10 Questions With Tom, PSU “Wheel” Rep

p1010063-01A few weeks ago, Eli let us know about Drew Magathan, the Temple student who cleaned up on Wheel of Fortune with over $100,000, and lamented the lack of Penn State representation on the show. That’s when we were thrilled to find out (through commenter Kyle – thanks Kyle!) that we actually did have a PSU student representin’ – in fact, he taped his episode the same day in February as Drew! His name is Tom Sabatelli (pictured right with his bad-ass name tag from the show), and he was kind enough to answer some questions about the process, Vanna White sans make-up, and what he took away from the show (besides glamorous prizes).

Tom’s episode airs on May 25th – check your local listings for the time and channel. And show your support over on Tom’s Facebook event page! Good luck, Tom! I mean, you already played, but… you all get what I mean.

Not to sound like Pat Sajak, Tom, but tell us a little about yourself.
I’m 23, and a fifth-year senior (I’m doing a five-year integrated undergrad-grad program), graduating this month, and I majored in meteorology.

Briefly, what is the process like for auditions? Where did you have to go to audition specifically in New York City?
Auditions were actually a lot of fun. They were held at a midtown Manhattan hotel, and I believe they hosted a couple of auditions that day. Each audition consists of about 50 people and overall, it was clear that the contestant coordinators were looking for people who were both good puzzle solvers and really energetic. The auditions really reflect that. During the first stage, they put a puzzle up on the screen and call someone’s name in the crowd at random. That person stands up, everybody claps, and they get the option to “spin,” “buy a vowel,” or “solve.” “Spinning” turned out to be a contestant coordinator manually controlling a mock wheel.

The purpose was really to see if you were calling out smart letters, if you could project your voice, and if you had a decent stage presence. That’s why they controlled the wheel — if you were hogging up all the time and they got bored of you, they “bankrupted” you. The second stage consisted of a written test of about 15 partially filled-in puzzles that we had to complete in 5 minutes. After that, they announced the names of the auditioners who would make it into the third stage, which was essentially like the first, except they called up three or four people at a time to play a mock game. This stage emphasized the TV personality more — they had us make our “wheel spinning” arm motion and conducted mock contestant interviews.

We heard you actually auditioned with Drew from Temple and then taped your episodes on the same day. Did you guys end up becoming buddies?
Drew was sitting two seats to my right during the first two stages of auditions, but the girl between us was eliminated before the third stage and they had everyone move in closer. That’s when we got to meet and know each other — I found out he went to Temple, and I told him I went to PSU, etc. We ended up connecting and exchanged numbers and found each other on Facebook. We both got our contestant acceptance letters on the same day, I think. We even got to hang out a little bit when he came up to see a friend here on campus. So, when we ended up taping the same day for College Week and I watched him win the $100,000 in person, it was totally surreal. We’ve stayed in touch a lot, particularly right before his episode aired last month, but my little brother is going to be a freshman at Temple in the fall, so my mom and I have been asking him a lot of questions about the school lately. My mom got to meet him in Los Angeles on our tape day and she was an instant Drew fan.

Briefly take us through the process on the day of filming. It’s gotta be a long day…
My day was particularly long since we were the last of six shows taped that day — that’s why my episode is being aired separate from the other College Week shows. I had to be up around 5:30am that morning and we were at the Sony studios a little before 8:00am. They read through all the rules with us, went through the day’s schedule, and had a lawyer talk to us about cheating, etc. They gave us a tour of the set and had us practice our wheel spinning. It’s actually really heavy, so we all needed the practice. Then we had our makeup done and then the taping began. Since I was last, I had to sit in the audience through the first five tapings, but it actually wasn’t too long because they pretty much tape in real time. Breaks in between rounds are just as long as commercial breaks, so an episode is done in 30 minutes. I was probably out of the studio by 6:00pm that night.

What were some of the biggest surprises for you during your day? What made you go “Huh, I had no idea they did it that way”?
I think all of us were shocked at how small the set actually is. Your television makes it look enormous. The wheel is quite small. It’s probably about 8 feet across or less, even. What probably surprised me more was that the puzzle board was really close. Having the puzzle board far away was my biggest fear, but it’s not that far away. When they show the puzzle on TV, I think the camera is set behind the contestants, so it makes it seem far back.

I would imagine you probably don’t get a lot of time with them, but did you at least meet Pat Sajak and Vanna White? I’m sure you get this often, but what were they like?
Pat Sajak is definitely what you see on TV. He’s quirky and funny and a really great guy. His timing is great and he knows just what to say at the right time. He knows that it’s nervewracking so he sets your mind at ease while you’re playing the game with his humor. Vanna seems really nice, too, although you obviously don’t hear as much from her as you do from Pat. She did come into the green room before the tapings to wish us good luck, and she seems like a very genuine and charming woman. They really come off the same in person as they do on TV.

Is Vanna White as gorgeous in person as she is on TV?
Well, it’s funny, because when she came into the green room, she clearly had just arrived at work. She came in without makeup, her hair was tied back, and she was wearing a sweater and jeans. It was a total shock. Even then, she was very pretty in person and very tan, too. Pat and Vanna change outfits after every taping, and she looked great in each of the six outfits she walked out in that day.

So, you’re up behind the podium thing. You’re about to take your first spin. What’s going through your mind?
Well, after you get over the fact that wow, you’re touching the wheel, it’s sensory overload. There is quite a bit to pay attention to. You have the puzzle in front of you and you’re trying to figure out a letter to call. To the left of the puzzle, off screen, is a monitor showing you which letters are still available. To your left is a monitor telling you how much money you and each of your competitors have. And the wheel is spinning, but as much as they urged us not to pay attention to the wheel, how could you not? You want to know what you landed on. So, there’s quite a bit going on all at once and it really just adds to the whole “blur” of the taping.

I’m sure you’re not allowed to tell us how much you made, but give us an idea: good, bad, or so-so?
Unfortunately, I can’t give any indication of my performance. They even sequestered my mom and the other family members before the day’s tapings began and instructed them to not divulge the results, either. But, the house minimum for all contestants, even if they don’t solve a single puzzle, is $1,000. They didn’t pay for our flights or hotel in L.A., so I guess this is their way of covering that expense.

And aside from anything you may or may not have won, did you take anything else from the show – any life lessons or reflections or was it pretty much just a cool experience?
I think I’d chalk it up mostly as a really cool experience. I don’t think there was any opportunity for it to really set in because literally right after my taping, we took a shuttle to the airport to catch a red eye back home. We were in Los Angeles for 29 hours total. We taped the day before THON began and I was the chair of my college’s THON committee this year so I had to be back on campus the next day. So, I ended up spending 34 total hours at THON that weekend and then was sick for 10 days because I was so drained. But, overall, I was mostly appreciative of the support system I had at the show and back at home.

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About the Author


Ryan is a senior Media Studies major. In addition to writing for Onward State, you can find him performing with Full Ammo Improv Troupe ( and with No Refund Theatre ( on campus.

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