A Marconi resident appeared on a game show for a chance at $1 million and a Disney cruise.
Sarah Donaldson had returned to her hometown last year after living and working in Los Angeles for about four years, and heard about an open call for a show she often viewed with her parents, Jim and Antoinette.
“I was watching Rachael Ray as I was applying for jobs, and there was some teaser for [an open call for ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?’] here in Philly and [directed those interested to] look at the 6ABC Facebook page,” Donaldson, 31, said. “I knew right away, ‘what the heck? I’ll go down. It’ll get me out of the monotony of applying for jobs.’”
The resident of 18th Street and Oregon Avenue appeared on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” Oct. 18 in an episode that aired Jan. 9. While she didn’t walk away with the grand prize, she won $1,000 and a dream Disney cruise.
Her mother, along with an estimated 1,500 others, joined her in her pursuit to be cast for the show at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Oct. 11. She passed the 10-minute, 30-question, multiple-choice trivia test, and producers interviewed her and informed her she may receive a call the next week.
“I said ‘Call away,’” Donaldson, who currently is unemployed, said. “I was completely shocked and floored.”
Four days later, she received that call, asking her to come to New York City Oct. 17. Upon arriving on set, she saw a promo for a Disney cruise.
“I started going ballistic,” she said of a dance she started doing that included steam boat noises and her saying “Mickey.” “‘This is awesome. We get to play for a cruise, too?’”
Although she didn’t play that day, she was called back the next day for the “Cruise In and Win Week” taping, during which each contestant had the Disney prize attached to a random question.
“I can’t believe that this isn’t even a week since I went on the audition,” Donaldson said of her mindset on the show. “This is the craziest experience I’ve had in my life.”
She either knew or was able to deduct correctly by a process of elimination on her first few questions. With the first 10 price points shuffled, she reached her $25,000 prize on question No. 3, which was followed by her cruise question. Correctly answering questions related to Wicca and Sonia Sotomayor, respectively, she had accumulated $31,000 and the cruise.
“To me, getting the cruise was more than the money,”
Donaldson, who plans to take her parents and her boyfriend, whom she met
four days after her win, on her vacation aboard the Disney Fantasy,
which will stop in the Cayman Islands, Mexico and the Bahamas’ Castaway
Cay in May.
Donaldson’s fifth question asked “What potentially injurious wardrobe item” Katy Perry was prohibited from wearing on stage. Instead of spinning peppermint bra, she guessed flame-shooting thong, basing her hunch on the song, “Firework,” and her having seen Perry in concert wearing the bra. Her incorrect assumption dropped her cash winnings to $1,000.
“I’m not a gambling type at all, so I don’t know what came over me,” she said. “Those lights are blaring on you, there’s an audience, they’re waiting for an answer — it’s nerve-racking.”
The South Philly native’s craving for the spotlight started when she appeared in school productions at the now-closed Trinity Christian School, 2300 S. 18th St., where her mother taught pre-kindergarten.
“I was always the Christmas tree or the ringleader in the circus play, so when I was 3, I was already doing shows,” Donaldson, who continued to perform in various school plays, including those at her alma mater, Montgomery County’s Merion Mercy Academy, said.
After attending Washington, D.C.’s The Catholic University of America, where she graduated in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in musical theater, she performed “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” in Philly and Atlantic City, N.J., and often traveled to New York City for auditions, being cast as Jan for a yearlong North American “Grease” tour in ’03.
“That was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done career-wise, and I got to perform with other South Philly natives, Frankie Avalon and Chubby Checker,” Donaldson said.
During one show, she learned Avalon had left an Italian roll and broccoli rabe in her dressing room. He had assumed a South Philly girl would appreciate the classic dish, but she had never tasted it before.
“From that day on I’ve started eating broccoli rabe, and I credit it to Frankie Avalon,” she said. “Every time I have it I think of him.”
She also has appeared as extras in a variety of films, including “Rocky Balboa” and “Invincible,” and as a dancer in Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” music video.
Since then, she has switched career paths, working for Harrah’s (now Caesars) Entertainment in Atlantic City, N.J. as a Coordinator, booking acts like Jay Leno and Tony Bennett, as well as her favorite singer, Sheryl Crow, and handling prize distributions on shows, like “The Price Is Right.”
“I made sure someone got their car and TV,” she said. “It was nice to give out a prize for a game show because I always wanted to play.”
In ’08, she worked for various L.A. talent agencies that represented celebrities like Tom Arnold and Aretha Franklin and on TV shows, such as “True Jackson, VP” and “90210,” before heading home to begin treks to New York again.
“The more I kept going up, I said, ‘No, my heart’s here in Philly, and I really want to kind of parlay my skills and maybe it’s not in entertainment anymore. I wish it would be. I’m trying to find something in entertainment.”
Regardless of whether she was struggling or succeeding, her parents have been there for her and her younger brother, Stephen.
“They never really said, ‘no,’” she said. “It wasn’t that they were pushovers, but they were believers and had such a great faith in me succeeding.”
That’s why she had hoped to win big on “Millionaire.”
“For me, it wasn’t as much as having money for myself at the end of the day, but being able to give money back to them,” Donaldson said.
However, while on set, her mother pushed producers to put her on the show, too and succeeded, with her episode tentatively set to air next month.
“God, how much money we were playing with — it’s just an opportunity of lifetime,” Donaldson, who couldn’t disclose how her mom fared, said of the mother-daughter duo having played for a combined $2 million.