If you’ve lived in Kearny — or know someone who does — over the 20 years or so, chances are you are a patient of, or (again) know someone whose foot doctor is John Branwell. The long-time podiatrist on Seeley Avenue who once practiced inside Wel-Fit Shoes has long been regarded highly by everyone who knows him.
But Branwell had a secret of sorts that he rarely shared with anyone — he was a fanatical “Wheel of Fortune,” fan and wanted to be a contestant on the show.
“I started watching the show in 1984, 1985, when I was living with my grandparents in Mississippi,” Branwell says. He was enrolled at Memphis State at the time, and rather than spend exorbitant cash on living on campus, he lived with grandma and grandpa.
“And when we’d watch, I would solve puzzles with just one letter,” Branwell says. “It would drive my grandparents nuts. They’d throw me out of the room because I was so good at it.”
Years would pass.
Decades, in fact.
Branwell says he never gave serious thought to trying to get on the show. But then, in March, he was at home in Hawthorne (even though his greatest connections are in Kearny, he was referred to as “John from Hawthorne” in his promotional commercials) and decided he had waited enough.
“I went to wheeloffortune.com, clicked on apply and my daughter helped me to make a short video,” he says. “To get on the show you have to send them a video to explain why you want to be on the show. So we did that, sent it and waited.”
Branwell was one of only a million people who apply to get onto the show annually, he would later find out, so the odds were instantly stacked against him. Or so one might think. But if you know John and his incredibly outgoing personality — heck, he still makes house calls — you might have thought otherwise from the get-go.
A few months pass, and in June, Branwell gets an email — he’ll be trying out at the Kimpton Ink48 Hotel in Manhattan.
When he arrived, Branwell says he was one of maybe 60 to 75 Wheel wannabes. They spent two hours solving puzzles as one would on the show (electronically) — and then he took a written test, also a series of puzzles to solve.
When all was said and done, the organizers told him he’d be in a contestant pool for the next 18 months — and that if he were to be chosen to be a contestant, he’d get a call with two-week’s notice. If he got the call (or email as it turned out) he’d be responsible for his own airfare, hotels, etc.
In July, he got the email. He was chosen. No year-and-a-half wait … they wanted him forthwith.
The taping date for the show that aired in late September was Aug. 23.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Branwell says. “I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. Why did they pick me? If a million people apply each year, why me?”
Again, we say because he’s John Branwell — and it was a no-brainer.
So it was off to Los Angeles for the Aug. 23 taping.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Branwell says. “A chance to be on the show — to be on TV. There’s nothing else like it.”
If you haven’t seen the show yet — spoiler alert: turn your eyes away right now and read the rest afterward — he won $11,500 in cash and prizes, including an all-inclusive trip to a magnificent resort in Costa Rica. He and one of his daughters will take that trip in August 2019. But that $11,500 total was — get this — $150 short of allowing him to go on to the Bonus Round.
A stinking “fig” cookie in a puzzle stymied him from getting there.
“But no regrets at all,” he says. “In a half hour, I won what I won. How could I be disappointed in that? I had the time of my life — and achieved a long-time dream. I couldn’t ask for more than that.”
We asked Branwell if he was nervous at all.
“Not at all,” he says, even though host Pat Sajak loused up his introduction (one where John had planned to give a big shout-out to Kearny and his friends and patients here.)
We asked what it was like meeting Sajak and co-host Vanna White.
“They were great,” he says. “We were practicing (how to actually spin the wheel) and Pat came out for a few minutes to chat with us. Prior to the taping, in the contestant room, Vanna came in for about 10 minutes — and she treated us like we were family. It was incredible.”
Meanwhile, here are a few things you might not have known about the show.
One, Sajak stands on a platform. He’s not as tall as he might appear on the show. The contestants also stand on automatic platforms that adjust in height based on each contestant. It allows them to reach down to spin the wheel comfortably and without getting a hernia in the process.
In all, Branwell says it was one of the greatest experiences of his life, one he wouldn’t trade for anything.
“And no, ‘Jeopardy’ is not next,” Branwell says. “People keep asking me if I am going to try that next — and the answer is ‘no.’ I had one dream — and I accomplished it. I could not be happier.”
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.