“Wheel of Fortune” has been part of the evening routine for local couple Greg Ruvolo and Tom Bayer throughout their 18-year relationship and six years of marriage. You might even call the Lathrup Village couple experts on the wildly popular wordplay gameshow, but they never dreamed they’d actually appear on the show themselves until Ruvolo was randomly selected to apply a few months ago and they were invited to compete during the show’s “Sweethearts Week.” The couple’s episode will air at 7 p.m. EST on Tuesday, Feb. 13 on NBC (WDIV Local 4).
Playing the game from the comfort of home, the couple tells Pride Source, is a much different proposition than actually making the trek to Culver City, California and competing against other contestants in front of the cameras and in the company of legendary host Pat Sajak and his ever-present companion, Vanna White.
“You’ve got all the producers running around, and you’ve got 200 people in the audience,” Ruvolo says. “You’ve got to keep your eye on the scoreboard. You’ve got to keep your eye on the timer, so you don’t get buzzed out. Then there’s the used letter board and the ‘big board’ and you’ve got Pat Sajak standing here saying ‘Do you want to solve or do you want to spin or do you want to buy a vowel?’ All that’s going on and you have three seconds… And we were a couple on the show, so we had to agree on the letter to call.” Bayer and Ruvolo agree that the most enjoyable part of playing the game was spinning the wheel.
White, Ruvolo says, was sweet and helpful and delivered a quick orientation, “but it wasn’t the Vanna White we know and love on TV, because it was before hair and makeup and wardrobe,” he adds. The couple spent several hours in the studio including their own hair and makeup sessions and a lengthy visit with a lawyer who walked them through several legal documents aimed at maintaining the integrity of the gameplay and confidentiality.
Once they finally made it to taping time, the couple described to Pride Source a flurry of activity and finally, their moment with Pat Sajak, who announced last year that he will retire after the current season, bringing his 43 years with the show to an end. The couple didn’t meet Sajak until the taping, when he asked questions from the “Pat Chat” cards they filled out beforehand.
The selection process occurred over several months and included a Zoom-based gameplay simulation where a dedicated team of “Wheel of Fortune” employees evaluated Ruvolo and Bayer on qualities like temperament and how comfortable they seemed in front of the camera. Most people who apply never make it on air.
“They told us ‘You’re not one of a thousand people; you’re not one of 10,000 people — you are one of literally hundreds of thousands of people that apply to be on this show every year,” Ruvolo says. “They tell you you’re already winners.” Ruvolo and Bayer are only the second same-sex couple to appear on Sweethearts Week since the show began in 1975 — the first, Bayer says, was only last year.
While the show does not pay for contestants to travel to the taping, they were able to take advantage of a discount at a nearby hotel, where they bumped into other contestants regularly. “We made new friends,” Bayer says.
One fun aspect of the trip for the couple, who are big fans of “The Wizard of Oz,” is that the “Wheel of Fortune” studio is where the classic Judy Garland movie was filmed. “Every self-respecting gay probably already knows this,” Ruvolo says with a laugh. An unexpected connection happened when the couple went to a party at the landmark Culver Hotel. “We learned the story that this is the hotel where MGM slept the Munchkins because there were so many of them that they slept three to a bed because they needed somewhere big that was near the studio.”
Bayer and Ruvolo developed a strategy for their gameplay approach as a couple where Bayer was more of the puzzle solver while Ruvolo called most of the letters. “They want you to win the game,” Bayer says. “They really want you to — without telling you the answers, of course.” Buying vowels was a key piece of advice from White, he says.
We’ll find out Tuesday if their strategy paid off. The couple couldn’t reveal how well they did on the show, but no matter the outcome, they’ll have a memorable story to tell for years to come. We’ll keep you posted.