`WHEEL' OBSESSION; PRIZES, PARTING GIFTS AREN'T ENOUGH FOR SOME CONTESTANTS.
Raymond Taylor bought a few vowels, directed Vanna White to turn some letters and avoided the ominous black ``Bankrupt'' wedge long enough in 1993 to win $81,000 in cash and prizes on ``Wheel of Fortune.''
But then he didn't want to go home to his life of odd jobs and obscurity.
``I wanted to have a life with the show,'' Taylor said. ``I loved the show enough to be a part of it.''
The 46-year-old Los Angeles man was so enamored of ``Wheel'' that he figuratively stalked the show and once had to be physically removed from the stage, according to court records.
These days the only ``Wheel'' watching he does is in front of his TV, because Sony has secured a court order banning him from the Culver City studio and from contacting its employees.
What's more, the same studio that was ready to give Taylor a new car has since sued him for damages, claiming his disruptions stopped work on the Sony lot.
Taylor's obsession with the show may be an extreme case, but he isn't the only game-show contestant for whom a parting gift just wasn't enough.
``They feel like they have a relationship because they were treated so special the day of the show,'' said Marki Costello, who worked with about 20,000 players as a contestant coordinator on ``The Gong Show,'' ``Hollywood Squares'' and 20 other programs.
``They don't realize that when we're done with them, we're done with them,'' Costello said. ``On to the next show.''
Game shows offer a chance at instant celebrity - a forum where anybody's next-door neighbor is just a spin of the wheel, Daily Double or ``Come on down!'' away from instant riches.
Contestants are ``primped and prodded and treated like mini-celebrities'' when the shows are taped, but can get upset after their 15 minutes of fame are done, she said.
Costello has never filed a restraining order but said she has heard from hundreds of guests. Some thanked her, while others phoned to say they were treated poorly, including a ``really belligerent'' contestant from ``Love Connection'' who called after a date went bad.
Costello said she would stop taking calls if former contestants got too persistent.
The wheel of justice
Taylor grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and always wanted to work behind the scenes in television or movies. He thought ``Wheel'' was his entrance to a full-time job.
During his three-day stint on the program, Taylor says he hit ``Bankrupt'' once or twice but recovered, guessing puzzles like ``The Beverly Hillbillies'' to vault to the final round twice.
Taylor says his ``Wheel'' loot included a $25,000 check in lieu of a Dodge Stealth, a $3,000 savings bond and an Amtrak trip across the nation that he never took.
Now he isn't allowed to come within 100 yards of the Sony Pictures Studios Inc. lot in Culver City.
``They should treat a three-day contestant better than that,'' Taylor said.
In a lawsuit, Sony claims Taylor has trespassed on Stage 11 at least four times since December. On March 13, the complaint asserts, Taylor took a seat in the studio audience and had to be ``physically ejected from the stage.''
The ``Wheel'' production offices were closed early that day because of ``concerns that Taylor may be in the building,'' according to the complaint.
It was exactly what made Taylor valuable on the air that Sony says made him a problem once the show ended.
``Mr. Taylor was quite eccentric and made a good game-show contestant. He appeared on the show several times and won prizes and money,'' court papers state. ``Unfortunately, it appears that Mr. Taylor is unwilling to accept that he no longer has a connection to `Wheel of Fortune.' ''
Sony's lawyer declined to comment on the case.
``Wheel'' public-relations coordinator Suzy Rosenberg, who also works with ``Jeopardy!'' said she's never heard of Taylor. She insists that her experience with guests has been overwhelmingly ``great.''
``We really don't have a lot of discontented people,'' Rosenberg said. ``People are thrilled just to audition.''
Smiles, everyone! Smiles!
Los Angeles fire Capt. Dave Wagner, who wrote ``The TV Game Show Contestant Guidebook,'' wasn't shocked that an enthusiastic guest like Taylor could make it through the screening process and end up on a show like ``Wheel.''
``That's probably the kind of person they're looking for,'' the Woodland Hills man said. ``They want people who are excited about the show and have personality. No, that doesn't surprise me at all.''
Wagner said he ``retired'' from game shows in 1993 after he appeared on his eighth, winning five times. He said the best way to get on shows like ``Wheel'' and ``The Price Is Right'' is to ``smile, overreact and show a little bit of personality.''
Each game show attracts a different contestant type. While ``Jeopardy
'' is fine for a ``prim-and-proper librarian,'' ``Wheel'' and ``Price'' want people who can show their emotions, Wagner said.
If there's one thing Taylor is not lacking, it's personality.
He wears black jeans and boots, has a 2-inch wisp of neatly trimmed hair on his chin, and his conversation is peppered with television trivia that he quickly answers himself.
He's also convinced - restraining order or no restraining order - that he may yet get a job on ``Wheel of Fortune.''
``I just want to work for the staff, and I didn't know where to go,'' Taylor said between bites of his $9.58 lunch of chicken, biscuits and onion rings. ``I said: hey, give me a job. I know everything about TV.''
Taylor says he's abiding by the judge's order but looks forward to the day when the lawsuit is dropped so he can continue his pursuit of a job at ``Wheel,'' possibly working with other contestants.
Although Taylor said he thought about trying out for ``smaller'' shows like ``Password'' and ``Match Game,'' he was attracted to the glitz of ``Wheel.'' He's still a little puzzled by the legal action.
When he was served notice to appear in court, Taylor said he thought the attorney on the lawsuit letterhead was representing him.
``That's where they told me to go,'' Taylor said, leaning out of a car window and pointing to a skyscraper a few blocks from his Olive Street hotel room. ``I thought they were going to help me.''
Taylor defended himself at a May hearing at which a Los Angeles Superior Court judge granted Sony's request for a court order to keep him away from the studio.
For now, his job search is headed in other directions. Taylor said he has applied at KTLA-TV and the El Capitan Theatre, where he'd like to work as a projectionist or an usher.
Taylor says he averages four hours of TV per day and still watches ``Wheel'' - it's one of his two favorite shows along with ``Touched by an Angel'' - but hasn't been to the set since March.
``I'm not going back there until this clears up,'' he said.
PHOTO (color) no caption (Wheel of Fortune)