Game show guy: Slayton native spins wheel to contestant successWORTHINGTON — Are you a Wheel Watcher? If your TV-watching schedule includes a daily dose of “Wheel of Fortune,” then you likely heard a male contestant mention he was originally from Slayton, Minn., on an episode a couple of weeks ago.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Are you a Wheel Watcher?
If your TV-watching schedule includes a daily dose of “Wheel of Fortune,” then you likely heard a male contestant mention he was originally from Slayton, Minn., on an episode a couple of weeks ago.
That young man, Jesse Meyen, son of James and Theresa Meyen of Slayton and a 2000 graduate of Murray County Central High School, is a teacher in Beverly Hills, Calif. Over the last several years, he’s been on a mission to appear on game shows, and the “Wheel of Fortune” gig was the culmination of those efforts.
But it wasn’t a desire to become a TV star that prompted his move to California. His first job after graduating with a degree in elementary education and middle school math from Gustavus Adolphus College was a bit closer to home, but love took him west.
“I stayed in St. Peter after I graduated, and taught there for three years — fourth and sixth grades,” Meyen explained during a telephone interview. “I met this girl — Heather — during my junior year of college, and during her senior year of college when I was teaching, we ended up reconnecting. She got a job out in California in the entertainment business, and she wanted to go check it out and see what it was all about. I told her to go, and I taught in St. Peter for another year before I followed her out there. I didn’t want to lose what we had, and I ended up marrying her.”
Meyen landed a job teaching math at Hawthorne Middle School in Beverly Hills.
“My commute didn’t change much,” he noted with a laugh. “I went from driving across St. Peter, which took about 10 minutes, to driving four miles in L.A., which probably takes 10 to 15 minutes. I’m in my sixth year at Hawthorne.”
The commute might not be any longer, but the climate and atmosphere are certainly different from his Minnesota upbringing.
“The parents of my students in St. Peter, I was able to get to know because it was a small town,” Meyen said. “Beverly Hills may seem like a big city, but because the school is close-knit, I get to know them here, too. But none of the kids ride buses — they walk to school or get rides from their parents, and it’s definitely a different atmosphere than small-town Minnesota. Even just the climate: We take the eighth-graders to Yosemite during the winter, and many of them have never seen snow before that.”
During his summers off from teaching in Minnesota, Jesse would find a second job to fill the time, but the school calendar runs longer in California.
“We don’t get done with school until mid- to end of June, so it was hard to go out and get a summer job like you could if you were a college kid,” he said. “So I was doing some odd labor jobs off Craigslist, like I drove a carpenter around one day when his vehicle wasn’t working, helped some people move. I clicked on the TV listings on there one day, and there was a posting for ‘Deal or No Deal,’ to come to an audition, an open audition. They had 150 people show up, and you’re put with 10 other people around a table. They say ‘Tell us a little about yourself,’ and you have 30 seconds. They’re looking for big personalities.
“It was the first time I had done something like that, and I felt like I had a big personality, but people were yelling and screaming, because for that show you need to be like that because it’s you by yourself the whole time. So I learned a bit for that.”
Because of that initial, albeit unsuccessful, experience, Meyen got “the bug” to try out for some other opportunities, such as an MTV game show that was a scavenger hunt around Los Angeles.
“It was a big long process, and in the end they told me I was too old — I didn’t fit their demographic,” said Meyen. “But they sent my audition film to another producer — these casting producers do freelance stuff — and it got sent to “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?’”
The show, hosted by comedian Jeff Foxworthy, poses questions from fifth-grade textbooks to individual contestants, who are assisted along the way by actual fifth-grade students. Initially it was broadcast on primetime TV and was later picked up for syndication.
“They called and asked me if I wanted to audition, and I got picked for the primetime show,” Meyen said. “So I went through the day and sat in my little room with my supporters and waited and waited and waited. They filmed six shows a day, and on that day, everybody had done really well, a couple had gotten to the $300,000 question, and I and another girl got bumped because they can only film a certain amount of time each day with the kids. So I said, ‘See you tomorrow,’ and they told me they were done taping for that season, but said ‘Come back next season.’
“Well, I wasn’t going to give up on that opportunity, because I felt like I could be somewhat successful on it, so I called them up the next year, and they told me they had a syndicated version now, and it was easier to win money.”
Meyen’s persistence paid off, and he won $6,500 on the syndicated “Are You Smarter” about four years ago.
“I love science, almost went to school to be a science teacher, but one of the questions I got wrong was ‘What color star burns the hottest?’ They gave options of red, yellow and blue. Well, I barely heard the question, and I said something stupid, like ‘The sun is hot, so yellow.’ Right after I locked in the answer, I turned to Jeff Foxworthy and said, ‘That’s wrong.’ … The correct answer was blue, and the science teacher at my school always rubs it in. … Any of those trivia shows can be like that, because they put you on the spot and you look like a fool. But you just gotta roll with the punches.”
Despite his blunder, Meyen had a good time on the show, so when a co-worker asked “Have you ever thought about getting on the game show circuit?” he was intrigued by the prospect.
“I had no idea what that meant. But I guess if you’re a good contestant, and once you’ve gotten on something, they’ll watch your tape, and if you have a decent personality, they’ll put you on other things,” Meyen said. “So I did other auditions. My students signed me up online for ‘Minute to Win It,’ and I got an audition, but I didn’t have a partner … so they sent me on my way. The next week I got a call about a new show, ‘Who’s Still Standing?’ They told me the premise of the show, which they’d brought over from somewhere else, kind of like trivia mixed with Hangman. … They only did one season before it got cancelled. I made it a couple of rounds on that, but I got my question wrong, and the last guy got $25,000. It was kind of fun, so I don’t know why it got cancelled.”
Eventually, Meyen set his sights on “Wheel of Fortune.”
“I’d always watched it as a kid with my family, and it was always something I wanted to do,” he said. “They have an easy application online, and I put that I’m a teacher because they have Teacher Week. I got an email back that I almost threw away, because it looked like junk mail, but it was to an invite-only audition in Culver City.”
Meyen made it through to the last round of auditions and was told he’d be notified by mail if he made the final cut.
“A week later, I got a call, asking if I wanted to be an alternate. When you live in L.A., they make you come in as an alternate first, because it’s easy for you to get to the studios. So I was an alternate for Teacher Week and watched six shows being taped, got to watch other people play the show. If somebody hadn’t shown up, I would have been on Teacher Week. But that didn’t work out — everybody showed up — so I was guaranteed to be on the next week, which was Secret Santa Week.”
Despite his previous on-air experiences, Meyen admitted to some jitters when he finally made it to the stage with Pat Sajak and Vanna White.
“On ‘Wheel,’ everything depends on what you do: call a letter, spin, buy a vowel. It’s nonstop, and it’s quick. They’ve been doing it for 30 years. You just get up there, and as soon as they walk out you’re going for the first puzzle already.”
During the short interview at the top of the show, Meyen got tongue-tied over his wife’s name, but managed to fit in the mention of his hometown.
“For a lot of people who aren’t from L.A., they let them do a hometown shout-out,” and they even do promos for their hometown TV stations, Meyen explained. “Since I lived in L.A., they didn’t let me do that, but I made sure I wrote that on my information. If I remember correctly, Pat said, ‘It says you’re originally from Slayton, Minn.’ And I said ‘It’s a tiny little town in southwest Minnesota.’”
Meyen must have recovered quite quickly from his bout of nerves, because he went on to win a $1,000 gift card to a website and $15,700 in cash.
“I was pretty happy about that,” he said. “It was a pretty good payday. People say ‘You didn’t win the $30,000 or the trip,’ but I spent 30 minutes — actually 22 minutes of actual film time, and it only took about 30 minutes all together — and came away with the money.”
The “Wheel of Fortune” paycheck won’t arrive until March, and Meyen is waiting to have it in hand before deciding how to spend it. After experiencing such success, he’s taking a break from any more TV appearances, although he doesn’t discount the possibility for the future.
“I’ll get calls every once in a while for random (game shows) that are just starting, but I want it to be worth my while. I’ve thought it would be fun to be on ‘Family Feud’ with my family. I would definitely do some of the other ones. I would have really liked to be on ‘Minute to Win It.’
“It’s been a very cool experience, and if anybody’s interested, they really should do it,” he encouraged about playing “Wheel.” “They really work around your schedule. Once you make it, they just say, ‘Let us know what time it works for you.’”
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.