Burbank, CA

“Beach Boy” Brian Wilson and “Wheel of Fortune” Dream Vanna White: When Two Very Different Legends Met

Herbie J Pilato

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[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

As a Page for NBC in the “Big ‘80s,” I worked on a great many game shows that were taped at the Burbank studios during that era. SuperPassword, The New Let’s Make A Deal, Scrabble, and Wheel of Fortune. Next to Jeopardy and The Price is Right (on CBS), Wheel Of Fortune remains one of the most popular, long-lasting game shows to air on any network, broadcast, cable, syndicated, or otherwise. Like Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune was created by talk show icon and media mogul Merv Griffin.

Just a little history of the Wheel:

The original host of Fortune was Chuck Woolery, who would later host the multi-complicated behind-the-scenes Scrabble for NBC (and the syndicated and original Love Connection). There was a period when Woolery’s Wheel went on hiatus, and then returned without Woolery, who was replaced by Pat Sajak and Vanna White.

That’s the Wheel I worked — the one hosted by Pat and Vanna, both of whom I recall as sweet, affable, and amiable. Vanna, in particular, was particularly down to earth and never once displayed any form of arrogance or a holier-than-thou attitude. In fact, she went out of her way to be nice to people, especially the NBC Pages. From what I can remember, she made sure to recall the names of as many Pages as possible — including mine.

Meanwhile, back home in Rochester, a dear friend of mine had a mild crush on Vanna and was excited that I would periodically be assigned to work on Wheel of Fortune. Wheel, like many of the game shows that taped at NBC Burbank, would churn out five episodes produced per day, three times a week — and therefore have many weeks of shows in the can in advance — ready for distribution.

Both the daytime network and evening-syndicated versions of Wheel were taped at NBC, and that was a lot of shows. Dick Carson, brother to Johnny Carson, host of The Tonight Show, before, during, and after I worked at NBC) was Wheel’s main director. And it was always fun to see him walk around the set — as he looked very much like his famous sibling. (Unfortunately, however, I never got to meet fellow talk show king Merv.)

In any case, Vanna, a stand-out in any room, was so approachable — and because she went out of her way to remember names (especially mine) — I asked her one day if she would sign a photo of herself for my friend on his birthday in 1984.

Without the slightest hesitation, she agreed. “Absolutely,” I remember her saying. “Not a problem.”

Consequently, Vanna signed the picture during a break from changing her famous wardrobe in between shots for Wheel. She ran to her dressing room, picked up one of her headshots, grabbed a black marker, and placed her autograph on the photograph.

There were those who use to chide Vanna because she was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars just for turning letters on the Wheel board — a job that has allowed her millions of dollars in income ever since. It’s a position that, due to the ever-advancing technology of computers, is probably not even necessary today.

Back in the day, Vanna would actually turn letters with her full arm and hand on the Wheel board, and not just ignite lights with her fingertips — which is how she does it when a particular contestant chooses a letter. She didn’t really need to be there at all during the turning of those letters. The computers could have handled it all.

But what would Wheel of Fortune be without Vanna White?

A lot less fortunate, that’s what. And I can’t think of a nicer person in Hollywood who is more deserving of steady work — a position that she now held for over thirty years. And certainly proved her chops when recently filling in for her on-screen partner and pal Pat when he was forced to have immediate surgery (from which, thank goodness, he has recovered).

Would She Remember Me?

Some twenty years after I worked at NBC on Wheel of Fortune, I would see Vanna White at a local festival in Pacific Palisades, California. I attended the event with cousins, who were good friends with rock icon, Brian Wilson — the true musical genius behind The Beach Boys — the legendary band who introduced the world to the youthful dreams of California.

Brian had accompanied my cousins to the festival as well, and as I chatted with him that day, it was he who noticed Vanna over to the distance, near the cotton candy booth.

At one point, Brian turned to me and said, “Hey, is that Vanna White from Wheel of Fortune?” I looked, and to my surprise, indeed it was.

“Man,” Brian said with such still-youthful excitement, “I am such a huge fan of hers.”

“Really?,” I replied. “Well, I know Vanna. I used to work on Wheel of Fortune as a Page for NBC. Would you like to meet her?”

“Really, man?!” Brian continued with enthusiasm. “You know her? I would love to meet her!”

That’s all I needed to hear. As such, I walked over to Vanna, who I, again, by that time, had not seen in over two decades, and said, “Hey, Vanna, I don’t know if you remember me or not…” and before I could finish, she said, “Herbie! How are you?!”

I was in shock. She was just as amiable and sweet as I had remembered her in 1984 — and she remembered me — and my name!

In fact, it was she who became a bit nostalgic. “I’ve been doing the show for over twenty years!” she said. “Can you believe it?!”

“No,” I replied. I could not.

Then, after some more brief chatter, I mentioned that Brian Wilson was a dear friend of my cousins, that he was in attendance at the festival, and that he wanted to meet her.

In a New York minute, she said, “Of course!” and we walked over to Brian and I introduced the two of them.

That moment remains one of the coolest memories of my life, NBC-related and beyond. There I was introducing one of the legendary musical greats of all time to one of the most down-to-earth California girls the world has ever known.

Only in Hollywood could such things transpire.

Well, actually, Pacific Palisades.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, writes for the Television Academy and Emmys.com, and is the host of THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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