By Mike Kinosian
In much the same way the late Dick Clark never seemed to age, some were shocked that the always youthful-looking Lange was actually 81 when he passed away at his Mill Valley, California home.
Several years ago – during my tenure as special features editor for the trade publication Inside Radio – the two of us had an extended conversation; the result was one of my in-depth personality profiles.
That chat laid the foundation for what became a continuing friendship. It was a privilege to remain in contact with the gracious and hospitable Lange, who was most deserving of the “Gentleman Jim” handle.
As a tribute, here are edited/condensed/updated highlights from that profile, which began by theorizing, if those at Guinness ever concocted a world record category for “Person Throwing The Most Kisses on Television,” Lange would be the hands-down winner.
Commencing on ABC-TV in December 1965, a then-32-year-old Lange began masterfully performing hosting duties on Chuck Barris’ “The Dating Game,” which would be seen in daytime, primetime, and in syndication.
The Minneapolis native concluded each 30-minute show – which far pre-dated “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” by hoping viewers got the dates they really wanted. That day’s – or night’s – participants then threw home viewers a gigantic (if not cheesy) kiss.
Excluding residents of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Twin Cities, the majority of “Dating Game” viewers most likely assumed the adroit host was a budding television or film star.
Truth be told: Jim Lange was one of the finest ambassadors radio could ever hope to have.
Owing to the fact that “The Dating Game” was taped in Hollywood, Lange was strongly associated with Southern California, yet the bulk of his tremendously successful radio career was spent in the Bay Area.
Emphatically describing himself as a radio guy who happened to dabble in television, Lange explained that many television shows last for 13 weeks, so he always kept a radio job. If all else failed, he always had the radio job as an option. “I noticed that all the game show hosts were radio guys,” he commented to me. “They were hired because they could ad lib. There is no script on a game show. You have rules, but that is it.”
With the exception of two stints at Los Angeles’ once legendary KMPC (1970-1971 and 1984-1990), Lange was part of the City by the Bay’s radio landscape for well over half of his life.
While stationed with the Marine Corps in Hawaii, Lange did some radio work, although as he explained, “In those days, you were an announcer and usually just introduced shows.”
Discharged from the service in San Francisco in 1958, Lange thought he would love to work there, but could not get past any receptionists. “No one would talk to me.”
Upon returning to Minneapolis, he landed a job at KSTP-AM.
Two months into it, Lange visited a friend, Steve Cannon, who was about to depart Minnesota’s harsh winters to work at KGO, San Francisco. When Lange mentioned that he would “love to go” along, Cannon indicated the station needed an all-night personality.
The KGO contact Lange needed to track down was someone he already knew – Bob Cooper – also with Minneapolis roots.
Rock & Rolled
About to transition KGO to a new “rock and roll” format, Cooper wanted Lange to start on January 12, 1958 and he offered him the job for $10,000 a year. “At that time, I didn’t think I would make that kind of money,” Lange admitted. “I went there and the format lasted about seven months.”
The station reverted to carrying shows such as “Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club.”
Everyone was fired – except Lange, who joked he was “the all-night guy they didn’t know about.”
One more staff announcer was needed and Lange – hired on in that capacity – was there until the end of 1959. “I knew that KSFO was the major station in the market, so I sent over a tape. It just so happened that the afternoon guy was leaving and I was offered $30,000 a year.”
When Lange tendered his resignation at KGO, management told him he could not leave. They said no one had ever done that before. Staff announcer positions there were like a lifetime annuity. “You stay there forever and just say the call letters, but I told them that was not what I wanted to do,” he firmly stated to me. “I went to KSFO in 1960 and I stayed there for many, many years.”
Not long thereafter, Lange scored another major career coup by joining “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show,” where he became Ford’s sidekick. “I then met Chuck Barris, who was working for ABC. He was starting a new show called ‘The Dating Game,’ and the rest – as they say – is history.”
Being part of that “history” necessitated Lange to commute between Los Angeles and San Francisco several times a week. They did two tapings for the daytime airing and one program a day for the primetime show.
Logistics improved slightly when “The Dating Game” entered syndication, but at the very start – and for about four years – Lange made the San Francisco – Los Angeles roundtrip four times a week.
Bay Area Was a Home Run
Enamored with his adopted hometown, the super-smooth Lange stated that San Francisco possesses everything one would want in a city. “It does not have the vastness of a Los Angeles, yet has all the entertainment facilities. There is more of a small town atmosphere. My kids were raised here and my friends are here – it is home.”
A strong partisan of the city’s sports franchises, Lange lived long enough to see baseball’s Giants win the World Series in 2010 and 2012, as well as five 49ers Super Bowl victories. Equating his particular situation to some MLB free agents who opt to leave a successful team to play in their hometown, even if it means for less money, he pointed out to me that, “You do not get the salaries here that you get in New York or Los Angeles, but there is a tradeoff. San Francisco is basically the center of my life.”
Appearance (and sound) wise time stood still for the remarkably warm and pleasant Lange, who instantly made one feel like a part of the family. With genuine modesty, he claimed, “I guess I was just lucky. I have one of those age-indeterminate voices. I have done rock and roll, classical, and sports play-by-play – I have a well-rounded background.”
Opportunity to play “America’s Best Music” presented itself on what would be Lange’s last radio job at San Francisco’s KABL. “It is not necessarily the artists as much as the songs,” he explained to me. “I am kind of a lyrics guy and love to listen to well-written songs.”
Summarizing the 6:00 am – 10:00 am wake-up show on the adult standards outlet where he began in 1993 and would work well into the 2000s as “old-fashioned radio,” Lange was not trying to shock anyone and he did not do anything outrageous. Instead, he talked about what was going on in the world and discussed the music. In addition, there was full-service news, sports, traffic, and weather, leading him to wonder, “If anyone else in the country is doing a format like this anymore.”
Presentation of that type was reminiscent of what Lange did so effectively at KMPC and KSFO. With considerable reverence in his voice, he remarked that over the years, he had “the great fortune” to work with some fabulous people. “There were legends like Robert W. Morgan, Gary Owens, Wink Martindale, Dick Whittinghill, Jack Carney, Don Sherwood, and Dan Sorkin.”
Heritage facilities such as KMPC and KSFO were in stark contrast with what Lange faced at the end of his radio career where, of course, “Major corporations own most stations – there are strict rules about what you can and cannot say.”
Morning shows are generally exempt from those restrictive conditions, but as Lange opined, “They let some of the guys become ridiculous.”
Having to do that kind of show would most likely have been problematic for Lange. “Oh, I could do it, but would not be at ease telling blue jokes and playing jokes on people. I was even a bit upset, in the later years, when Chuck Barris started doing some off-color stuff on ‘The Dating Game.’ He got a producer who wanted to make the questions a little more titillating. That just isn’t me.”
Moniker Suited Him
Virtually every KMPC on-air talent had a nickname and Lange was looking for a good one. A female listener called with “Gentleman Jim” and that struck a nerve with Lange because he considered himself just that. “If you listen to me and hear that nickname, you know what you are going to get. You are not going to get anything off-color.”
In his early days, however, Lange acknowledges something to the contrary. “I tried the ‘drop your pants’ tricks just to be noticed before I got a secure job at KSFO. I did a lot of goofy things, but I settled into the nice-guy image.”
On the air in San Francisco at the tender age of 24, Lange joked that his colleagues in their 30s were “old,” but he paid attention to how they handled things. “I would not say they used ‘tricks,’ but they let their personalities come into their broadcasts.”
That allowed listeners to get to know them a little better and, as Lange commented, “Radio is so intimate. You are in [a person’s] car or [in their] home and they are listening one-on-one. That person on the radio is talking just to you. I try to always keep that in mind and not make a big ‘show’ out of it. Most people are looking for a friend on the radio.”
The majority of Lange’s illustrious radio resume was spent in morning drive, which proved to be challenging when he did “The Dating Game.”
As noted earlier, he worked in that daypart in San Francisco and then flew to Los Angeles almost every day. At most, he would get four hours sleep each night. The first 30 minutes or so that he was up was spent sleepwalking. When Lange arrived at the station, he would have already been up for 60 – 90 minutes. “That is when it becomes fun,” he emphasized to me. “You suddenly remember why you got into radio.”
Voice tracking though is one particularly recent business development of which Lange had reservations. “A good part of the day is either imported from another market or done by a part-timer who comes in and does a week’s worth of shows. It is just not the same.”
It was his contention that the adult standards format “will stick around for some time with one – and at the most two stations – in every major market,” as well as some syndicated product. Concerned about where the on-air talent would come from, Lange stressed to me, “These are the people who love this music and understand what it is all about.”
Never Shuffled Off To Buffalo
Notwithstanding numerous changes that have eventuated, Lange – who started in radio when he was 16 – recounted how exciting the medium was for him. “I realize how lucky I am to have lasted this long,” he emphasized. “I talk to guys in their 30s and 40s and they have already worked for 10 radio stations. I don’t think I worked for 10 stations in my whole life. I’m the only guy in the business I know who hasn’t worked in Buffalo.”
On the flipside, of course, he was in a select company who worked for the same owner for 30 years in two top five markets. “I started with Gene Autry in 1960 when he owned KSFO, San Francisco; he sold the station in 1983. Then I worked for him for seven years at KMPC, Los Angeles.”
In its heyday, Autry’s Golden West Broadcasting was an ultimate job destination. “In the 1960s, salespeople didn’t even have to leave their offices,” Lange remarked. “They would just sit there, answer the phone, and look for availabilities.”
A television rarity, “The Dating Game” enjoyed a robust run of years in double-digits. When certain alumni make headlines, old clips resurface, thus perpetuating the program’s memory. One case in point was the late Michael Jackson. “I met Michael when he was only 12 years old,” Lange recounted in our interview. “He was a very nice kid and didn’t look anything like he did when he died. That show had so many people like that on it. I tried making a list of all the stars who appeared and ran out of room. I got to know a few of them slightly. I was ever so lucky to go there every day – it was not like work. I had to go back and forth a lot, but there was no heavy lifting and Chuck Barris was the greatest guy in the world to work for.”
Thankfully overcoming the image of some very unflattering-looking tuxedo shirts, Lange nonetheless will forever be instantly linked with “The Dating Game;” however, he hosted other shows including “Oh My Word,” a syndicated program from San Francisco. “It was awe-inspiring watching these people come up with definitions of words. That was my favorite show, but it never went anywhere. There was not a lot of money involved and perhaps it was too intellectual.”
At the other end of the big bucks spectrum, Lange emceed the 1980s’ “Million Dollar Chance of a Lifetime.” The game was so difficult, he admitted in our conversation, that no one won the million dollars. “The producer decided we had to give away the money, so they wound up shelling out three million dollars in three weeks. The show soon died.”
It only seemed natural that given Lange’s radio background, he was selected to host “Name That Tune,” although as he pointed out to me, they did not tout him as a music expert because, “I am not one. In a million years, I could never guess a tune in three notes. I enjoyed the show, but I was not very good at it.”
As challenging as “The Dating Game” schedule was, his “Name That Tune” routine was even more taxing. “We did five shows a day, but the producer didn’t think that was enough, so we did six, and then went to seven. We started taping at noon, but the poor musicians had to come in at about 8:00 am to rehearse. The trumpet players’ lips were bleeding because they had to play so much.”
Not wanting to be concerned about such things as makeup and wardrobe, Lange did not do much television work in his final years. Comfort for him consisted of playing golf and traveling with his wife of 36 years Nancy Fleming, Miss America 1961.
Even at the peak of his radio career, Lange maintained in our conversation that he never hauled in huge money, but he was quick to assert that it was his number one profession. “Television was secondary – something I did if I had time. People still remember me from ‘The Dating Game,’ but that is not how I want to be remembered. I get personal satisfaction from helping make peoples’ lives a little fuller. I know there are some people out there who count on me being on the air. That is a great feeling. In the end, I’m going to think, hey, I did something that was a little worthwhile.”
Respectfully submitted – it was more than just a little worthwhile.
In addition to his wife Nancy, Lange is survived by a sister, five children, two stepchildren, and four grandchildren.
Mike Kinosian is managing editor and West Coast bureau chief for TALKERS. He can be emailed at Kinosian@talkers.com.