Come on Down

by Liz Hunter | Jul 12, 2018
Come on Down

Contestants on some of our favorite game shows give us a peek behind the scenes.

For decades game shows have appealed to all audiences. From our own living rooms we play along, competing against our fellow family members and cheering on complete strangers on screen. We feel the thrill of a Showcase Showdown win and the agony of an incorrect Final Jeopardy answer. (By the way, we totally knew the answer.) Every episode is another chance for an average Joe or Jane to stand under the bright lights and collect their prizes.

But you may not have realized some of the contestants on TV hail from this area—and many of them walked away with major winnings. South Jersey Magazine spoke with some of them about their experiences, what really happens behind the scenes and just how much they won, if anything.

You’re the Next Contestant 
When it comes to game show fans, you’d be hard-pressed to find one bigger than RJ Portella. The Cherry Hill native who now lives in Voorhees appeared on Double Dare at age 12. “I was always watching game shows instead of cartoons as a kid,” he says. “I told my mom we should go to Double Dare because it taped in Philadelphia and as it happened they contacted my elementary school for auditions. Despite having a fever when I auditioned, I was picked and had fun playing, plus [I won] things like binoculars, a bike, a VCR. … I still have the outfit.”

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But The Price is Right was Portella’s Holy Grail. “I used to fake being sick so I could stay home from school just to watch The Price is Right,” he says. In fifth grade he wrote a letter to the show asking why kids couldn’t be contestants. He received a letter back explaining federal law required contestants to be 18, but they also enclosed a card good for four tickets to a show. “It said, if you’re ever in L.A., come see us. I had them on my nightstand for 10 years,” he says.

After college, Portella moved to L.A. in 1998 and after two weeks of being there, he went with a friend to the first taping of season 28, with that ticket voucher from his childhood in hand. “While they were screening us in line an usher took my card and looked at me and said, ‘We haven’t used these in 10 years,’” says Portella. But that wasn’t the only thing he had to prove his love for the show. Portella’s college thesis was on game show hostesses, including Janice, the blonde hostess on The Price is Right. “I passed that around during the four-hour wait outside and showed it to the producers when we got inside.”

Once inside the studio, Portella was one of the first contestants invited to “come on down” but he struck out on bidding until the absolute last available prize: a range and a Libman mop. He went with his gut on the bid and won his chance on stage next to Bob Barker. Portella even stopped to kiss the steps on his way up (it’s on YouTube if you don’t believe us). A very excited Portella handed over his thesis to Barker when suddenly Janice herself appeared, took the thesis and gave Portella a hug. His response, “I can die now. I don’t need to win anything.”

But Portella did win—big. In the first game he won a Chevy Cavalier playing Money Game with help from his friend in the audience. He made it to the Showcase Showdown where he ended up winning a living room set, home security system and another car—a Mercury Sable. His winnings totaled $46,955.

“I had just bought a new car four days before I went to the show, so here I was after a couple weeks in L.A. with three cars,” he says. “I sold the Chevy and gave the Mercury to my mom. It was her first new car and we still have it. She passed away last November, but the car looks brand new.”

Portella says he has nothing but nice memories of that experience. “It’s a rather beautiful thing to have a life dream come true at 22,” he says. Portella went on to work as a contestant coordinator for game shows for a little while and two years later, on the CBS lot, he saw Barker walking toward him. “I held up my hand and said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me…’ and he immediately replied, ‘You wrote the term paper on Janice.’ Of all the people he meets, he remembered me,” he says.

His appreciation for game shows hasn’t worn off, although he prefers the vintage ones. “It’s about ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” he says. “They rise to the occasion, answering a question to win money, a trip or car. Game shows are awesome vehicles for helping people achieve their dreams.”

Watching The Price is Right was a family affair for Linda Baquero of Marlton. “My mother and aunt watched every day. My aunt still does and she’s 101,” she says. But it was on a whim that Baquero decided to go to a taping of the show while in California for work. There was one problem: She didn’t have a ticket. She searched in vain and resigned herself to not going. After having dinner, she went back to her room and checked one more time. There was one priority ticket available for three days later on Nov. 28, 2016.

Over the course of the next three days Baquero barely left her hotel while she watched old episodes of the show online, studying the games. On the day of the show, she drove to the studio, stopping at a grocery store for doughnuts on the way. “I started handing them out to people standing in line, and inside you’re in a staging area for several hours, so I would go up to people and introduce myself and offer them a doughnut. I never stopped talking, and I love to talk,” she says. “But I think we were being watched to see who did what.”

She thinks the doughnuts were her ticket to her name being called. “When they said my name I didn’t even hear it. The studio is small and it’s so loud from the excitement. Then I saw my name on the board and just started shaking I was so nervous, plus I was by myself so I had no one to help. I didn’t even know what I was bidding on, so I asked the people behind me for help,” says Baquero.

Once on stage with host Drew Carey, Baquero’s game was Spelling Bee where contestants need to spell the word “car” by selecting honeycomb-shaped cards. “This game wasn’t in any of the shows I studied,” she says. “It was pure luck that I got it. It was an out-of-body experience.” Her prize was a fully loaded Hyundai Sonata.

Then it was time to spin the wheel, and here is where Baquero stunned herself and the audience. On her first spin she landed on $1, which guaranteed her place in the Showcase Showdown and $1,000, but also gave her an extra spin. “When I spun it, Drew said he knew this would be a good one. It landed on $1 again, which is $25,000. The producers on the show told me this was very rare,” she says.

At the showdown, Baquero bid on the second showcase, which included a trip to the Grammy Awards with limousine and hotel, Coach handbags and a Kia Forte. She had the winning bid and totaled more than $78,000 in cash and prizes.

It wasn’t until February 2017 when her episode aired, which meant several months of silence from Baquero. “You can’t tell anyone or else you can lose it all,” she says. On the day of her episode, she was traveling for work and the show was pre-empted by a news story, but her family back home was able to see it.

Then came her trip to the Grammys, which she says was the experience of a lifetime.

Here’s the Clue
Sean Udicious can’t remember the first time he watched Jeopardy!, but he was hooked right away. The Cherry Hill resident began trying out in middle school, and continued in high school and college. “I loved participating with my family [at home],” he says, admitting that he would use the remote control as a buzzer—and still does. “I enjoyed the competitive nature, even getting rejected when I was trying out motivated me to do better the next time.”

Qualifying for the show requires an online test and if you score high enough, there is an in-person audition which includes a personality interview, intelligence tests and simulated game play on camera. “After that point you can be put on a call list for 18 months and at any point be called up to come on the show. It was five months before I got a call and then there was an additional month before filming,” Udicious says.

On the day of filming he had to be up early and hardly had time to let the nerves sink in. Contestants were allowed time to play around with the buzzer and work on their timing but then it was time to play for real. “They film all five episodes for the week in one day, and two names are drawn out of a hat to go up against the previous episode’s champion. My name was pulled in the first episode,” he says.

Fortunately, Udicious won that first game. Before the second, he rushed backstage to change his outfit. “There was not a lot of time to focus and compose yourself for the next game. I am amazed at the contestants who win five or 10 in a row,” he says.

Udicious also won his second game, but lost the third. His total winnings amounted to $32,799, some of which is owed to a specific category. “One of the things I remember is a college sports category and for some reason or another that’s a weakness for other Jeopardy! contestants. My family loves sports so it helped me get the lead,” he says. “Being under the lights and in front of the audience can shake you up a bit so having a category like that made the experience much more enjoyable.”

Inquiring minds wondering what host Alex Trebek is like in person may be disappointed to know he doesn’t converse with contestants before the show, says Udicious. “I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but it’s sort of hands-off with Alex. In fact, if you’ve ever met him before, you are not allowed to try out for the show. I never saw Alex until the moment filming began and he walked out. Other than the conversations in the beginning and at the end, you never talk to him directly.”

After filming in November, Udicious returned home but was not able to disclose the outcome until after the episode aired, which wasn’t until Feb. 5, the night after the Eagles Super Bowl win. He got together with friends and family at a local bar to watch. Udicious says the attention has put him in touch with people he hasn’t seen in years. “People I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out and told me how excited they were for me,” he says. “It also helped me network and meet new people at work and I found out how many other people love trivia.”

This may not be the last game show appearance for Udicious, however. “My family says I should scout out others, maybe try out for Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, but you have to wait a year after the episode airs to try out for another show,” he says. “I could never do The Price is Right where you have to guess how much a coffee grinder is. I couldn’t guess in a million years. There’s something out there for everyone and it’s just a fun experience to talk about.”

I’d Like to Solve the Puzzle 
Growing up in Washington Township, Matt DeSanto watched game shows as early as age 3 with his grandmother at his side, with Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right among the shows in rotation. In February 2014 he was invited to audition for Wheel in Virginia but something got in the way. “I planned to go and we got a really bad ice storm and we lost power for days. I contacted [the producers] and asked if they could put me back into their rotation for a different audition and they said they would,” he says. “I thought, ‘There goes my chance,’ but to their credit, I was invited to a summer audition in Brooklyn.”

DeSanto went through the process: Play simulation, spinning a fake wheel, calling out letters, solving puzzles, taking a written test—which he called “Hangman on speed”—where you had to solve as many puzzles as possible in five minutes. He made it to the next round and played against a faux contestant. And that was it. “They dismiss you and say they’ll send a letter if you’ve been chosen,” he says. Weeks passed and DeSanto thought for sure he was not going to hear back, but come Labor Day, he received a letter telling him to be ready on short notice for a taping date. That day came at the end of October.

Wheel films six shows in one day, five of them being for that week’s theme. DeSanto’s theme was Southern Hospitality Week. Contestants were given the chance to practice on stage while producers determined who would play together and positioning on stage. “The lights were so hot, and the wheel is actually lighter than what I expected, and they give tips on how to spin so you don’t injure your hand,” he says.

“It runs like a well-oiled machine. It’s a 22-minute show, and it was a 22-minute taping. They don’t play,” he says.

Luck was on DeSanto’s side in his 22 minutes though. “That’s exactly what it was: luck. People can tell you all they want, but you can’t game that wheel. You can’t spin to land on certain wedges,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to get control by winning toss-ups and worked my way through the first puzzle and did not have to relinquish control in the first round and my wheel spins built a lead.” Before even making it to the final puzzle, DeSanto’s cash and prizes totaled $91,892—a pre-bonus round record including two trips. “I don’t think it’s been beaten since,” he says. “But my loser self didn’t win the bonus round. I’ll never forget what it was: Wooden Gavel. I figured since I didn’t know it right away, I was going to spend those 10 seconds thanking Pat [Sajak] and telling them I loved the show.”

DeSanto of course got to meet Vanna White as well. “I was infatuated with her growing up. I was sure she was going to be my wife,” he says. “She and Pat were very genuine and there wasn’t a lot of interaction with them but they were friendly, just like on TV, so it didn’t shatter that vision for me.”

After taping in October, his episode aired Dec. 26, 2014. His family gathered to watch. “It was weird seeing myself, absolutely, and I hate hearing my own voice. It’s pretty cool though,” he says. “My wife and I still watch the show with our own kids now and one of us will make a comment about daddy being on the show and they’ll roll their eyes. We make sure they always remember.”

Survey Says
For those who watch Family Feud, part of the entertainment value isn’t just in the competition, but the personalities of the families as well. For the Scaffidi family of Glassboro, it was the perfect fit.

The family of five—parents Tim and Cindi along with their kids Alyse, Lexi and Tim—are naturally outgoing. After seeing an ad about auditions and emailing producers, the family was invited to tryouts at the Convention Center in Philadelphia in February 2016. There were hundreds of families there, says Lexi Scaffidi. “It was about four or five hours, going through paper applications, then being filmed by producers, going up against other families. … They cared more about the dynamic, not getting the answer right. We made it to the final round where we met the lead producer and she told us we’d get a postcard if we made it.”

And they did, choosing a date in June to tape their episode. “They tell you what to wear and to bring a few outfits, they pay for the flight and hotel and a chauffeur picked us up,” she says. “On the flight to Atlanta we all made shirts and brought along a Steve Harvey fathead. They made an announcement on the plane and everyone got into it.”

The show is taped in a convention center, not a studio, says Scaffidi. “There are trailers for the contestants and one for Steve. They take your phone and have to escort you to the bathroom,” she says. “After rehearsal we wait to get called and we were first. We went up against a returning family.”

Scaffidi says the show was harder than it looks. “Our questions were weird and goofy,” she says. “In one of the breaks a producer told us to remember that it’s just regular people who are being polled. We were overthinking it.”

But still, the family’s personality showed through. “The question was, ‘What animal would be on your boyfriend’s boxers,’ and my mom gave a crazy answer. She shouted out ‘anaconda’ and people went wild. Steve walked over and fist-bumped my dad,” Scaffidi says. “Steve chatted with us during the breaks, took photos. He loved my dad. They were talking about going on the golf course and smoking cigars. It was such a fun time.”

When the show aired in November 2016, the local CW station attended the family’s watch party. “Everyone agreed our questions were hard,” she adds.

Although the Scaffidis didn’t walk away with more than a $500 gift card, they didn’t get mad. “We were laughing and dancing the whole time. We wanted the other family to win, and it’s super fun to say we were on the show,” Scaffidi says.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 4 (July 2018).

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Author: Liz Hunter


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