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Throwback Thursday: ‘Wheel of Fortune’ Takes Its First Spin

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re traveling back to 1975 to celebrate the debut of Wheel of Fortune on NBC. It’s the longest running syndicated game show with over 6,000 episodes aired, and at its peak, more than 40 million people were watching five nights a week. Over its 41 year run, the show has given away over $200 million in cash and prizes — three contestants have won the show’s one million dollar grand prize — and made its way into numerous pop culture references, including Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Gravity Falls, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

The Merv Griffin created American game show features contestants spinning a giant wheel and competing to solve Hangman-style word puzzles for a chance to win cash and prizes. The titular wheel has 24 spaces, most of which contain various prize dollar amounts, with a few penalty slots in the form of “Bankrupt” and “Lose a Turn.” Contestants can also buy a vowel at a $250 flat rate, a price that’s been immune to inflation over the decades (that sentence would have cost you $1,250, past and present).

Wheel premiered as a daytime series on January 6, 1975, but went into nightly syndication in 1983 — the version that cWheel-of-Fortune-Pat-Vanna-80s ontinues to air to this day. Chuck Woolery was the initial host from 1975 to 1981, except for one week in August 1980 when the sub was Alex Trebek, who later went on to host another successful Griffin created gameshow (Answer: This is America’s favorite quiz show). Former weatherman Pat Sajak debuted as host in 1981. For April Fool’s Day 1997, Sajak and Trebek traded jobs for the day; Sajak hosted Jeopardy! and Trebek hosted Wheel, with Pat’s wife guest hostessing. Vanna White took over hostess/letter-turning duties in 1982 and became somewhat of a fashion icon during the show’s run, spurring a fan and media frenzy dubbed Vannamania. Both Sajak and White still remain as the show’s stars.

Wheel puzzle categories include “Person,” “Thing,” “Before and After,” “Song Lyrics,” “Phrase,” “Event,” and “What Are You Doing?” The answers, as well as the contestants, have ranged from the mundane to the insane. From players that guess correctly from just one letter to those who invent their own catchphrases, give it a spin and see if you can outsmart some of these fortunate and not so fortunate contestants.

Surf what?
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Nope.

Elsewhere in January 1975:

  • Space Flight was Brought to the Most Magical Place on Earth: The first Space Mountain ride, a space-themed indoor roller coaster, opened on January 15 at Magic Kingdom Park in Walt Disney World Resort, Florida. Walt Disney’s original idea was to simulate an astronaut’s return to Earth. When the coaster was later put into production, Project Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper served as a consultant, resulting in a rocket-shaped coaster that zooms through the darkness of space past shooting stars, comets, and meteors. The kid-tested, astronaut-approved attraction now exists at every Disney resort around the world.
  • George and Weezie Were Movin’ on Up: When the second spin-off of All in the Family premiered January 18 on CBS, Manhattan’s East Side got some new neighbors in the form of The Jeffersons — opinionated dry cleaning entrepreneur George (Sherman Hemsley), his kind-hearted wife Louise (Isabel Sanford), and their wisecracking housekeeper Florence (Marla Gibbs). The series was fairly progressive in tackling sensitive issues like affluence, family, and interracial relationships with a comedic touch, and it eventually became one of the longest running sitcoms in television history. But most of all, it made all of us aspire to live in a deluxe apartment in the sky.

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