When tasked with finding a creative way to promote their organization, most people host an event, hand out fliers or create social media accounts.
Joe Sullivan is not most people.
So when the part-time Southold resident and former owner of WBAZ radio in Southold was recently looking to draw attention to the Fordham University sailing team, he came up with a most unusual approach. He appeared on “Wheel of Fortune.”
A volunteer coach and manager of the team, Mr. Sullivan, 78, received a letter in May announcing that the show would be hosting auditions in New York City for members of the Wheel Watchers Club, to which he belongs.
“My immediate thought was, what a great way to get some publicity for the Fordham University sailing team.” Mr. Sullivan said in an interview last week.
So began the process that would span three months and allow him to meet Vanna White and Pat Sajak as a contestant on the show.
Filling out paperwork in the contestants’ room the morning of taping, Mr. Sullivan looked up to see a woman in an ordinary dress with a kerchief over her head.
“I didn’t recognize her at first,” he said. “Then she smiled and said, ‘Welcome everybody’ and I said ‘My word, that’s Vanna!’ She was very, very gracious and wished us all the best.”
Mr. Sullivan’s wife, Barbara, agreed. She sat in the audience during her husband’s taping and said Ms. White interacted with everyone and answered any questions people had throughout the day.
Mr. Sullivan had equally kind words for Mr. Sajak, whom he described as “very friendly, very professional and [he] came across just as he does on television.”
Before he could meet the duo he’d been watching for years, Mr. Sullivan had to make a 60-second audition tape in which, according to the Wheel of Fortune website, “applicants should … be natural and have fun while communicating why you would be a good contestant for the show.”
With the help of the sailing team captain, he filmed a few takes of his audition tape before disaster struck.
“I can’t remember reason number two!” he blurted mid-video, laughing as he gathered himself and proved his reasons accurate: he loves playing the game, he’s a positive, upbeat person and his enthusiasm is contagious.
The flub added 18 seconds to his video, but after advice from the team captain he submitted that “disaster” version. Turns out it was good advice. Only 48 hours after submitting the video, Mr. Sullivan was one of 75 people to receive an invitation to audition in person in June.
Those auditioning played the game twice. During his first chance, he guessed the letter P, which wasn’t on the board.
“I thought that if that were it, my audition would be the fastest one in history,” Mr. Sullivan said.
The second time around he called out three consonants, two of which popped up on the board. After that, each participant was handed a sheet of paper with four categories used in the program, such as food and drink and things and places. The paper contained 16 puzzles and contestants had five minutes to correctly complete as many as possible. Mr. Sullivan got three right.
Returning 45 minutes later, staff members called out the names of about 30 people who would continue the audition process. Mr. Sullivan’s was the next-to-last name called.
Everyone then participated in another game. According to Mr. Sullivan, winning the game wasn’t important, as the staff was looking more for the entertainment value each individual would bring to the show.
Finally, each contestant had to present him or herself as if they were actually on the show. Mr. Sullivan discussed his family, past business experience and, of course, the Fordham University sailing team. A staff member noticed on Mr. Sullivan’s application that he had served in the United States Air Force and asked him about it.
“I realized that my service in Korea may have saved the day,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Until I was asked about my USAF service, I felt that my chances were very slim. As I left I felt that I had a shot at being selected.”
Two weeks later, Mr. Sullivan received a highly anticipated phone call inviting him to travel to California in August, at his own expense, to film an episode that would air during Armed Forces Week.
Six shows were taped that day, five of them for Armed Forces week.
“He was the fourth episode to tape and I was thinking that I hoped he could stay wide awake and alert,” Barbara Sullivan said with a laugh.
In order to prepare for the “live” game, which Mr. Sullivan said lasted about 15 minutes, he spent more than four hours in preparation. This included makeup, practicing the game, promotional pictures and a question-and-answer session. The 18 contestants even drew straws to see who would appear on which show, and then drew again to see whether they would stand on the left, center or right of the wheel.
Mr. Sullivan’s wife sat with the families of the other contestants all day while her husband participated in the game. She described the experience as fun but riddled with anxiety.
“You sit there hoping he gets a chance to do something so he doesn’t feel badly afterward,” she said. “You’re really anxious for the person. The show itself was really entertaining … It’s not something I ever thought I would do in 50 million years.”
Based on his experience, Mr. Sullivan had an insider tip to share with future competitors.
“It is very, very heavy,” he said of the famous wheel. “There are these spikes that stick up from the wheel and they want you to put your hand around the spikes. The natural inclination is you put [your hand] around the whole spike, but they said, ‘No, no, don’t do that. Just hold it at the top of the spike.’ It took practice to do that.”
Mr. Sullivan’s episode is scheduled to air Thursday, Nov. 12. He plans to watch with his wife, who said she’ll “probably be anxious again,” along with their four children and eight grandchildren.
“It’s a lot of pressure. It’s easier when you’re sitting on your couch at home and doing it,” Mr. Sullivan said with a laugh. “It really was a lot of fun, I must say.”