Iconic “Wheel of Fortune” letter-turner Vanna White says it was “surreal” hosting the show for the first time ever after Pat Sajak underwent emergency surgery last month for an intestinal blockage.
“I was more nervous about not messing up with the contestants,” says White, whose first gig as “Wheel of Fortune” host airs Monday (7:30 p.m. on WABC/Ch. 7). “I didn’t want them to feel that anything had changed or for them to have any disadvantage because I was hosting, and not Pat. They were very supportive.”
White, who’s been turning letters on “Wheel of Fortune” since Dec. 13, 1982, says she wasn’t given much warning that she would slide into Sajak’s role when he suddenly took ill in early November. “We were supposed to be filming at noon and at 10 a.m. the executive producer [Harry Friedman] said, ‘How do you feel about hosting the show?’” White says. “We didn’t actually shoot that day; Harry cancelled the tapings because we were all so concerned about Pat. That was the most important thing. We wanted him to get through his surgery and know he was OK.
“My first thought was, ‘You’re kidding, right?’” she says. “When I realized Harry was serious I thought, ‘You know what? The show must go on. I’m going to be a part of this and keep it going and will take Pat’s place until he comes back. He would probably do the same for me and I felt it was important for our fans to continue on with the show.”
White began taping her shows the following day. “They didn’t give me any time to rehearse anything,” she says. “We only had one rehearsal before we shot my first show, for timing and for my comfort level.”
She hosted three weeks worth of shows, including two weeks of “Wheel of Fortune’s” annual “Secret Santa Holiday Giveaway,” airing Dec. 9-20 with Disney as a promotional partner. She then returns Jan. 6 for one more week as host.
“It was very scary for me to step into that role, especially without any practice, but I did it,” she says. “I think in the back of my mind the hardest part was that I was so concerned about Pat and his health — I was very disturbed by that, to tell you the truth.”
While she’s intimately familiar with the show — she’s been doing this for 37 years, after all — White says she had to make some adjustments in her temporary role as host.
“It was more technical stuff … just playing the game and knowing where we were [in the game],” she says. “Logistically speaking, there’s a scoreboard you don’t see on-camera and a used letterboard off-camera … all kinds of behind-the-scenes things you don’t see. We had our stage manager, executive producer, the puzzle guy and several other people who would come up to me at the end of each round and say, ‘OK, for the next round we have a mystery wedge’ … reminding me how to run the game. After a few games I kind of got the hang of it.”
White says she made “a few minor mistakes” not related to the game. “For example, the scoreboard is far from where I’m standing, so my eyesight … I couldn’t see the numbers too clearly so I said, ‘Can you make the font bigger so I can see?’ Silly things like that that you don’t see on camera. I’ll mention a couple of them during the three weeks I’m hosting.”
With White in the driver’s seat, “Wheel of Fortune” needed someone to turn those letters. “The first two weeks are Disney weeks, so fortunately Mickey and Minnie stepped in,” she says. “We filmed another day with a surprise hostess [to turn the letters], which you’ll be seeing — it will be a nice surprise.”
White, who’s famous for her “Wheel of Fortune” wardrobe, says she changed it up a bit as host.
“I didn’t wear any full-length gowns during the hosting days,” she says. “The contestants are on platforms, some high, some low, and I have to take big or little steps and I didn’t feel comfortable wearing full-length gowns back there — so I wore cocktail dresses.”
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