Category Archives: Cool ‘Cats

Watch a Wildcat on ‘Wheel of Fortune’

Emily Fagan on Wheel of Fortune

Emily Fagan, a junior in Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, never knew she wanted to be on “Wheel of Fortune,” but that’s exactly where she’ll appear for the show’s College Week series. You can watch Fagan’s episode on Tuesday, April 8 (check local listings for exact air time), and read below about her journey to game show fame.

It was a run-of-the-mill summer night, and I was eating dinner at a restaurant with my mom. As fate would have it, it was 6:30 p.m. and we were sitting close to a TV. When Wheel of Fortune came on, I didn’t think much of it. I had always enjoyed the show, but we weren’t regular “Wheel Watchers” in my house. That night, however, changed everything.

I was on a roll. The guys at the bar thought they had all the answers, but I was sitting at my table answering every puzzle way before anyone in the restaurant. My mom said, “Hey, Em, you’re pretty good at this.” Not thinking anything of it, we moved on with our meal.

Later that night, as I was surfing the web, I remembered our experience at dinner and I thought about trying to get on the show. My search led me to the Wheel of Fortune website, where I filled out the simple online application and promptly forgot about it.

Nine months later, I got an email asking me if I would like to continue with the process. If so, I needed to submit a picture and a one-minute video explaining why I would be a good contestant. At this point, I still never thought being a contestant on “America’s Gameshow” would be a reality, but I began contemplating what would set me apart from the rest of America. My thoughts immediately turned to my oboe, already sitting next to me. I quickly recorded a video of me playing the original Wheel of Fortune theme song, “Changing Keys,” by Merv Griffin. I sent off my video, fully expecting to never hear anything about this again.

The next morning I woke up to an email inviting me to the live auditions at the Palmer House in Chicago. Obviously I was excited, but still didn’t think I could possibly ever be on this show.

Two weeks later I was on a train to the Palmer House to go through the rigorous audition process for Wheel of Fortune. The producers made it very clear that there were multiple days with multiple audition times, and actually getting on the show would be very difficult. When I arrived at the hotel, the line of people for my audition was going out the door and down the hall. I almost left, thinking this was a huge waste of time, but a few of my friends convinced me to stay. “Hey, you’re already there, why not have fun? Either way, it’ll be a great story to tell!” Luckily for me, I stayed.

About 200 of us sat down in chairs lined up in one of the Palmer House salon rooms. The audition started with us filling out another application. Then they spun a fake wheel, put up a phrase and called on everyone to guess a couple letters. This was to see if we were loud, articulate, and enthusiastic, and did not guess letters like Q.

Next, we were given a timed written test. It had several different categories, each with a few blank phrases. We had to figure out the phrases to the best of our ability in the allotted time. I remember thinking I had failed the test, but so did everyone around me. They gave us a half hour break for the grading. When they came back, they called the names of the people they wanted to stay. I remember being one of the last names called. This was getting real.

The last part of the audition was playing actual simulated Wheel of Fortune games. We got up in groups, pretended to spin a wheel and guessed letters. I had won a (fake) trip to Hawaii; it seemed to be a pretty good day. When everyone finished, we hoped for an announcement of who would be on the show. The producer then explained that everyone will get a letter in the mail – if you’ve been accepted as a contestant, the letter will come within two weeks. If you weren’t, you will get a letter after two weeks. For the first time, I was starting to imagine myself on this show.

Two weeks went by, and I had received no letter in the mail. I just figured, oh well, and waited for my rejection letter. The day before week three, I opened my mailbox and found my Wheel of Fortune letter. I didn’t even get excited – obviously it was a rejection, after this amount of time. However, I opened up the letter to find that, surprise, I had been accepted!

Running through the dorm screaming, I read the letter about 20 times. It informed me that I would be placed on the show sometime within the next 18 months, and that I would receive a letter in the mail two weeks before my show telling me when and where to arrive. I had no idea waiting would be so hard!

Nine months later, on Jan. 18, after months of playing WOF on my phone and watching reruns, I got an email instructing me to fly out to Sony Studios in Los Angeles for my taping on Feb. 14. Luckily, it was the one weekend of the month I didn’t have something going on.

On the morning of Thursday, Feb. 13, my mom, dad, and best friend from high school, Amanda, flew to Los Angeles with me. We were able to do some sightseeing for the day, but I could barely contain my excitement about what was to come.

At 7:15 a.m. that Friday, I was picked up with 19 other university students dressed in our respective college sweatshirts and driven to Sony Studios in Culver City. We all immediately clicked and became great friends. I could tell this was going to be an amazing day! Once we were at the studio, we were ushered into our green room. Throughout the morning we were read the rules of Wheel of Fortune as we had professional hair and makeup artists get us camera-ready. We learned that Wheel of Fortune is filmed every other Thursday and Friday, and that all the shows for the week were filmed in one day (hence there being 20 of us there at the same time). Two local students were there as alternates, in case one of us got sick, and they would come back as real contestants another day.

We also received wheel-spinning lessons. The wheel is about half the size it looks on TV, but it is extremely heavy. The first time I spun it, it only moved two spaces! We were all shocked by how much larger everything looks on TV. The room, the wheel, and the puzzle board are all about half the size everyone thinks!

We filmed our “Hometown Howdys,” which are promotional videos that our local news channels play of us on the days leading up to the show. Then, at about 11 a.m., the audience filed in and we started filming. I was randomly drawn to be in the second show filmed.

The shows go by so fast…it’s incredible! We contestants have to be on our toes every second. There is a used letter board that allows us to see which letters have been taken and a prize board to keep track of how much money we have. It takes a lot of logic to figure out when to solve and when to spin or buy, and there are lots of tricks to figuring out which letters to call. For example, if the subject is “What are you doing?” you are probably wanting to guess an I, N or G.

I cannot tell you how I did yet—you will have to stay in suspense until April 8, when my show airs. However, I can tell you how honored I was to represent Northwestern at such an exhilarating event, and how exciting it was to meet so many different and amazing college students. Plus, hanging out with Vanna White and Pat Sajak wasn’t too bad of an experience either!

Please watch me spin away on Wheel of Fortune on April 8!

Dance Marathon Founding Father: Tim Rivelli (Weinberg ’76)

Tim RivelliMore than 1,000 students will gather under a tent outside Norris University Center this weekend to dance for 30 hours for Northwestern University’s 40th annual Dance Marathon fundraising event. Tim Rivelli (Weinberg ’76) helped organize the original NUDM event in 1974 through his role as executive vice president of the Associated Student Government. Rivelli shared his memories of the humble beginnings of an event that has since become one of the largest student-run philanthropic events in the country.

During my first year at Northwestern in 1973, I was the co-chair of an Associated Student Government sub-committee called the University Community Relations Committee. The purpose of the committee was to build better community at Northwestern among the student body. At the time, Norris Center was relatively new, and the facility had not really been fully developed yet. There were very few restaurants in Evanston for students to gather. Northwestern had this great community of students and a variety of student groups, but many students felt that the university lacked a sense of community. So the focus of the community relations committee was to try to find ways to get students to work together and build a better community. The idea for Dance Marathon came from Jan Jacobowitz, who was also involved in ASG and a member of the ASG University Community Relations Committee. Jan had friends at the University of Illinois, and she visited them and participated in their dance marathon event. She thought it was awesome and suggested to me that we should do something like that at Northwestern. I was very supportive of the idea, and I thought it would be a great way to get students from all different segments—people that are living in dorms, people in fraternities and sororities—of the Northwestern community to work together on a common project.

But it took some manpower to plan and organize the event. We also needed to try to find a charity. So we met with representatives from the Epilepsy Foundation of America and later the National Association for Retarded Citizens. These charities became our first beneficiaries. We were also trying to understand where and how we might stage an event of this magnitude. We worked with University officials and received permission to hold the event in Blomquist. We had to figure out how to recruit a team of people to organize and put on the event because there were a lot of things from a facilities standpoint that needed to be done. I was a member of the Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) fraternity, and I asked if they would be interested in helping. They agreed to get behind the event in a big way and figured out how to organize the music and staging and other parts of the event. We attempted to obtain donations of supplies and equipment for the event to minimize our costs and to maximize the amount we could give to the charity. We put together a structure to recruit people to be dancers. I think we had 15 couples and raised more than $9,000.

NUDM 1975For an initial event, it was a great success. There was no playbook for us to use. We didn’t have any elaborate organization. It was a seat-of-the-pants type of thing. When you think of it in terms of getting it started, it was a lot of blind faith. We went forward hoping that we could put it on in a way that was successful, and I think the people that participated in the first event had a good time. When you fast forward to 2014, it’s inspiring to look at the scope of Dance Marathon now: more than 20 student committees, more than 1,000 dancers, an elaborate process for people who are in the charitable industry to submit their causes as potential beneficiaries.

 

It is clear that the Dance Marathon fulfilled the vision of building a better community within the students at Northwestern. From what I’ve seen, it’s also great way to use the talented students at NU to help others in need. NUDM clearly teaches a life lesson that it’s important: Whenever you can bind people together for a common purpose to help others who are in need, you can reach a whole new level of unity, and you can truly help people. I think it’s important for students to remember that lesson as they move forward in their careers after college and go off into the world. We all need to pay attention to others who are in need, and use our time and talent to give back to others.

NUDM dancerWhen I hear the stories from the beneficiary organizations and see Northwestern students coming together to raise more than $1 million for charities, it’s so inspiring. Who could have ever dreamed that what we started in the mid-1970s would have grown into something like that? It’s amazing to think about the ripple effect of what we started in 1975 and to look at what good it has produced over the last 40 years. When people graduate from Northwestern, I am sure that they think that NUDM was one of the best things they were involved in.  I’m very thankful that I was able to play a role in getting this started.

A Wildcat in Sochi: Greg Presto (Medill ’04, ’07)

Greg PrestoNorthwestern alumnus Greg Presto (BSJ ’04, MSJ ’07) just returned from covering the Winter Olympics in Sochi, working as a video producer for USA Today Sports. Presto shot, edited and produced an array of Olympic content, including a fun piece on Russian culture in Sochi.

Read his reflections on the surreal experience of covering the world’s greatest athletes in an unfamiliar land—and running into some fellow Wildcats along the way.

There’s nothing better than a scoop for a journalist, and our team had broken the biggest story in Sochi: There were burritos somewhere. And they were amazing.

The Winter Olympics hold a lot of mystery for Americans—we don’t usually watch a biathlon, and placing the Games in Russia added another layer of confusion in language, alphabet and food.

Despite the reports of missing shower curtains and brown tap water, the lost-in-translation moments are what made covering the Sochi Games wonderful. And I do mean full of wonder. We wondered about the boiled meats and how often to say thank you and what lugers are really trying to do. And for me, answering questions that arise from natural curiosity is what makes journalism fun. If you see something, ask about it. Then say something.

So we asked: “What are lugers trying to do, anyway?” (As little as possible, it turns out.) “Do Russians celebrate Valentine’s Day?” (Yes.) “How much does skiing before you shoot a gun alter your aim?” (A little.) “What does the Russian letter that looks like an asterisk sound like?” (It’s a “J.”) “Why are downhill ski poles bent that way?” (To bend around the skier’s body.)

And, of course, where did the Russian guy at the Ekaterininskiy Kvartal media village learn to make such amazing “fajitos?” Turns out he spent some time in Colorado, where he learned to make some incredible wrapped goodies filled with crunchy vegetables (a rare treat) and spiced pork worth the 40-minute round trip to grab a bunch for some coworkers.

A taste of home like that was a welcome respite from feeling like the ugly American who can’t understand anything. Staring at a string of Cyrillic text and having the symbols look completely meaningless was, as one coworker pointed out, as close as we’ll probably come to understanding what it’s like to be illiterate. Trying to translate kilograms to pounds on a rare trip to the press center gym was nearly impossible on three hours of sleep. And giving directions to a cab driver? Well, an hour to wait for the next bus isn’t so bad, I guess.

But it was something we were all learning together—not just my fellow USA Today Sports folks, but other media, including a pile of Northwestern alums. Ten of us gathered for a photo on the last day, recounting confusions and questions we’d raised and reminiscing with our fellow Americans and media from Australia, Korea, Japan and China.

It’s with the Chinese guys that we finished. After the Olympic flame was snuffed out and the last of our video gear packed, we celebrated with a dinner that devolved into a sing-off, with a table of Chinese journalists singing one song and our group singing another. They took us to school with a string of not-in-English tunes that included Pavarotti and a bunch of stuff we couldn’t identify. But the crown jewel of their dominant concert was a three-part harmony rendition of a song that wasn’t lost in translation at all: “Jingle Bells.”

Medill alumni in Sochi

Some of the Northwestern alumni covering the Olympics in Sochi gather for a group photo.

Do you know any Cool ‘Cats? We’re looking for Northwestern University students, alumni, faculty and staff who are having cool experiences or have unique stories to tell. Let us know at socialmedia@northwestern.edu

Cool ‘Cats: Michael Payant (Medill ’16)

My name is Michael Payant and I am a Northwestern Wildcat superfan.

There was no single defining moment which inspired my fandom, no single event which served as the catalyst for my love of the Wildcats. Instead, it was a lifetime of little things which built up to make me the man and the fan I am today.

My parents shaped my love of sport. By encouraging me to play and joining me to watch sports, they made me happy, and in retrospect, shaped my personality.

My mom, Susan Cohodes, attended the Medill School of Journalism from 1979-83. She was here for the lowest of lows, when the ‘Cats set the major college football losing streak record at 34 games, yet still loved her time here enough to raise me to bleed purple and white. Despite the fact that I was born and raised in Seattle, Wash., my earliest “college visits” were to Northwestern to watch football games and meet some of Mom’s college friends who still live in the Chicago area.

Stories of NU teams’ exploits were common as my sister and I grew up.

I heard about the 1981 “Stop State at 28” campaign and the subsequent “Laking of the Posts” when the ‘Cats lost their 29th consecutive game. I became acquainted at a young age with Northwestern’s lack of NCAA tournament appearances in basketball. When Northwestern traveled to Seattle to take on the University of Washington in the NIT Tournament a couple years ago, I was right behind the NU bench, cheering my heart out as the ‘Cats fell 76-55. For the sports fan in me, these stories served not to dissuade my NU fandom, but to reinforce the notion that the team and the school never give up.

The stories weren’t all negative either.

Though I was too young to remember it, the ‘Cats 1996 Rose Bowl appearance has been commemorated by the pennant which once rested on my bedroom wall and is now displayed prominently in my dorm. For much of the time I’ve been a coherent fan, the football team has met or exceeded respectability under Pat Fitzgerald. John Shurna’s tenure with the basketball team will not be soon forgotten, and under Chris Collins, hope springs eternal that this NU Era will be a good one.

Being a Northwestern fan is not always easy. I could list the heartbreaking defeats the football team has suffered in the last two years alone, but this is still a little too sensitive a topic. On the other side, as ‘Cats across the country know, for this team, every win is exhilarating.

When I was younger, I believed my cheering determined whether the team won or lost. I still approach every game I attend with this mindset, and it is for our school and our team that I am a fan. I take pride in knowing I have given the team everything I have, and win or lose, I am a Wildcat until the bitter end.

The Hills Are Alive for Northwestern Alumnus

Ian Weinberger (Bienen ’09) spent the past several months working as a music assistant on NBC’s production of “The Sound of Music Live,” which airs tonight at 7 p.m. (CT). Read about his varied experiences working with the cast, crew and orchestra on this unique production.

Ian Weinberger

I’m really grateful to have had some great experience at Northwestern learning how to put together new musicals. Working on the American Music Theatre Project shows and the Waa-Mu Show taught me so much about how musical theatre is made. While “The Sound of Music” isn’t exactly a new musical, and while working in television is a whole different animal, there were certain elements of this process—new dance music, different keys, working with orchestrators and copyists—that my Northwestern experience absolutely prepared me for.

I was brought onto “The Sound of Music Live” by music director David Chase. I’d worked with David on a couple of projects over the last couple of years. He wrote to me in August and asked if I’d be interested in being the music assistant…and I’m so glad he did. My duties have been pretty varied, but in general I’ve been working with the orchestra, the cast and the creative team to help put this thing up.

We’ve been rehearsing the show since mid-September, and for the first couple of months the rehearsal process functioned very much like a Broadway show. My first major set of tasks had to do with preparing for the recording sessions. We recorded the orchestra (37 stellar Broadway musicians) that you’ll hear on the broadcast tonight, and the actors came in to record the companion cast album that was released earlier this week.

The tricky part was, unlike a Broadway show, we were recording the album about five weeks ahead of our “opening,” and only a couple of weeks after our official start of rehearsals. So a tremendous amount of planning had to be done with David and the music department, director Rob Ashford and his team, as well as the actors, to determine what would be recorded. We knew certain changes could be made after recording had completed—if we needed a few bars to be repeated, for example, or if a certain section had to be a little slower, we could make those adjustments digitally. But, by and large, what we recorded is what we had—we couldn’t create new underscoring if we needed more music. In fact, in many instances we recorded several versions of something–at different tempi, or with both 2- and 4-bar intros, etc.—just so we’d have options as we started to piece the show together.

After the recordings were completed and mixed, I worked with David to organize the various playback cues that we’d use for the show. Some musical numbers needed to be split into several cues. For example, at the top of the show, when Maria sings “The Sound of Music,” there is a held note in the orchestra. Then she sings “My day in the hills…”—and the orchestra joins her in time on the word “day.” In a standard theatrical setting with a live orchestra and a conductor, this is as simple as the conductor holding until “day” and then bringing in the orchestra with Maria. But in this case, the playback was split into two cues—one for the held note, and then another for the rest of the song. So Mark “Wedge” Weglinski, who’s manning the playback, presses “GO” for the held note and then “GO” again when she sings, “My day in the hills.” All told, there are about 75 playback cues for the entire show.

The makeup of our music department differed greatly from that of any standard theatrical production that we’re used to working on. Aside from David—the boss!—we were very lucky to have Fred Lassen as associate music supervisor. Fred was left in charge with cast rehearsals while David went away for the 10 days of recording. (Tonight, Fred’s job is to sit at a keyboard and play along with the entire show, just in case—knock on something—the playback system and its backup system fail for any reason.) Steven Malone served as the music director dedicated to the seven von Trapp children and their understudies—working specifically on the kids’ music. We had two additional rehearsal pianists, plus I also played rehearsal piano when needed. Finally, Georgia Stitt, one of the nuns, took on the role of “nun captain,” rehearsing and leading the choir of 24 nuns on her own when David or Fred were otherwise tied up. Plus—Doug Besterman (orchestrator), a team of copyists, a recording engineer and two assistants, Wedge on playback, a sound mixer and his team…it has taken a village—for the music alone! I heard yesterday that all told, about 340 people are working on this.

Anyway, it’s all been very exciting and a very educational project for all of us. But now I am off to work! We’re just about to start our last (only our second!) full run-through at 1 p.m. before we do the show at 7 p.m. (CT) tonight. The excitement is palpable here in Bethpage, NY—we really can’t wait to share this with you. If you’re watching tonight, hope you enjoy!