Vanna White hosts ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ upending a long history of dudes in suits

Vanna White, left, is stepping in for Pat Sajak as host of "Wheel of Fortune" for three weeks.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Vanna White, who for 37 years turned clue letters — or pressed buttons that made them electronically appear — on the game show “Wheel of Fortune,” ran the program for the first time Monday night. (To be precise, the show was taped in November, but you don’t need to know that.) She will continue to host for three weeks while Pat Sajak, her longtime onscreen partner, the Fred to her Ginger, the Sonny to her Cher, recovers from surgery. She was, in one sense, the obvious choice — one of the family, beloved, so fundamental to the operation that nothing she could do wrong would possibly tarnish her sequined luster — and in another less so, for the history of game show hosts is largely a procession of dudes in suits.

It was probably not for insurance that White’s starting week was also the start of a huge Disney promotion, on a set crammed with Christmas and corporate references, but the extra glitter didn’t hurt, nor did the distracting presence of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy — which is to say, people in those Disneyland character suits, a job that, like White’s regular gig, does not involve talking, or involves not talking. Minnie changed the letters in White’s stead, or in her case danced around and waved her arms as the letters appeared.

Things went well. It feels condescending to suggest they might have gone otherwise, though, of course, hosting a game show is not as easy as it looks. White was not the understudy — indeed, she was surprised the producers asked — but, like the Busby Berkeley chorine who knows the star’s part cold from hearing it every night, White’s thousands of hours on the job made her the person in the universe most qualified to do this.

White, in a black dress set off with sequined red roses, was particular and precise and intently focused Monday, charged up and wide awake, which in itself made for an interesting change from Sajak, who could host the show in his sleep. And when she slipped, she was merely charming. (Reading the wrong dollar amount after she took the “final spin,” she said, “Oh no, I’m looking at the wrong arrow. How do you do this show?”) And though her usual job here may be the simpler one, not just anyone could hold that position for nearly four decades. At 62, she is, astonishingly, very much the Vanna she was at 25, when this life’s work began. (Sajak is 73.) But, at a guess, I would say that “Wheel” fans — who come in all ages, to judge by the studio audience — prefer continuity over change. (The show is as much a ritual as a contest.) White and Sajak could be doing the job as long as they can stand.

And not to put too fine a point on it, or stereotype by gender, but there is something distinct about a woman in the job: an openness, a warmer warmth, a different sort of encouraging voice. “Yes ma’am!” she cried. And “Way to go! You did it!” And “Oh my goodness!” It’s not exactly sad that this job is temporary for White — Sajak is a crucial part of this equation as well — but even a casual viewer, looking ahead three weeks, might feel a little advance regret at it ending. “That was so exciting and so emotional and happy, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” White said as the show wound up.


As for Minnie: You were fine. But don’t give up your day job.