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Contestant Confidential

Local residents who have appeared on some of the most popular TV game shows clue us in on what it is like behind the scenes.

Playing along at home with some of the most long-running and popular TV game shows like Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune and Family Feud is an American pas-time. But what is it like to actually get on stage with the likes of Alex Trebek or tell Pat Sajak that you’d like to solve the puzzle?

Luckily for us, a few Orlandoans know the answers to these questions. These puzzle solvers and trivia fiends shared with Orlando Family Magazine what it takes to make it to the big time and what they thought of their time in front of the cameras.

I’ll Take Game Shows for $200, Alex.
Erin Matherne of Winter Garden had thrown away her Jeopardy! study materials. The 18-month period during which she could be called to be on the show had passed and she was moving, so she decided to toss it all.

“I just kind of forgot about it,” she says. “I figured, ‘Oh well, I didn’t get called.’”

And then her phone rang.

“For me, it was well past the 18 months, when I finally got the phone call,” Matherne says. “And I was completely shocked.”

Like all guests on the show, to get to this point Matherne first had to complete the 50-question online test. The show doesn’t send people their test results, so you may only know that you passed the exam if you are one of the lucky people asked to attend a regional audition.

Matherne’s audition was held in Tampa and while there, she and the other contestants took another exam and then played mock Jeopardy! games. At the end, everyone was told that they may or may not get a phone call over the next year and a half inviting them on the show.

“You’re told that you are all considered in the pool and that they could call you,” Matherne says. “So, if you see a Culver City area code come up on your phone, you better answer it.”

Matherne’s show was taped the Monday after Thanksgiving in 2017, but her episode didn’t air until this past February.

Between the taping and the airing of the episode, she couldn’t tell anyone how the game went. “I mean, everyone knew I didn’t win because I came back and didn’t quit my job,” she says. When her episode premiered, she was able to share the moment with her 4-year-old son. “I did capture him on video turning around and looking at me from the couch and going, ‘Mommy, you’re on the TV,’” she says. “That was pretty much worth it right there.”

Matherne came in third place and took home $1,000. No matter the amount of acquired money a contestant has at the end of the show, only the winner of the episode takes home what they netted in the game, while runner-ups get consolatory cash: $1,000 for third place and $2,000 for second place.

Because Jeopardy! does not pay for plane tickets or accommodations for contestants, Matherne says the $1,000 was more like a partial reimbursement for her travel costs.

As far as how she feels about the show, it’s a mixed bag.

“I think what bummed me out the most about my episode was as much as I studied and as much as I figured that I would have at least one or two categories that would really be in my wheelhouse, I had nothing,” she says. “Every category that came up, I went, ‘Oh my God, this is my worst nightmare.’”

She also felt that host Alex Trebek came off aloof on the set. 

“You know, it’s a big deal when you get to meet him but when he gets to meet you, it’s not quite reciprocated,” she says.

Although she was once a regular viewer, Matherne doesn’t often watch the show today. “I think it would actually hurt me to watch an episode where I feel like I could clean up the board,” she says. “Because I would just go, ‘Why couldn’t that have been my show?’”

But despite some of the less-than-stellar parts of her experience, Matherne would do it all again.

“I don’t regret one bit of it,” she says. “It was something I had to do.”

I’d Like to Buy a Vowel.
Mary Downey of Kissimmee remembers when she received the email to audition for Wheel of Fortune because it was right before Hurricane Irma hit Central Florida. At the time she was packing up to evacuate with her family.

The email was not unsolicited. After sitting through an episode with her sons one night, she had filled out an online form to put her name in the running to be on the show.

“We have three boys and the older two are learning to read, so we were watching [Wheel of Fortune] because we like to solve the puzzles together as a family,” she says. “And I was like, ‘I could be on this show.’”

The email invited her to come to the Omni Resort in ChampionsGate where she would play with other would-be contestants in front of producers. There was also a note in the email saying that the show was specifically looking for couples, so Mary brought along her husband, Martin.

The couple walked into the casting call about five minutes late, stumbling upon an animated crowd.

“It was like some kind of crazy cult,” Martin says. “Because everyone was acting like over-the-top excited, grabbing [and] yelling. [The producers] were trying to pump everyone up so they would appear good on TV and kind of train them on that.”

Although, Mary and Martin did solve a puzzle during the mock game they played at the audition, they believe it’s mostly their charisma that got them picked to be on the show.

“I think it’s more they’re looking for 60 percent personality and like 40 percent ability to play,” Martin says.

The couple was a part of the show’s “Valentine’s Week,” where instead of competing individually, all the contestants compete with their significant other.

Wheel of Fortune is normally taped at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California, but the Downeys had to go no farther than their own backyard because the show was doing a special run of tapings at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

Their episode was shot at Epcot in October 2017 and it aired on Feb. 12, 2018.

Mary and Martin remember the taping of the show as hectic.

“There’s so much to concentrate on,” Martin says. “And it goes by really fast. Everyone says that and it’s true.”

“I would say it’s like sensory overload,” Mary adds. The couple says the set is also a bit different than it seems on television.

“The wheel looks bigger on TV than it actually is,” Mary says. “And it’s very heavy and I could not actually give it a good spin. So, Martin did all the spinning.”

During the show, Mary and Martin played as a team, which took a bit of strategy to pull off.

“Mary had the buzzer so we had kind of a system of I would squeeze her hand if I knew the answer, so she would ring in for the timed question,” Martin says.

As for the host Pat Sajak, the Downeys say he was incredibly kind.

“I got to chat with Pat because I messed up a puzzle,” Mary says. “It was a crossword and I added the word ‘and’ and we didn’t get the money and I was super sad. He was very nice about it.”

Despite the setback, the couple took home about $5,000 and won a trip to Hawaii.

They didn’t tell their sons about the trip, opting to let the boys watch them win it when the show aired. But when it came time for the big reveal, the couple’s satellite TV cut out.

“It was kind of anticlimactic,” Mary says.

After Mary explained to the boys that they’d won a trip to Disney’s Hawaii Resort Aulani, they all perked up.

“They’re really excited about the fact that we going to get to go to Aulani,” she says.

People who have been on Wheel of Fortune once are no longer eligible to play again and Mary says that’s fine with her. She enjoyed the game but wouldn’t want to go through it all again. However, Martin has a different take on it.

“Oh, I’d do it again,” he says. “Because I’d be a lot better at it.”

“We would be better. That’s true.” Mary replies.

Survey Says…
Rebecca Hines and her family are not morning people. So, the day she, her brothers, her sister and mother were set to be on Celebrity Family Feud, they had an idea for a way to get their blood pumping before stepping on stage.

“We did a little Tabasco shot before we went out,” she says. “Just to get our adrenaline going, so we could be a little bit sharper than we might have been otherwise.”

Hines is a professor at the University of Central Florida. Her sister is actress Cheryl Hines who is known for shows like HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and ABC’s Suburgatory.

The family decided to do the show because they’d grown up watching it and often like to play games together anyway.

In their episode that first aired on July 12, 2015, the Hines’ played against comedian Niecy Nash and her family. Celebrity Family Feud operates the same as the original Family Feud with two families competing against one another to guess what the most popular answers were to a surveyed question. However, in Celebrity Family Feud, the money won at the end is given to the triumphant family’s preferred charity, not to the contestants.

Because she was a professor, host Steve Harvey had some advice for Rebecca.

“He said, ‘You cannot overthink this. There’s no rhyme or reason to what people say,’” she says.

Prior to the taping of the show, Rebecca and her family formed a strategy that would allow them to have the most time possible to think about their answers.

“I watched a lot of episodes before we went and I realized that the key was to make sure that you didn’t get buzzed for not responding,” Rebecca says. “And the way that it appeared to work was when the question is asked, to start immediately talking to give yourself a little placeholder for time.”

So, when Harvey would ask the surveyed question, each family member would repeat the question back to him, giving them a couple extra seconds to think it over before the countdown timer started.

The Hines family also made sure to not waste time when the opposing team was playing.

“The trick is also when the other team is answering questions,” Rebecca says, “instead of spending your time overly paying attention to what’s happening on the other part of the stage where [Harvey] is talking to the other family and getting their answers … we were trying to think of answers, so if we had the opportunity, we’d be ready with the best response.”

In the end, they were victorious, winning $25,000 for United Cerebral Palsy, a charity close to the family’s heart.

“We were strategic enough to win,” Rebecca says.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s October 2018 issue.