else a chance to play other than Los Angelenos). I was living in Ft. Lauderdale at the time. The entire cast and crew of Wheel of Fortune had come to South Florida, looking for new faces to be on the show.
According to the Internet, more than a million people try out for WOF in a given year and only 600 actually make it on to the show.
So if WOF comes to your city looking for people, that greatly increases your odds of getting on.
The audition in Miami was scheduled for 10:00 a.m. on September 8th … three days before the world changed forever. I arrived right on time and was taken to a room with about 100 other hopefulls. It was a very eclectic group. I remember seeing a guy with a Mohawk and tons of tattoos. He was wearing ripped jeans and had several face piercings. I thought to myself, “Has this guy never seen the show before? Has he ever seen a contestant who looked like that on a TV game show?”
My feeling is, when you try out for a game show, you have to go in there dressed as if you have already been picked. I always wear a suit and tie when I try out for a show and I make sure to shine my shoes. And I have a pretty darn good track record of getting picked.
When you audition for most game shows, you are given a written test. In the case of WOF, we were given half-finished games of Hangman where we had to fill in the missing letters. I always kick ass on these written tests.
We had about ten minutes to complete the test. I think there were 20 puzzles on the test. I got about 15 right, and left the rest blank.
About 30 minutes later, the tests were graded, and over half the people in the room were sent home. I was one of the lucky ones who got to stay. Out of the remaining 20 or 30 people, 15 would get picked to be on the show. (Game shows typically tape five episodes a day, and then the episodes are shown over a five-day period when they air a few months later. Wheel uses three contestants per episode.)
I had made it past the first hurdle -- but that was no still no guarantee that I was getting on the show.
There are three important parts to getting on a TV game show. First, is your look. Most shows prefer contestants who are clean-cut and well-dressed with nice haircuts. Next is how well you do on the written test. And third is how well you perform on camera.
I’m a natural-born ham, so I can usually delivers the goods when the camera is rolling. I knew I had aced the test. I had a distinct advantage this time around when it came to my look: most of the people in the room were black and Latino women. I was just about the only clean-cut white guy who had tried out for the show. This was one time where diversity might work in my favor!
Two days later, I got the call. Apparently they wanted a white male on the show, and I fit the bill. I had been hand-picked to be one of 15 contestants to be on the show. I was told to come in the next day fora a run-though. They wanted us to know where to stand during the show, how to spin the wheel, etc.
The next day was Wednesday, September 11, 2001.
On the morning of September 11, I got in my car at about 7:30 a.m. We were supposed to be in Miami at 9:00. It was a 30 minute drive from Ft. Lauderdale to Miami, but with morning rush hour, it would take about an hour and a half.
I jumped on I-95, and found that traffic had come to a dead stop. I don’t mean like "stop and go" traffic. I mean “stop and stop.”
I had been in traffic jams before, but this one was different. This felt weird. Cars on both sides of the highway were just not moving. I had the radio tuned to Howard Stern, as I always do in the morning.
People who are not regular listeners of the Stern show assume that the show is about nothing but lesbians, strippers, and sex. Yes, it’s true that those are all important aspects of his show. But it’s so much more than that.
Sure, Howard talks a lot about masturbation and midgets and misfits -- but he also talks about whatever is going on in the world. Especially if there is something of national interest going on in New York.
On this day, one of the Twin Towers had just been hit by a plane -- and Howard stayed on the air, and reported everything that happened over the next two hours. As the second plane hit, Howard was right on top of the story.
Most listeners agree it was one of his shining moments as a broadcaster. While most New Yorkers were fleeing their jobs in a frantic effort to get out of the city before more tragedy struck, Howard’s attitude was that he could not leave. He had to stay and continue to report on what happened next.
Howard’s is a comedy show, but there was no comedy on this day. It was just the real, raw reactions of a native New York, responding with shock and anger to the horror that was going on all around him.
Howard continued his broadcast as word came in about the plane that hit the Pentagon and the one that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
And when the Twin Towers came down, and thousands of lives came to an end, Howard reported on that, too. The devastation and loss of life were almost beyond belief. The situation was so unnerving that some Stern staffers had to leave the show midway and rush home. One went to the tanning salon. Another went bowling. Obviously not every one deals with grief the same way!
There was a lot of fear and uncertainty on that day. Nobody knew when the next plane would fall from the sky. No one knew which city would be targeted next. You had to figure any major American city was a potential terrorist target.
And there I was, heading for Miami. I wasn’t even sure if the WOF "dress rehearsal" had been canceled. I didn’t know what to do, so I just kept inching my way down the highway. I didn’t receive any phone calls announcing a change in plans. I had to assume we were still on.
Traffic was crawling like a snail down I-95. Me and every other driver on the road were watching the skies, waiting to see if a plane would crash in our neck of the woods. It was the first time I did not feel safe in my own country.
It would take me about two and a half hours, but I finally arrived at the Wheel of Fortune set.
I apologized for being late, but no apology was necessary. I was not the only one who had had a hard time getting to the studio on that day. Everyone had heard the news about the terrorist attacks.
There was a weird mood on the set. Me and the other contestants were excited about being on the set of a TV show where we had the chance to win a lot of money. But at the same time, we were very much aware of the tragedy that was going on in other parts of the country.
I guess the word here would be “bittersweet.”
At this point, we were not sure if the show would be canceled. We all knew this was a time of mourning. It was not a time to be clapping our hands and chanting “Big money! Big money!”
If they had decided to shut it down and go home, we would have understood. As much as we wanted to spin the wheel, we knew that this might not be our time.
All the contestants and the staff were gathered in a big meeting room. Pat Sajak and Vanna White were not even in Miami. Although Pat had flown in the night before, he was still several cities away. And Vanna was driving in, having stopped to visit relatives along the way. There was some talk that Vanna might not even make it in time to work on the show the next day. (Flying was not an option, obviously.)
Amidst all this uncertainty, the producer of the show addressed us. First, he acknowledged the terrible events that were happening around the country. Then he said they realized how ludicrous it might seem for people to be playing on a game show while this national nightmare was going on.
He said they had considered canceling the Miami shows. But then they decided to finish the job they came for.
I’ll never forget the words he used on that day. He said, “It’s not that the show must go on. It’s that life must go on.”
He didn’t say anything about not letting the terrorists win, but the sentiment was the same. His point was, yes, there has been a horribly tragedy. Yes, thousands of Americans have lost their lives on this day.
But for those of us left behind, life goes on. We can’t stop living just because some maniacs crash planes into our buildings.
We, the contestants had waited our whole lives to be on this show. And we weren’t going to let that damn Osama Bin Laden deprive us of our moment of glory!
And so it was announced that a few hours later, we would begin taping. We just had to wait for Pat and Vanna to arrive.
And so we had what they call in the business a "run-through." We practiced spinning the wheel, and I must say, that thing is heavy! A few hours later, we had blocked out the whole show, and it was time to go home.
All we could do was sit and watch the news, trying to soak up every detail of what was going on in the rest of the country. till it was time for bed.
Miami had been spared any terrorist attacks, but many Floridians have friends and family in New York, and the repercussions of that terrible day were felt all across the U.S.
The next morning, we all headed back to the set. It was September 12, 2001, and we were going to be on Wheel of Fortune!
Despite everything else that was going on, myself and the other contestants were still excited about the chance to be on WOF. And no terrorist attack could ever kill our enthusiasm for that.
Before the first taping began, the producer of the show addressed the studio audience. Again he made his speech about this not being about some dumb game show. It was about the need to go on living after a tragedy.
And so we did. A few minutes later, Pat Sajak and Vanna White stepped out onto the stage. (They had made it just in time!) And on that day, in the aftermath of death and destruction, for a 15 lucky Floridians (and a studio audience of about 100), it was like a little piece of Hollywood magic had landed in our own back yard.
It really didn’t matter how well the contestants played that day. For the record, I came in last place -- and I walked away with $5,000. Wheel is one of the only shows on TV where even then loser goes home with money.
I actually would have won about $15,000 to $20,000 but I hit bankrupt three times. I’m lucky I went home with anything after that!
A friend of mine suggested that the show was fixed, that the wheel was rigged to make me lose all my money. But the fact of the matter is, the woman who beat me hit bankrupt twice on the same show. So much for any conspiracy theories.
Even Pat Sajak was flabbergasted at seeing five “bankrupts” in one show. (For the record, Pat was a nice guy, and Vanna was still reasonably attractive for her age.)
During the course of the episode, I decided I was going to use the term “Big money” more than any other contestant who had ever appeared on the show. I don’t know if I beat the record, but I like to think that I came close!
Wheel of Fortune is, to date, my most profitable game show appearance. I know that in the scheme of things, $5,000 is not a lot of money, but it is still the biggest chunk of change I have won on TV. (Not bad for a half hour’s work!)
After the taping was over, we left the studio and headed back out into the real world, where we once again had to deal with the reality of terrorist attacks on American soil. By then, the whole country was in shock. People were walking around with blank looks on their faces. We had never seen anything like the events of September 11 before. No one knew quite how to react.
It would take many months, even years before things even began to return to some semblance of normalcy.
Looking back now, I truly believe September 11 was the worst day in American history. But for me and 14 other lucky contestants, September 11 was a very lucky day. For that was the day we were part of something special.
Anyone who was around in 1962 can tell you where they were when JFK got shot. And in the same way, any modern American can tell you where they were on September 11, 2001. Most people probably have stories of rushing home from work or being glued to a TV set. But I’ll never forget where I was on that day.
I was buying a vowel.