Wheel of Fortune Timeline - 1997

Princess Diana's Tragic Death..."Titanic" Released...Mike Tyson Bites off More Than He Can Chew...

February 21, 1997...Last Day of Old Puzzle Board

From Phoenix, Arizona, Pat announced the news that had been leaked across mainstream media for months: Wheel was replacing its puzzle board, in place for over 15 years, with an electronic board.  Vanna would no longer be turning letters...she'd be touching them.

The ever-forgettable sequin green $1000 space. The Jackpot Space, pre-Hot Pockets influence.

The last official puzzle on the show's old board was POUND SIGN, although Vanna and Pat put the board up FOR SALE at the end.  Actually, the board now resides in the Smithsonian Institution, a tribute to the mark the show has left on American history.
 

They didn't solve this puzzle, so I'm sure they didn't mind the Puzzle Board dying. Any takers?

February 24, 1997...The New Puzzle Board!

Wheel fans were buzzing about this change...how would the new board look?  What would Vanna be doing?  All questions were answered when the curtain was revealed on the brand new electronic board.  The board featured 52 monitors which would light up in blue when a correct letter was called.  Vanna would walk up to the monitor and touch anywhere along the right side of the screen for the letter to magically appear.

Some viewers were a bit discouraged by the fact that, when the puzzle was solved, the remaining letters would fill in automatically, leaving little doubt that Vanna's role was now merely ornamental.  However, the new board had significant advantages over the old one, namely the fact that taping would not have to stop in segments that had more than one puzzle.  With the prior board, after a puzzle was solved, Pat would face the camera and announce "Here is our next puzzle", and while the viewers at home saw a seamless transition to the next puzzle, what actually happened was a show stop down.  During the stop down, the board would be wheeled off stage and the new puzzle loaded in by hand out of sight of the contestants.  On some episodes, you can hear the board being taken off stage or sometimes see the reflection of the puzzle board lights as it moved by.  With the new board, no stop downs were necessary, meaning tapings could finish quicker at a lower cost to the production company.

Out with the old... ...in with the new!

The first puzzled solved on the new board was VALENCIA SPAIN.  At the end of the episode, Pat and Vanna stood at the new board as Vanna demonstrated to Pat how the board worked.  Interestingly, when Pat tried to touch a letter and make it appear, it wouldn't.  Hmm....

Our first ever "New Board" puzzle... Pat tries to get the letters to appear with a little body language.

April 1, 1997...April Fools' Day

In a stunt that was tried once and only once, Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek traded hosting jobs for the day.  Pat hosted the day's Jeopardy! episode (which featured many Wheel-inspired categories), while Alex took the reigns of Wheel.  In this special episode, Pat and Vanna played "against" each other for charity, with Pat's wife Leslie touching letters at the board.

Pat's running away with it! This category never appeared again.

Pat pretty much wiped the floor with Vanna, easily winning by over $23,000.  The two played the bonus round together and solved the puzzle correctly, TRADING SPACES.  The two split the total money won on the show ($51,150) for their charities, Boy Scouts of America for Pat and American Cancer Society for Vanna.

Pat's wife Leslie handled Vanna's job well. Hail hail, the gang's all here.

Two moments worth noting on the day: One puzzle in the category The 1980's was VANNA WHITE FIRST APPEARS ON WHEEL OF FORTUNE, which was accompanied by a clip of Vanna's first NBC episode from December, 1982.  In a later round, Pat stated "I'd like to take a 'P'", which Alex appropriately derided him for.

This was not Alex's first time hosting Wheel.  According to his own recollection at the beginning of the episode, he guest hosted a week of episodes on the daytime show in either 1980 or 1981.

September 1, 1997...15th Season Premiere

Compared to other season premieres, this one was uneventful in terms of new show features.  The season premiered with two weeks taped in Columbus, Ohio.  The first week of shows featured "A Salute to the American Working Family" and had contestants who were members of the AFL-CIO (not coincidentally, the show premiered on Labor Day).  During the Friday Finals, the winning family had the chance to win an H1 Hummer as a bonus bonus prize, but it wasn't won.

Mmm...new wheel. If you're expecting fuel economy, forget it!

One new set piece to note: the wheel became adorned with the attractive and popular light extension (shown below) that stayed with the set until the Neonification of 2003. 

Here's a nice overhead shot. Apparently Jimmy Hoffa wasn't available.

September 13, 1997...Wheel 2000 Premieres

One of the more bizarre events in Wheel history was the short-lived children's version of the show, Wheel 2000.  The show was hosted by former "Roundhouse" star David Sidoni and his co-host "Cyber Lucy", which was a digitized caricature of a hip letter turning hostess.  Tanika Ray was the voice of Cyber Lucy, and she was also her arms and legs in a way, as she was hooked up to an electronic suit that translated her movements into Cyber Lucy's.  Yes, you read that correctly.

"Watch It" was the stunt for the show, after it was played it turned into a monstrous $250 space. Here's David Sidoni.

To make the show more palatable for kids, the set was modified with lots of steam, TV monitors, and neon colors.  The Wheel also saw many changes, including new names for Lose a Turn and Bankrupt (Loser and "The Creature", respectively).  Each episode featured a timed stunt of some sort, which changed every episode.  Completing certain elements of the stunt earned the contestant up to 3 randomly-generated free letters which they could choose to place in the puzzle after the stunt.  Of course, since these letters often ended up being gems like Q, V, and X, the stunt was usually a waste of time. 

Instead of playing for cash, the contestants earned points, although solving the puzzle earned the winner a prize such as a Game Boy.  The contestant with the most points at the end of the show played a bonus round similar to the adult version.

The categories were jazzed up for this version. Cyber Lucy chats with some punctuation.

An educational element was added to the show, as Cyber Lucy or a CBS actor would explain the solved puzzle in more detail.  The show aired Saturday mornings on CBS, and was rerun on GSN infinitely for a few years after that.  GSN also aired its own kid version of Jeopardy! entitled Jep!, but like Wheel 2000, it didn't leave much of a mark on the game show world.

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