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Vanna, the gorillas and the evolving 'Wheel'
By Jamie Sotonoff | Daily Herald Staff

Vanna White visits Lincoln Park Zoo to shoot promos for Wheel of Fortune's Chicago shows.

 

Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Vanna White and her children Nikko, 13, and Giovanna ("Gigi") 10, film "Wheel of Fortune" commercials at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

 

Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

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Published: 10/22/2007 11:12 PM

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Vanna White is standing in front of hungry gorillas.

They're waiting for their lunch, which is being withheld by the Lincoln Park Zoo staff so they'll sit still for the "Wheel of Fortune" cameras.

Vanna and a 40-person "Wheel" film crew stopped at the zoo to tape promotional spots for the upcoming Chicago shows. They won't air until May, but Chicago looks much prettier now than it probably will March 7-9, when the crew returns to tape the shows at Navy Pier.

Contestant tryouts for these Chicago shows will be held this weekend, when the Wheelmobile rolls up to the Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Road.

When the zoo staff sets out the gorillas' lunch behind Vanna, a hush falls over the crew and they hustle into position and flip-close their cell phones. Vanna stands poised with her children, Nikko, 13, and Giovanna ("Gigi") 10, at her side.

"And, action!"

"Wheel of Fortune" trivia

• The wheel weighs over 4,000 pounds.

• Vanna White was recognized as "Television's Most Frequent Clapper" in the 1992 Guinness Book of World Records. She averaged 720 claps per episode.

• About 3,200 people try out to be contestants each year, but less than 500 actually are.

• Want computer wallpaper of Vanna displaying a "Wheel of Fortune" puzzle board with your personalized message? Get it free at www.wheeloffortune.com/downloads/vannawallpaper.

• "Wheel" host Pat Sajak grew up in Chicago and studied broadcasting at Columbia College.

-- Jamie Sotonoff

"We're not monkeying around! There's more 'Wheel' after this!" White says, with her trademark perkiness and natural smile. The gorillas, oblivious, sit behind her and stuff their mouths.

"Wheel of Fortune," which airs at 6:30 p.m. weeknights on ABC7, is watched by 47 million people each week -- the same as most primetime shows.

Since it first aired in 1975, Wheel has gradually made its puzzles harder, its prizes bigger and its set flashier.

"The game is really the same, though. That's been the key," executive producer Harry Friedman says.

Since the early 1980s, the show's stars have been the same, too.

For the past 25 years, Vanna White has been the beautiful but largely silent letter turner (now, thanks to technology, she simply touches the letters). Her speaking roles have increased over the years, but her job is still mostly to smile and look pretty. That's enough for the thousands of "Vannafans," as they're known. But White is no stranger to criticism about her Barbie doll-like role on "Wheel." She says she takes it all with a grain of salt.

"It is what it is," she said. "People judge me, and that's OK."

"Wheel" isn't all she does, anyway. She's a best-selling author and an expert at crochet, having written a few books on the topic.

In a short interview during her last Chicago visit, White shared a few other personal details about herself that Wheel Watchers might not know:

• She is very "green," drives a Prius and always recycles.

• She loves goofy toenail polish colors, including lemon yellow, purple and florescent pink.

• Her unique name is not short for anything and is a family name. Her grandmother's godchild was also "Vanna."

• She just celebrated her 50th birthday in February, and is a single mom (she and her husband divorced in 2002). Side note: Up close, it does not appear she's had any work done.

• This summer, she launched her own line of yarn called "Vanna's Choice." Half the proceeds will be donated to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

The director is ready for the next take, so White walks over and does her thing again.

"America's Game is saluting Chicago all next week!" she says perfectly in one take, with her smiling children at her side.

When she's done, she gives the double thumbs up and boards a waiting golf cart. A white-haired zoo visitor approaches the cart as it's driving off and shouts:

"Vanna, you're great! I'll see you on TV!"

Then, just as she does at the end of every show, Vanna smiles and waves goodbye.

Try out for "Wheel of Fortune"

Where: Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Road, Rosemont

When: 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday

Info: www.abc7chicago.com or www.wheeloffortune.com

How it will work: Everyone who attends can fill out an application. There will be a random drawing, and those selected get to go on stage and audition by playing a modified version of the game with prizes. Producers will be watching for people who are "energetic, enthusiastic and fun."