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Where Were Pat and Vanna When the Lights Went Out? 

The S.F. taping of Wheel of Fortune goes momentarily dark; Spanganga fades permanently to black

Wednesday, Apr 28 2004
It's been eight long years since Wheel of Fortune traveled to our fair city -- just check the hash marks on our cell wall. When word got out that game show luminaries Pat Sajak and Vanna White were taping three weeks' worth of shows from our very own Moscone Center, a Dog Bites correspondent joined the 15,000 Bay Area game show fans who packed the SOMA convention center over three days:

Though we're really more of a Hollywood Squares type, we excitedly rushed to the first San Francisco-based taping of Wheel (to air in May), expecting the audience to include at least a couple of "Trannyshack" regulars in sparkly ball gowns emulating the Vanna look. Instead, the attendees consisted primarily of suburbanites sporting wool sweaters and Easy Spirit footwear -- for a minute, it almost seemed as if we'd walked into the annual Association of American Podiatrists conference.

Then our disappointment vanished. Wheel of Fortune handlers quickly shuttled us into an interview with Pat Sajak, who, like Dick Clark, seems to possess magical anti-aging qualities. Wearing a teal V-neck sweater (what else?) and jeans, Sajak amicably dodged all the softball questions we lobbed at him during our three-minute conversation. Maybe we're crazy, but we got the sense he'd done this before.

Next came a group interview with Vanna White, who was not yet in a Barbie-esque costume; she wore a brown-and-pink sweater, paisley pants, and her hair in a ponytail. In an illuminating five minutes with White -- who, we were told, holds the Guinness World Record for "Television's Most Frequent Clapper" -- we learned that she shops at Costco, hails Dolly Parton and Marsha Brady as role models, and keeps her hands callus-free by clapping softly. Are you listening, kids?

Sajak and White were soon rushed to wardrobe and makeup, and we were asked to take a seat in the studio, which featured a custom-made San Francisco-themed Wheel of Fortune set. You'll never guess which local landmarks they chose: the Painted Ladies, a mini cable car, and a tangerine-colored Golden Gate Bridge.

Merv Griffin was already wandering the aisles, winsomely chatting up the crowd. ("You're one of the best-looking audiences around!") In a swingy, mellifluous voice, he introduced John, a headset-wearing stage manager, who instructed the audience to applaud when he raised his hand, and to continue cheering until he lowered his arm.

The taping began a few minutes later, when Griffin bellowed into his mike: "From San Francisco's Moscone Center, the stars of the Wheel of Fortune ... Pat Sajak and Vanna White!"

John raised his hand high; the crowd erupted. A lighted "APPLAUSE!" sign above the stage blinked aggressively.

Sajak and White swooped in. Sajak had donned a gray pinstripe suit and White wore a lacy, beaded number by local couture designer Lily Samii; it was somewhat reminiscent of a Victorian lampshade.

Sajak quickly assumed his place next to the contestants: Colleen (from Bay Point; owns a race car), Jeff (law clerk from Novato), and Elsa (grad student from Mountain View; "loves to travel ... go to the movies, and play Wheel of Fortune!").

Jeff won the lightning round and spun the wheel first. He asked for a T, and then bought an E. Jeff spun again, and asked for an S.

And then the lights went out.

"Well, good night everybody!" Sajak quipped. "Wow, I don't think this has ever happened before. Did anyone lean against a switch?" The audience chuckled; we were lucky to be in the hands of a host who knew how to vamp.

"Uh, so Vanna would like to say hi to all of you," Sajak said, then turned to White, who had joined him center stage. "You're not wearing a microphone are you? You want to speak into my chest?"

White leaned in toward her co-host's tie and said brightly, "Hi everyone!" Cheers, applause: Crisis narrowly averted.

When the lights came up a few minutes later, there was no need for John to raise his hand. The audience roared. "Uh, obviously we had a little light problem, and we've fixed it up," Sajak said smoothly, "and we're going to come back, and you notice that Jeff had spun and he landed on $300, so I'm going to say, 'Three hundred,' he'll call the letter, and we'll go from there and edit the whole thing, and no one at home will ever notice ...."

The rest of the game went off without a hitch (well, except for when the wheel didn't spin correctly in the bonus round), and between the end of that taping and the beginning of the next (they were doing five shows that night alone), Griffin floated through the audience to take questions. A.J., a fifth-grader from a Catholic school in San Mateo, posed his question into Griffin's microphone.

"Do you ever do this show live?" A.J. asked.

The audience laughed at the boy's confusion, and for possibly the first time in his life, Griffin was without a charming comeback. "What were they doing up there?" the befuddled Griffin finally asked.

"Messing up," young A.J. responded. (Bernice Yeung)

The Dog Bites Interview: Sean Kelly, Former Owner, Spanganga

Since 2001, the Spanganga community art space in the Mission has been known as a petri dish of diverse traditional stage shows and experimental hybrids, from panel discussions to S/M workshops, peace-driven beatbox performances to pitch-dark sex parties ... all at discount prices. At the end of April, alas, Spanganga is shutting its doors. Dog Bites dropped by to interview its founder, impresario Sean Kelly, who's closing the space so his life can return to some kind of normalcy. Kelly, a deadpan guy with blond locks and unflinching eyes, is jovial and friendly, but he sorta looks like he'd kill you for a quarter.

Dog Bites: First question: "Spanganga"?

Sean Kelly: "Spanganga," as a word, comes from a game we used to play in Miami. The object is to trick your opponent into saying the word "what." Then you say "basuki" or "spanganga." I had to wait about a year before this guy finally let the domain expire. I called him a bunch of times to get him to say "what," but he never picked up.

It started as a place to perform for my sketch comedy group [Please Leave the Bronx] that disbanded about a month after I opened ... and to be a rental venue for amateurs who wanted to get up onstage and do something.

DB: Did you feel there was a need for that?

SK: I felt like there was a vacuum. We had the option of either performing on the 4-by-8 stage at the Mock Cafe or on the sidewalk with Popcorn Anti-Theater. We would take any stage time we could get. Most of the nonprofit theaters would not rent to us based on the fact that we did comedy.

If you're a community-based arts organization, you're supposed to be there for everybody, not just for the people who are very intellectual and not funny. I don't feel a lot of nonprofits at that time were reflecting the people in the community. And they still don't.

That is why I started Spanganga. Anybody who could put up $100 could do a show. Some people legitimately had no place to perform. Some people had burned their bridges at other places. It was interesting to weed through these characters. And I wasn't going to edit or curate who was in the space; I was just going to let it go.

DB: What about the food-fight sex parties?

SK: The "Splosh" parties. We needed a truck to haul 14 lawn bags full of pasta from the industrial kitchen where we cooked everything. One hundred twenty people went to each one -- that's about as many as we could take. They were an absolute, yet beautiful, disaster. It rained chocolate milk in the basement as the drain backed up.

DB: What about the pitch-dark sex parties?

SK: The "Darkness Falls" parties. It's like a zone. Once you cross that line, you've already agreed you'll participate. I thought, "How do I break the ice? Maybe if I don't let people talk, and I turn the lights off, and they all agree they're gonna get groped, and it's gonna be clumsy and dirty and everybody goes for it."

There was this one guy ... he was the Ball Toucher. It was this dude, and he didn't involve himself in any play except he crawled around the room and he touched your balls while you were fucking. He kinda cupped them.

DB: How do you even know who and how?

SK: At some other party we went to afterwards with a whole bunch of people from "Darkness Falls," I asked, "Did anybody touch your balls?" One guy was like, "Yeah." The more guys I asked, the more 'fessed up. I think maybe one of them who 'fessed might have been the Ball Toucher.

DB: With Spanganga's close, have you achieved your vision?

SK: A lot of people ask me about vision and art and all that crap. It was just supposed to be a place to do stuff, for people to get it off their chest, or get it on their chest. I like proposing ridiculous ideas, like, "Hey, what if I opened a venue?" and then doing it, and then seeing what happens.

DB: People credit you with creating a swirl in this town, blending the subcultures. How do you plead?

SK: The underground art scenes in San Francisco are all fighting about who's gonna be the coolest and hippest art scene, and I think it's all bullshit. There are people who do stuff -- successfully complete projects that they like -- and there are people who don't. I'd like to think the people involved in Spanganga are the people who do stuff. They get together. They make a plan. Whether it's an African dance or a beatbox piece on peace in the Middle East, these are the people who are doing it. (Michael Vavricek)


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