Persistence paid off for Niskayuna native Ilene Knebel, who, after years of auditioning, finally had the chance to be a contestant on “Wheel of Fortune” in an episode slated to air Tuesday evening.
Watching the game show has long been a family affair for Knebel, who now lives in California with her husband but often returns to the Capital Region to visit her family, including her mother, who still lives in Niskayuna.
“[I’ve] watched it for over 30 years, watched it with my family, with my mom, ” Knebel said. “My cousin was also on the show in 1988, and she had what’s called a perfect show. She won every puzzle and the bonus round.”
Knebel first began auditioning after moving to California in the 1980s.
“Back then it was paper and pencil, and you’d fill out puzzles. I tanked. I just did horrible, so I didn’t make it onto the next round,” Knebel said.
She tried that a few times, then attended local Wheelmobile (a 36-foot Winnebago that tours nationwide in search of contestants) events and even auditioned in front of “Wheel of Fortune” producers, though she didn’t receive a call back to be a contestant.
Still, she had some encouragement from a former colleague at the city of Beverly Hills in Southern California, for which Knebel works as an executive assistant.
“My coworker was a contestant on the show and won over $100,000. I went into his office often and he would tell me to ‘keep trying,’ ” Knebel said.
Finally, when the show held virtual auditions during the pandemic, Knebel sent in a video. She got a call from the “Wheel of Fortune” team in October saying she’d finally secured a spot on the show.
“I was in New York. My mom was turning 92, so this past October I spent almost the entire month with her because we can’t get this time back with our parents,” Knebel said.
When she first got the call, Knebel thought she’d blown her chance at being on the show because she was out of town, but the team surprised her.
“They could not have been nicer. They said ‘Nope, call us when you get back.’ I’m like, this is just my dream,” Knebel said.
The episode was filmed in early December, shortly after her birthday.
“[It’s] definitely nerve-wracking. You want to do the best you can,” Knebel said.
She got to meet longtime hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White. COVID-19 protocols were strictly enforced and, as part of those precautions, there was no live audience during filming.
“Now there’s no audience. The only people that are there are, obviously, the crew and the contestants, so we cheer each other on,” Knebel said. “[The contestants] couldn’t have had a nicer group of people.”
Knebel had to keep the news that she’d finally appeared on the show under wraps.
“Waiting nearly two months has been very difficult. I told no one. No one knows the results of the show except obviously people at ‘Wheel,’ and my family didn’t even find out until two weeks ago. . . . My children, my mother, no one knew,” Knebel said.
Tuesday evening she’ll finally be able to see the episode. She plans to host a small watch party at her home in California. Her family in Niskayuna will be tuning in to the show to see how she fared as well.
“This was all I wanted for my birthday wish and it came true,” Knebel said. “I am so grateful to have been chosen as a contestant, especially after trying so many times.”
Knebel, who is a member of the Santa Monica Elks Lodge, plans to pay it forward by sharing part of her winnings with charities close to her.
The episode airs Tuesday at 7 p.m. on WTEN. For more on the show, visit WheelOfFortune.com.