Person to Watch: Matt DeSanto
One vowel, one win
By Cory S. Todd

Matt DeSanto has been hooked on the television game show “Wheel of Fortune” since he was 4 years old, watching nightly with his grandmother. Clearly those hours in front of the TV paid off – to the tune of nearly $92,000 in cash and prizes. In a show that aired last December, the 35-year-old contestant was faced with a 13-letter, three-word clue under the heading “character.” Vanna White turned over just one letter: E. Instantly, DeSanto solved the puzzle: The Lone Ranger.

“It was a mixture of guesswork, some deductive reasoning and luck,” says DeSanto, who grew up in Washington Township. “Seeing ‘Character’ on the board with three words, the first having three letters, I thought it was either a proper name or the word ‘the.’ If it’s a proper name I have no shot, so I’ll focus my efforts on ‘the,’ like The Road Runner or The Lone Ranger. When I saw the ‘e’ I thought I’d take a shot.”

Credit-Carol-KaelsonFor a guy who admittedly doesn’t show a lot of excitement, even he couldn’t contain his emotion. Hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White, as well as the other contestants, were equally dumbfounded. Santos had already solved a prior toss-up puzzle correctly so he was on a roll.

“The first toss-up basically covered my travel expense to get to California, so anything after that was just gravy,” he says. (Contestants must pay their own airfare, and room and board.) “So my first thought was, I’m in the black.”

DeSanto’s winning streak continued, which he attributes mostly to luck. “I was very fortunate with that wheel,” he says. “I picked up a wild card, and I didn’t use it the first chance I had. It would have netted me some money but then I had an opportunity in the next round, which netted me some more money. That was good fortune. I was able to land on some big-dollar items, and I didn’t land on any of the negative wedges – the bankrupts and lose a turn – which is very fortunate. The secret to my success was good fortune with the wheel, which allowed me to pace myself and pick letters that happened to be there. When they say use common letters – R, S, T, L, N, E – they’re not kidding. Those are the ones I stuck with the most.”

DeSanto almost didn’t make it onto the show. After applying online, he was invited to an audition in Virginia last February. He was all set to go until Mother Nature intervened with an ice storm. “We were without power and out of our house for a few days, and I didn’t really feel right going,” he says, uncomfortable leaving his wife and two toddlers. The show moved him back in the queue, and in July he was invited to another audition, this time in Brooklyn, N.Y. “So I went up to Brooklyn July 31 and auditioned in a hotel ballroom,” he says. “They said, ‘If we send you a letter, that means we’d like to invite you to be on the show. If not, your dreams are over.’”

When no letter arrived over the next few weeks, DeSanto was convinced he’d been overlooked. “I was trying to make like I wasn’t upset,” he says. He called Wheel’s office and asked if they had made a decision yet. They said they hadn’t. “I hadn’t given my name, so I hung up the phone as quickly as possible. I didn’t want them to think I was that annoying guy named Matt, so they wouldn’t pick me.”

A few days later, he got his congratulations letter inviting him to play as a show contestant. He taped the show in October of last year.

While much of that day is a blur, DeSanto says that what you see on TV is pretty true to the actual production. “It’s taped with intent to be done in a half hour, just like you’re watching it on television,” he says.

Though viewers might think the contestants playing against DeSanto would be frustrated by his continuedsuccess, he insists they were helpful. Wheel of Fortune tapes six shows per day, and DeSanto was in the fifth. Throughout the day he became friendly with the other contestants. “We got to know each other, and we were rooting for each other,” he says. “I’m sure they were wishing they were solving that puzzle, but they were very supportive. It was a good time.”

DeSanto enjoyed the whole experience – having his makeup touched up during commercial breaks, meeting Sajak and White, and not making any embarrassing mistakes. And of course, winning was nice, too.

“Pat and Vanna were very cordial and positive. They are under that spotlight all day long, but I didn’t see much deviation from their TV persona,” he says. “They were very friendly when the camera wasn’t on. For 30 years you’re watching this show and you say, ‘Wow, I really want to meet them.’ They didn’t disappoint.”

Show producers wanted DeSanto to keep his winnings a secret until the December 26 airdate. “They said we could tell people to watch the show, that it was great fun and I did well, but don’t give dollar amounts out, please,” he says. “It became easy, because I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

DeSanto’s new challenge is deciding what to do with the money. The government will take its share, but that will still leave enough to help pay off student loans, preschool tuitions for his 2- and 4-year-old sons, a little investing and “maybe even some fun,” he says. He also won two trips, one to a Mississippi bed-and-breakfast and the other to Jamaica.

In the meantime, he’s back at his day job, working for a scientific and laboratory products wholesale distributor. He is also enjoying his 15 minutes of fame. “It’s exciting to have been on television,” DeSanto says. “People at work say they saw me, and a stranger in a bagel shop asked if I was the guy on Wheel of Fortune. That’s kind of cool.”

February 2015
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