The Towering Inferno Thrills Audiences...Richard Nixon Resigns...Sonny and Cher Call it Quits
September, 1973...Shopper's Bizarre
The long, interesting history of Wheel of Fortune began with a distinct thud in late 1973. New NBC head of daytime Lin Bolen decided to jazz up the sleepy NBC game show lineup with glitzy new shows and commissioned a pilot from Merv Griffin Productions. Merv had been tossing around ideas for a hangman-like pilot for a while and pitched his idea to Bolen. Lin liked the idea, but wanted something with more glamour to attract the female audience. She suggested spicing up the game with a shopping element, and as such the first pilot for Wheel of Fortune, titled Shopper's Bazaar, was born.
The pilot bares little resemblance to the game fans know today; indeed, the game play element of the pilot was meant to take a backseat to the idea of shopping for glamorous prizes. The pilot opens with the three female contestants browsing through a simulated department store full of prizes. Each contestant is introduced individually and the announcer, Mike Lawrence, describes each of three prizes, increasing in value, that the contestant has chosen to play for. They range in value from a selection of imported wines and cheeses to a brand new 1974 car.
Perhaps the weirdest part of the intro to the pilot, besides the overly busy shopping set, is the fact that during the intro, the contestants are actually playing the first puzzle, and are guessing letters to the puzzle as commanded by the voice of Chuck Woolery. Once the introduction is finished, the contestants find their place in three individual chairs facing a coffee table (which contains a rotary telephone). To the left of that stands an extremely lackluster brown puzzle board.
During the game, the contestants are not initially told the category of the puzzle, and even more shockingly, don't even spin the wheel for themselves. Host Chuck Woolery stands in front of a motorized, stand-up carnival wheel, holding a button that controls it. When the wheel is set in motion, the in-turn contestant yells "Stop the Wheel!", which gradually brings the wheel to a stop (although on a few occasions the stop was extremely temporary and the wheel would launch back into motion quickly).
The wheel was interesting in the sense that it contained no Bankrupts, the worst space being Lose a Turn. There were some unique spaces, including a $0 space that meant you kept you turn but earned no money for picking a letter, and also a "Free Vowel" space. As today, vowels cost $250 on the pilot.
Perhaps the most unique, if not "bazaar" space, on the wheel was the dreaded Your Own Clue. If a contestant hit that space, they picked up the phone in front of them to hear a private clue about the puzzle. The first clue was always what would be considered today to be the category, i.e. thing or person. The clues were given in order of increasing information, so if you got a second clue to a puzzle, it would be more descriptive than the first. Since the other contestants couldn't hear the clues, if they spun the Your Own Clue space for the same puzzle, they would get the same clue their opponents got.
Once a contestant solved the puzzle, the game got even more complicated thanks to the strange scoring system. So complicated in fact that it was handled by an "Accounting Department". The Accounting Department was in fact a wall that contained each contestant's three prizes. The scoring was such that each contestant played for their lowest priced prize first and, once they'd earned enough money to buy it, their scoring then applied to their next highest-priced prize, and so forth. A contestant couldn't take home a prize until she solved a puzzle, even if she'd earned enough money for one.
Four rounds were played, and after Round Two the values on the wheel increased so $1,000 was the top value ($500 was the top value in the earlier rounds). The winning contestant--the one who had bought the most prizes--went on to play the bonus round, called the Shopper's Special. In the Shopper's Special the bonus puzzle is actually the name of the prize the contestant is playing for. The contestant gets to see all the vowels in the puzzle to start with, and then has 30 seconds to shout out consonants that are added to the puzzle if they are there. Needless to say, it's a cake walk.
There's a lot not to like about this pilot. One main gripe is that, for reasons unknown, the three women contestants spend most of the pilot screaming in agony for one reason or another, even when it's not their turn. Coupled with the bizarre scoring system and overall poor production values (the man manipulating the puzzle board was clearly seen throughout the pilot), the show seemed doomed. Indeed, test audiences panned the pilot, but NBC was willing to give it another shot.
The Shopper's Bazaar pilot survives to this day and is actually found in the GSN library, but due to unknown reasons (either contractual or due to the dismal quality of the game play), it has never been aired.
Despite the bad taste left over by Shopper's Bazaar, NBC was again ready to try another Wheel pilot one year later. This pilot was called Wheel of Fortune and had Ed "Kooky" Byrnes of 77 Sunset Strip as host. Marty Pasetta was brought into direct and decided to give the show a "Vegas" feel, complete with a colorful wheel (now spun by the contestants) and a lighted, mechanical puzzle board. However time ran out before the motorized puzzle board could be completed, so Susan Stafford, a local television personality and model, was brought into "turn the letters".
The game played very similar to the actual version of Wheel of Fortune that premiered the next year. The notable exception to the set was that the letters turned the opposite direction they did on the actual show, and that the showcase prizes were located behind the puzzle board. This meant that after the puzzle was solved, Susan would grip onto the puzzle board for dear life while it was whisked off stage to reveal the prizes. In all shopping segments, a list of prizes and values scrolled on the right of the screen. If a prize had already been purchased, the word "SOLD" would appear next to it.
|Kookie indeed.||The infamous "Buy a Vowel" space.|
While the game played very similar to the show fans know and love today, the hosting was definitely...different. Ed was out of his element with a game show and several times came off extremely fake. He also had a knack for bullying contestants into spinning when they didn't want to, going as far as yelling "No! You only have $300! You can't solve yet!" to one contestant. Rumors abound (never substantiated) that Ed was drunk during the taping, and was shockingly discovered to be rehearsing which letters were vowels right before the show.
|A close up of the pilot wheel.||Susan turns some of her first letters--backwards!|
Test audiences considered the new set too busy and were unimpressed with Byrnes, but Lin Bolen convinced the NBC brass to pick up the show anyways. They agreed, but stipulated that Ed was out and Chuck was back in. In December, 1974, the first episodes of Wheel of Fortune were taped, and the rest is history.