As iconic as the American flag and apple pie, the Wheel of Fortune game show has become a beloved phenomenon that millions tune into each and every night. Longtime hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White are not only game show royalty but the most genuine, down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet.
U.S. Veterans Magazine was extremely honored to not only be invited to a taping of Wheel of Fortune’s Veterans Week, but also to have the chance to sit down and chat with both Sajak and White about what this special week means to them.
Pat Sajak’s Army Experience:
‘The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me’ Born and raised in Chicago, Pat Sajak always knew he wanted to go into broadcasting. He joined the Army in 1968 during the height of the Vietnam War. Because he had some experience in radio, he thought he would be sent to the Armed Forces Radio in Saigon.
However, “the Army in its wisdom sent me to be a finance clerk, of which I had no experience,” laughed Sajak, who kept applying for a transfer to Saigon until he finally got it.
There, he spent a year and a half doing radio similar to the famed Robin Williams character in the feature film, “Good Morning, Vietnam!” “Guys would come in from the field and I’d be like, ‘he’s out there doing that and I’m in here playing records,’” said Sajak. “We tried to play just music on the station, with not a lot of military talk, and I think they [soldiers] were always grateful to have that little bit of home.”
Following his discharge, Sajak later went to work for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles as a weatherman, where he was discovered by Wheel of Fortune creator Merv Griffin.
“I was working in local TV doing the weather when Merv said he needed a host. He liked my stuff and here I am, 40 years later,” said Sajak, who’s been recognized by Guinness World Records® for having “the longest career as a game show host for the same show.”
When asked about Veterans Week, Sajak said, “One thing our contestants have in common with our audience is they appreciate the military and admire what these men and women are doing. The way we celebrate that is to celebrate them. Our audience loves it and we love it.”
Sajak is proud the Wheel of Fortune is truly America’s Game® and embodies those values naturally. “You look at other shows and it looks like everyone just stepped off the beaches of Southern California,” he said. “We have every size, shape, race, color and belief on our show.”
We asked Sajak about a past Veterans Week contestant who sabotaged her own game so a fellow veteran who was struggling financially could walk away with some winnings.
“This young lady was wiping the floor with everyone and was clearly going to be the, but then she started calling bizarre letters. I thought she had a stroke,” Sajak said. “She ended up losing the round but then it hit me what she was doing. Later, when we were backstage, I said to her, ‘you deliberately blew that, didn’t you?’ and she said, ‘yeah, I did.’ It says something about the military mindset.”
A key aside about game strategy: Buy vowels. “If you don’t buy vowels, you won’t win,” Sajak said.
The former veteran says he feels his military experience helped him mature as a person.
“Looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. What I gained in those three years were something I couldn’t have gained in years doing something else.”
A Chat with Vanna White on Lessons Learned and 7,000 Dresses
Famed letter-turner Vanna White became a household name when she became co-host of Wheel of Fortune in 1982. Since her debut, she has been revealing letters on the iconic puzzle board, clapping for contestants and dazzling the audience in a new gown every night.
How did you get your start on the Wheel of Fortune?
It all started when I lived in Atlanta, Georgia. I wrote in to be a contestant on the show. They wrote back and said if you’re ever in the area, give us a call and come audition. A few years later I auditioned for a different part and I was the lucky one.
I’ve now been here for 37 years.
Why do you feel it’s important to celebrate Veterans Week?
Because veterans are very special—my dad is a veteran who served in the Korean War.
How do you thank the veterans for all that they do?
This gives them a chance to have fun, win a little money and for us to recognize them for the incredible work they do.
What lessons did your dad teach you?
Where do I begin with that? My dad’s 94 years old and still with us, God bless him. He’s a kind man and believes in being real. He’s always kept me grounded. He’s just a good man.
We understand you’ve worn more than 7,000 gowns on the Wheel of Fortune, but never worn the same one twice.
Most of what I wear are samples so I have to fit in what they send me. My favorite dresses are the stretchy ones. I’ve been wearing a lot of cocktail dresses lately, which I like because I don’t trip in them like the long dresses.
A funny story: We take dinner breaks between show tapings and this one time I really overate and the dress was very tight. In the middle of a round, the belt popped off and fell on the ground. I just continued on as if it never happened!
I know you and Pat have a special relationship. Do you think it attributes to the success of the show?
I definitely do. We are like a brother/sister team. We have a genuine friendship and we respect each other. To be able to work with someone you like for 37 years is pretty good.
Be sure to tune in for Wheel of Fortune’s Veterans Week on November 4th – 8th on the Game Show Network (GSN) or on your local broadcast station.