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Wheel of Fortune : Did Nice Things Happen to Big Spinners? You Bet

January 09, 1988|STEVE EMMONS | Times Staff Writer

The TV commercial aims directly at the worker's dream:

A couple--just plain folks--are in front of their unpretentious house telling us about winning big in the California State Lottery. It hasn't changed their lives, they say. They have the same friends, do the same things, feel pretty much like the same people. Oh, they did add onto the house, they say, and the camera dollies out to reveal a mansion in the background.

Is that really how it works?

Anthony ("Call me Tony") Columbus said sure, he'd be glad to talk about winning the lottery. It'd have to be after he gets back from Australia, and then he may be heading to Las Vegas right after that. But sure, call the first of the month. Glad to talk to you.

The way to Tony's is up the hill from the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Laguna Niguel, past the guard at the sturdy electric gate and into Monarch Beach. Here the new houses range from expensive to very, very expensive.

Tony, tipped by the guard that someone was coming, was waiting behind his curb-side fence. He didn't look quite like the Anthony Columbus who was in the newspapers nearly two years ago. That photo showed a somewhat stouter man in a plaid shirt and horn-rimmed glasses who had just won a Big Spin grand prize of $3.26 million. He looked like a 46-year-old liquor store clerk. He was a 46-year-old liquor store clerk.

This Tony was more trim. His hair looked styled. His glasses were gone, and so were some of the extra pounds. His clothes were the kind of Southern California casual that goes well in nice hotels.

"Got my teeth all fixed, that's another thing I had done," Columbus said, smiling evenly. "I fixed myself up a little bit."

Columbus led the way to the patio. "Prime location," he said. "I love that water. You can see it from right here. See it out there? No fog--well, there's fog, but no smog. You can see Catalina and everything else when it's clear out there.

"Lawyers, dentists, chiropractors and doctors all around me here. All they got here is an old liquor clerk." He laughed.

He led the way into the house and introduced his second wife, Dorothy, who was stuffing a turkey in the kitchen. She had been one of his regular customers at the liquor store, and after he won the money, they were married, he said. She continued stuffing, and he walked into the living room to talk about winning big.

He was born and raised in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., lived for a while in Chicago, then came to Southern California 22 years ago, he said. In the East he had been a roofer, but in California he was a liquor store clerk in South Gate, Norwalk, Downey and Inglewood. Always in someone else's store.

"Didn't have that kind of money at the time. I could own one now, if I wanted to. I just don't wanna do that any more. Robberies and all that. I was robbed about five different times. Had guns stuck in my face and everything else. Not ever shot at. Threatened at, but never shot."

Working "53, maybe 54 hours a week" and making, at best, "Jeez, I guess about 20 grand, and that's workin' hard ," Columbus yearned for something better. "You know what you gotta pay in rent. You couldn't even get a decent car. You can't do anything. Nothin'. And you pray every day you go to work that nothin' will happen to you.

"I told myself: If California ever gets a lottery--well, I like to gamble, you know, and I can't go to Vegas all the time. I play the horses. I've done very well in my life gambling. But in this, I don't know, I just had an intuition. I used to buy 10, 15 dollars of tickets every day. It was right there" in the liquor store.

"And you know how you think you got a streak goin'? So one day I kept buying tickets and I kept winning money, money--$2, $5, $10 tickets. Then I got a $100 ticket." That qualified him for the pool from which Big Spin contestants were drawn--a chance for the big money. "And I said, 'I'm gonna do something, I can feel it.' "

He felt it so strongly, he said, that he quit his job three weeks before he spun the wheel. "This is the God's truth: I dreamt four days before I went to Sacramento that I won the jackpot. I seen Geoff Edwards (the Big Spin host) right here in front of my face saying, 'You just won, Tony! You just won the jackpot!' Didn't I tell you that, Babe?"

From the kitchen: "Yeah, he did."

"I never had such a strong feeling in my life for anything like I had for this. I knew I was good for $10,000 (the minimum prize), right? I didn't care one way or the other. I wanted to get out of there (the liquor store). I just wanted to get out of there.

"What got me mad, see, he (the boss) didn't want to give me any time off, right? And then he got the attitude of 'you're not gonna win nothin', stay right here, you're not gonna win nothin'. ' I said, 'Hey, I'm takin' a week off or somethin' before I go.' And he said, 'No, you can't have it, you're not gonna get paid for it.' So I said, 'Well, I'll take three weeks off then.' "

And he quit.

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