5/16/2014 9:18:00 AM Didn't I see you on TV? Taco Bell ad and Wheel of Fortune game show feature local residents
by Kristin Kubly associate editor
NW GUILFORD - The willingness to seize an opportunity, along with a little luck, has helped two local residents briefly gain the national spotlight. You may have already seen Oak Ridge resident Ronald "Steve" McDonald in a Taco Bell TV commercial for its new breakfast menu. On May 20, you will also have a chance to see northwest Greensboro mom Audrey Ellis spin the wheel on "Wheel of Fortune."
McDonald and Ellis both have interesting tales of how they made it to national television.
When McDonald first started getting calls from a Los Angeles casting agency, he ignored them, thinking it was a scam. Finally, his wife convinced him to call back to find out if they were legitimate.
So he called and scheduled a Skype interview with a casting agent.
"They couldn't tell me what it was about," McDonald says. "They just said they were bringing people with interesting names out to L.A., so it was really a leap of faith."
McDonald was told the last applicant had already been selected before his interview, so he didn't think he had a chance.
"But within half an hour, she called back and said they wanted to fly me out to L.A. and asked if I was up for an adventure," he recalls. "I wasn't sure, but then I thought, 'Hey, you only live once!'"
So McDonald flew to Los Angeles in March and was told to be in the hotel lobby at 5:30 a.m. the next day. "So I came down in the morning and saw some other guys standing around a van outside," he remembers. "We started introducing ourselves, saying, 'Hi, I'm Ronald! Hey, my name is Ronald too!'"
When they realized everyone's name was Ronald McDonald, they all assumed they were there to make a McDonald's commercial. After arriving at the outdoor location, the men were escorted to some picnic tables and were told they were being given something to eat.
"That's when the guy tells us we're shooting a Taco Bell commercial," McDonald chuckles.
The men were offered the breakfast foods, and their reactions were filmed. McDonald says the ad was not scripted: "They just put the camera in front of us and asked us our name and where we were from."
Then they tried the waffle tacos and breakfast burritos while the cameras rolled.
So did he like the food?
"It was surprisingly good," he says. "The Cinnabon Delights are delicious!"
McDonald, who goes by his middle name of Steve, was surprised at how comfortable many of the men were with their unusual name.
"We talked about our experiences growing up and what we had to go through with our name," he says. "But I was amazed that there were a lot of Ronald McDonald juniors and even the third."
McDonald says the guys bonded over their shared name and experience.
"I made friends I still keep in touch with over a month later."
Even after the shooting, McDonald didn't know how the footage would be used or if he would be included in the final cut.
"About a week later, I got an email that I was going to be in a national commercial," he says.
He was also one of only two Ronald McDonalds invited back two weeks later to the Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California, to film video responses to Twitter questions online.
So how does McDonald feel about his name now?
"For so long, I was ashamed of my name," he admits. "But my mom said, 'I knew your name would pay off one day!'"
"I feel blessed," he adds. "It was one of those phone calls I could have easily ignored and then see the commercial and thought, 'I could have been on television!' It was an amazing experience."
Whenever Audrey Ellis, a northwest Greensboro mother of three, watches "Wheel of Fortune" with her family, she is always first to solve the puzzle. So when the show's "Wheelmobile" came to Winston-Salem and Burlington last November, her husband encouraged her to try out.
Ellis went to both auditions and was selected randomly to go on stage in Winston-Salem. "They do one puzzle and give everyone a chance to call a letter and try to solve it," explains Ellis, who prepared for the auditions by reading former contestants' blogs to get tips for being selected. "There was a host who talks to you to see how you speak and if you're excited and enthusiastic."
A few weeks later, Ellis was notified that she had been chosen for the final audition in February at Greensboro's O. Henry Hotel. She was one of 100 people auditioning that day and received an email less than a week later, stating she had made the final cut.
"I was so nervous at the audition that I don't think I was very exciting, so I felt honored to be selected," says Ellis. "I didn't even believe it was true at first because I got an email rather than a letter."
To prepare for the show, Ellis played "Wheel of Fortune" games on Facebook and Wii. Her husband also created a spreadsheet program that generated puzzles for her to solve.
On March 26, Ellis flew to California with her parents, sister, and husband.
"The studio tapes six shows in one day, so you're there with the other contestants all day," she says. "They had us all hang out together, so we would have camaraderie and feel comfortable with each other."
Despite the friendliness of the staff and other contestants, the experience was still a bit intimidating.
"I was terrified the whole time!" Ellis exclaims. "Everyone is nervous. The contestants look comfortable on stage, but they really aren't."
One surprise was how small everything was in person.
"The wheel seems so big on TV," Ellis says. "But it's only about 7 feet across. The studio and the board were also much smaller than they seem on television."
What about Pat Sajak and Vanna White? Ellis enthused about the show's hosts: "They seemed very down to earth and natural. Vanna came in wearing jeans and said hello to us while we were waiting and was very nice."
The "Pat chat" with Sajak was another highlight of the experience.
"I talked about how I have three kids, and I said I have a 'wonderful' husband. I meant to say 'handsome' because everyone says 'wonderful,' but I was so nervous!" Ellis recalls with a laugh. "I also mentioned that I had been zip lining recently. I was just trying to find something interesting to say."
Ellis thought about her game strategy ahead of time, "but I don't feel like I followed it. I just wanted to solve the puzzle if I knew it," she says. "I was a conservative player. I wanted to keep the game moving rather than keep spinning."
So did she win? Ellis is not allowed to tell, so you will have to watch the show to find out. Her episode will appear on Tuesday, May 20. "Wheel of Fortune" airs locally at 7 p.m. on WFMY.