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'Wheel of Fortune' rolls into Nitro casino

Craig Cunningham
A cardboard cutout of Wheel of Fortune co-host Vanna White greeted hopefuls as they tried their hand at the game Sunday afternoon. Traveling host Marty Lublin spoke to Rosemary Balanos, 63, of South Charleston during her brief pre-game interview. Balanos solved the puzzle in her round.
Craig Cunningham Lublin got the crowd going in the "We are... Marshall" cheer during his interview with Bob Gilardi, a retired fundraiser for Marshall University. Gilardi told the host he and his wife like to travel but were in the fundraising stages.
Craig Cunningham The audience cheers for the contestants at Mardi Gras Casino & Resort as they audition for "Wheel of Fortune," which airs locally on WSAZ.
Craig Cunningham A contestant from Pilgrim, Ky., grinned nervously as she spoke with Lublin during her audition interview.
Ashley B. Craig Kelli Conkel, a 38-year-old postal worker from Portsmouth, Ohio, wore a wheel and carried a sign in hopes of getting noticed. The single mother of three hoped to get on the show to win money for her children to attend college.

"Wheel of Fortune" fan Pam Loftis has been waiting most of her life to tell Pat Sajak she would like to buy a vowel. On Sunday, she got one step closer to her goal when the Wheelmobile made a stop in Nitro.

Loftis of Sumerco was one of thousands at Mardi Gras Casino and Resort Sunday afternoon hoping to audition for the show. The cold and dreary weather didn't detract "Wheel" watchers from the audition.

She went to the audition with her mother, Gay Nary, and her husband, Stacy Loftis, a Charleston police officer, with hopes of getting called onstage with traveling hosts Marty Lublin and Tracy Wilson. Her dream is to be on the big stage of the game show called "America's Game" with Sajak and Vanna White.

"I've been watching the show since I was a little girl," said Loftis, 41. "It was my dad's favorite show."

Loftis' late father could solve the puzzle with only one or two letters showing, Nary said. She was proud of her daughter when she was called for an audition.

Loftis, a home health nurse, said she plays along with the show at home. She also plays it on her Nintendo Wii and on her smartphone. When she heard the Wheelmobile would be at Mardi Gras, she knew she had to try out.

The three got to the casino early, even though event organizers said that wasn't necessary.

"I as bound and determined to get on that stage," she said. "I said I would stay and play today and tomorrow if I had to."

Those who wanted an audition had to fill out entry forms that would later be drawn at random. Jim Thornton, a Huntington native and announcer for the game show, then announced the names.  

Those whose names were drawn were called to the stage for a brief interview and to solve a puzzle in a speed round.

Standouts will be invited back for a final interview in a few months. Those selected after the final interview will get to be contestants.

The show films primarily in California but travels on occasion.

Loftis said when her name was called she "couldn't stand it" and did her happy dance all the way to the stage. She still was jittering with excitement after her round.

With 14 white spaces on the traveling board, Loftis and four others called out letters to solve the puzzle. With the letters R T S S already on the board, Loftis used her turns to call out L and A.

She said she solved the puzzle in her head but that it wasn't her turn and that she had to wait.

"I was praying they would get back to me so I could solve the puzzle," she said. "Those three seconds in between (contestants' turns) felt like 20 seconds."

Loftis solved the puzzle "large mouth bass" when it was her turn. She said she was nervous but the excitement won out and calmed her nerves so that she could focus on the game.

Kelli Conkel, from Portsmouth, Ohio, made the drive to Nitro with family. She remembered watching the show from her grandfather's knee and wanted to try her hand at solving puzzles.

Conkel, a 38-year-old postal worker, made a cardboard wheel like the one from the show to wear around her neck and carried a sign that read, "This letter carrier wants to turn some letters."

"If I were to actually get picked - I've got three kids, two of them are about to start college, and I'm a single mother - prize money would be a great way to help them," she said.  

Bob Lagg, general manager of Mardi Gras, said the casino was approached last month about hosting the Wheelmobile. He said the Charleston Civic Center was approached first but could not accommodate because the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus were already scheduled.

The casino cleared the older slot machines from the lower level to set up lines for those waiting. He said the casino had been planning to remodel that level into an exclusive poker area after the auditions were over.

"We've brought America's favorite game show to show off West Virginia's greatest asset in its friendly people and their great personalities," Lagg said.

This was the first time the Wheelmobile has ever stopped in West Virginia in its 12 years on the road. David Strathearn, director of marketing and promotions for the game show, expected to see about 3,000 people at Sunday and today's auditions. Last year, fewer than 600 contestants were selected for the show after more than a million auditioned.  

Normally, the show's announcer doesn't travel with the Wheelmobile, but Thornton made an exception because the bright yellow bus was stopping in his home state.

"It's wonderful," Thornton said of being back in West Virginia. "To me it feels like a big hug. I'm proud for our state to be able to get our name out there in a good way."

Thornton has been the voice of the game show for just over a year. He moved to Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago after a year at Marshall University with hopes of getting into radio and doing voiceover work.

About a year after arriving in California, he started working as a traffic and weather announcer for KNX-72, a CBS News AM radio station. He was at KNX 27 years before he got the job with "Wheel of Fortune." He also announced for "The Price is Right" for a short time in 2000.

Auditions for the show continue Monday from 2 to 6 p.m. at Mardi Gras. Those auditioning and spectators must be 21 to enter.

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at ashley.craig@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4850.  

 


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