Remembering the Legendary Gary Owens

| February 16, 2015

By Mike Kinosian
TALKERS
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief

 

kinosianlgLOS ANGELES — Blessed with an enduring ability to captivate a broad base demographic with droll, clever, sometimes-corny witticisms/puns that much sooner rather than later made you laugh, Gary Owens is being fondly remembered by those whose lives he touched by his character and one-of-a-kind classiness.

Not character voices that helped to shape, mold, and define this often-honored broadcaster who passedowensgary away in Los Angeles Friday (2/13) at the age of 80, but much more important personal qualities.

Even at the zenith of his popularity, Owens had an unrivaled flair to make anyone and everyone with whom he came in contact feel as though he or she were a genuinely important friend of his.

Dignity with which Owens carried himself make those having the privilege to work behind a microphone exude intense pride in saying they are in the same profession.

Still though, if one ever were to construct the definitive on-air “personality” with peerless voice quality, inflection, and matchless variety,Gary Owens would be the blueprint to follow.

Several years ago, when I was special features editor for Inside Radio, my personality profile pieces appeared each Monday.  As the industry takes time to reflect on the remarkably-gifted Owens, we present excerpts from my extensive conversation with the 1994 Radio Hall of Fame inductee.

Pressed into duty

An integral part of the “Music Of Your Life” lineup for well over one-quarter of a century, Owens derived limitless pleasure from the industry, dating back to the Mitchell, South Dakota native’s roots as a newscaster and host of “Soundtrack Of The Sixties,” “Superfun,” and “Gary Owens’ Weekend Spectacular.”

When Owens was news director of Omaha’s KOIL, the station’s wakeup personality quit in the middle of his show, forcing Owens to assume that role even though he did not even know how to run a turntable. “In those days, we had six turntables and two recorders. It was just a whole medley of goofy sounds, but I stuck it out.”

Within one month, Owens became #1 in Hooper-based ratings.

You are great – now please leave

The first personality in that market to beat KOWH’s Todd Storz in morning drive, Owens acknowledged that – in terms of radio – Storrs and Gordon McLendon created rock and roll. It was “a magic time” with Storrs actually facilitating Owens’ departure from Nebraska’s largest market by sending a tape of Owens to KIMN, Denver, where he was hired.

Offered a job to work at McLendon stations in Dallas (KLIF); Houston (KILT); San Antonio (KTSA); and New Orleans (WNOE), Owens went there because “It was the hot chain in America – they really knew how to do things.” It was the first radio group for whom he worked and it is where Owens learned, “You should prepare one hour off-air for every hour on.”

Considerable production elements and wild tracks punctuated his consistently entertaining air-shifts. “It was totally unexpected to the audience. All you have to do in radio is add a few sound effects and music and you have a bit.”

Each market had its own unique flavor, but New Orleans was entirely different from any other city, with Owens remarking to Kinosian in their chat that, “People there wouldn’t get up very early, unless they had a job that forced them to. They like to party all night.”

Minor matter of money

Next market to beckon was”The Gateway City” of St. Louis where Owens would soon become dominant in morning drive on WIL. “Great talents like Jack Carney, Bob Osborne, Ed Bonner, Reed Farrell, and Dick Clayton were there. Considering we were at 1430 with 5,000 watts, it was really something we were #1.”

Renowned programmer Chuck Blore worked with the McLendon stations and launched Los Angeles contemporary outlet KFWB, a destination at which Owens wanted to land. “They had tremendous ratings, a tremendous jingle package, and tremendous on-air personalities.”

One particular day after Owens concluded his morning drive show, Blore called to say he wanted Owens to be the morning drive talent at KEWB – their new San Francisco station. While his goal was to go to Los Angeles, Owens thought San Francisco “was magnificent.”

A serious snag though eventuated when Owens discovered the salary in San Francisco would be about $20,000 a year less than what he was pulling down in St. Louis. According to Owens, St. Louis in the late-1950s was second only to New York in terms of radio personality salaries. Seven St. Louis announcers were making over $70,000 a year in 1958-1959. “I wanted to go to San Francisco, but couldn’t work for [the money the station was offering].”

Nature takes its course

Implored to give the offer further consideration, Owens was about to turn it down; however, with surprising coincidence that can happen in this business, a tornado leveled a building about a block from his apartment.

Hastily calling Blore the next day to see if some sort of bonus could be added to the base salary, Owens pointed out that KSFO, San Francisco’s Don Sherwood had never been beaten and the “only way” to overtake a great “middle-of-the-road personality like that was to bring in rock and roll.” There would be a bonus for Owens if he were to surpass Sherwood – who was pulling 30-shares. It only took him three months to achieve the windfall. “I was young, goofy, and took many risks then.”

Read by hundreds of thousands of people, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen played a major role in Owens’ Bay Area career by printing the on-air talent’s jokes twice a week. “It helped make me a personality there.”

Exposure and notoriety like that served as a great impetus for Owens to reach his ultimate objective. “I always wanted to be in Hollywood so I could do movies, commercials, and television.”

Gary Owens KFWBAfter arriving in tinsel town in 1961 to do mornings on KFWB, Owens went on to voice well over 35,000 commercials and promos. “We had 50-shares [at KFWB] and five million cume every day.”

Golden opportunity

Crème de la crème offer from Gene Autry’s KMPC “Station of the Stars,” Los Angeles came in late-1962. “It was the dream station for ‘middle-of-the-road” and Owens would remain at the Golden West property until 1981. “All their personalities did movies and guest shots on TV shows; every producer and writer listened to KMPC.”

Although #1 in the City Of The Angels at KFWB, Owens did not feel the station was compatible for other things he wanted to do. When KMPC offered him the job, it was quite another risk-taking thing for Owens, who was featured on approximately 25 comedy albums, including “Jonathan & Gary: Live at the Improv” – with Jonathan Winters. “KFWB was #1 [ratings wise], but KMPC was the top billing station and was always top five [in the ratings]. I took the chance andKMPC it paid off very well.”

Regulars on Owens’ KMPC show included Ken Levine (“Johnny Lizard“), who went on to write, produce, and/or direct virtually every leading television sitcom, and a budding curly-haired comedian who’d change his name from Albert Einstein to Albert Brooks. “They were goofy and silly,” Owens recalled in that interview with Mike Kinosian several years ago. “From the moment I met them, I knew they would go a long way.”

Bathroom humor

During his KFWB tenure, Owens did four yearly specials for Los Angeles’ KCOP-TV (Channel 13), and that experience would pay off handsomely in an epic association with George Schlatter, who in late-1963/early-1964 was producing CBS-TV’s “Judy Garland Show.” Even though Schlatter and Owens had not met, they conversed several times by phone. “He would listen to my radio program and send notes whenever I’d do something silly. He called one day and said he had a TV show that would be like my radio show. People would crash through windows and do bad jokes.”

It was obvious Schlatter wanted to hire Owens, but was not exactly sure what role would best utilize the radio star’s unique talents. They discussed having Owens in sketches as a person of authority like a bank president or a psychiatrist.

Perfectly recapturing the mood and moment of the now infamous lunch the two scheduled at Burbank’s famed Smokehouse Restaurant, Owens recalled that he and Schlatter went to the bathroom to wash up. “I put my hand behind my ear and said, ‘My, the acoustics are good in here.’ George said that was what he wanted me to do on the show – be like announcers of the 1940s and 1950s, who put their hands behind their ears at dance band remotes. They didn’t want to wear earphones on stage, because they thought it looked clumsy or would rip off their toupee.”

Endless catchphrases, including “Sock it to me,” “You bet your bippy,” “Here come da judge,” and “The Flying Fickle Finger Of Fate” were introduced on the quirky new television show which – of course – became known as “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”

Every 60-minute episode of the Monday night program – which debuted on NBC-TV in January 1968 and made its last first-run telecast in May 1973 – featured Owens’ trademark ear-cupped, “From beautiful downtown Burbank, it’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”

Gary Owens #2 Laugh-InApproximately 40 actors appeared as regulars in the show’s five-year run, but Dan Rowan, Dick Martin, Ruth Buzzi, and Owens were the only ones to be seen on every show. That often-imitated delivery of Owens’ was created as a direct result of his bathroom ad-lib.

In addition to having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Owens’ ear-print was preserved in cement at NBC’s Burbank studios.

Cult classic

Practically everyone outside Southern California was unaware that Owens maintained weekday radio responsibilities at KMPC while doing “Laugh-In.”

That show’s enormity sometimes overshadows the reality that Owens – a diabetic – was involved with more than a dozen other television series and made in excess of 1000 TV appearances.

Win a bet with this often-forgotten factoid: Owens preceded Chuck Barris (1976-1977) as host of Barris’ “Gong Show.”

Staying busy

“Bewitched” – ABC-TV‘s 1964 – 1972 sitcom starring Elizabeth Montgomery – was the first series Owens ever did as an announcer. Alternating with Owens (Quaker Oats) was another ultra-familiar voice Dick Tufeld (as in “Dick Tufeld Speaking,” who was on for Kodak). Over and above that, Owens did “The Wonderful World of Disney” for seven years and was a 1966 regular on “The Green Hornet.”

Simultaneous to doing “Laugh-In” and being a KMPC personality, Owens fronted “Letters to Laugh-In,” a daily NBC comedy show. Stars such as Angie Dickinson and Eartha Kitt read and re-enacted jokes sent in by viewers.

From there, he transitioned to become a regular on CBS-TV’s 1974 summer replacement series “The Hudson Brothers Show” (Bill Hudson was formerly married to “Laugh-In” regular Goldie Hawn) and Owens was also the announcer on “America’s Funniest Videos” and “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” until the latter relocated to New York. What made Owens’ life “worthwhile,” he told Mike Kinosian, was when he would “do four or five things a day – every day.”

Trivial significance

Most of Owens’ “Music of Your Life” programs were adlibbed, yet he devoted considerable preparation to each one; having worked with practically every artist he played, he knew many tidbits about them. He’d tell inside things about them that manyGary Owens #3 others could not. “They were good chums for many years. I have been a fan of trivia – but ‘significa’ might be a better word because it has significance to some people.”

Several “old school” talents have taken a dim view of on-air envelope pushing by some contemporary on-air personalities, but exemplary personality Owens – who appeared in approximately 20 movies – was much more tolerant and diplomatic. “Howard Stern did something that really wasn’t being done. When I was at KIMN in 1957, Royce Johnson did a toilet flush on the air. A competitor sent a tape of that bit to the FCC and Johnson was fired; KIMN nearly lost its license and Royce had difficulty getting another job. It might not be in good taste, but it is not vulgar. When Howard first came to Los Angeles, I predicted he’d make it big – and he has.”

Longtime Stern agent Don Buchwald performed the same role years ago in New York for Owens. “He got me some good spots and has handled Howard’s career very well. It doesn’t matter what kind of format it is – you have to have someone in your corner to expand your audience. I first met Howard when he was at WNBC, New York. He likes to provoke controversy. When he changed his act, he changed his income. Joe Pyne carried a gun on his television show to demonstrate how he was going to take care of bad people. I am not saying what Howard does is good or bad – I just know I am not capable of doing it.”

Loved by his peers

Readers of tireless Don Barrett‘s enormously popular laradio.com were asked in a yearlong poll to name Los Angeles’ all-time best personality, irrespective of format. Results indicated Owens had captured the top spot and he humbly reflected it was a very nice honor especially since, “It is not a fan-based thing but from people in broadcasting. There were great personalities in this city and I have been fortunate to know most of them. Robert W. Morgan and I were very close friends and The Real Don Steele and I worked together in Omaha.”

Veteran KABC, Los Angeles talk personality Michael Jackson, the late Casey Kasem, and Owens worked together at KEWB. “There may be five-or ten-year intervals, but you still go back to the same roots.”

Fantasy and imagery in whatever Owens did stem from the fact he was a cartoonist since age 12. The voice for “Space Ghost,” “Roger Ramjet,” and Ren & Stimpy’s “Powdered Toast Man” was also an accomplished writer. “How To Make A Million Dollars With Your Voice – Or Lose Your Tonsils Trying” details ways to delve into cartoons, radio, television, commercials, films and public speaking, with Owens admitting, “It’s a handbook, but it’s also silly.”

Warmheartedly noting his career in the medium has been “a wonderful ride,” Owens commented to Kinosian in their conversation several years ago, “I still enjoy radio as much as I ever have. If it ever stops being fun, I’ll probably just quit doing it.”

EDITOR’s NOTE:  The following piece originally ran on Sunday, February 15 — two days after Owens’ passing.

Owens Was One-Of-A Kind.  As a follow-up to yesterday’s story (Saturday, 2/14) about the passing of Gary Owens, we are continuing to track comments on social media. Not only are there hundreds and hundreds of glowing tributes, they all echo the same theme: Over and above easily being one of the most revered, fondly held individuals in the business, Owens mentored and influenced as many – if not the most – aspiring broadcasters as anyone we have seen. Comment-to-comment verbiage is remarkably similar in that the 80-year-old Owens, a diabetic since he was about eight, alienated virtually no one in his tremendously celebrated career. Isolating only a handful of comments from the countless ones already posted in social media might seem unfair; however, an attempt to reprint each glowing remembrance of the man with the golden voice would simply be an exercise in futility. Owing to that reason, we highlight a representative cross-section of comments from those honoring Owens’ memory, beginning with sitcom writer/director par excellence Ken Levine, of whom Owens specifically referenced in the profile we posted Saturday. “Every career starts with that first person who believed in you and gave you a chance and saw potential in you when others didn’t; for me, that person was Gary Owens,” comments Gary Owens and Ken LevineLevine shown (at left) with Owens. “His rich deep voice was distinctive and golden, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Gary Owens was one of the most creative individuals I have ever met – wickedly funny, irreverent, absurd, and with impeccable comic timing. He elevated silliness to an art. The voice was just the instrument – he made the music.” It was in 1969 when Levine first met Owens, then a prominent fixture on NBC-TV‘s “Laugh-In,” as well as doing afternoon drive on Los Angeles’ KMPC. “I was a lowly sports intern making minimum wage,” Levine jests. “He took me under his wing. I wrote comedy bits for him and was blown away that he used some of them on the air. The great Gary Owens thought they were good enough. In Gary’s autobiography, he mentions that he discovered me and that is absolutely true. This entertainment titan at the top of his game was still making time to mentor a lowly intern; I was not the only one. [One particular] kid in Indiana was inspired by Gary Owens – Gary would give of his time to critique the lad’s tapes and encourage him.” That “kid” grew up to be David Letterman and Levine remarks, “That was Gary – forever kind, forever helpful and supportive, inspiring by his example. The magic voice was a gift – the rest was a conscious choice. I am proud to say I was his friend for almost 50 years and getting together with Gary was always a treat. He taught me a lot about comedy and more about humility. Gary Owens was a special person.” When iHeartMedia director of production Jim Duncan was 18, he and KRTH “K-Earth 101,” Los Angeles afternoon drive talent “Shotgun” Tom Kelly (then 17), drove to the KMPC studios in Hollywood. “We told the guard we had an appointment with Gary Owens, but of course we did not,” Duncan admits. “I told Tommy that there was no way we were going to ever meet him [but] a producer escorted us radio beginners from San Diego to his studio [and Gary] let us stay through his entire afternoon show. On our mostly silent drive home, we were stunned by what had happened that magical day. We said to each other that if we ever became famous, we would never have a ‘big star’ attitude and would always pay it forward.” Thirty years later, Duncan had the opportunity to work on-air with Owens and Duncan declares, “My career came full circle.” At right in their time at Los Angeles’ KLAC are Owens, Mel Torme‘sGary Owens, Jim Duncan, and Torme daughter Daisy Torme, and Duncan. “It is the end of an era, when the Los Angeles voiceover community was a delightful family,” is how incomparable television warm-up personality and voiceover talent Randy West summarizes Owens’ passing. “He will be missed greatly – never a nicer guy to be found. Gary always remembered everyone’s name, where he saw you last, who you were with, and what you spoke about. I knew I had achieved some minor level of success and membership in the business when one night, I got a call from a studio engineer. Gary had just left a narration session after reading to a video in which I had a small on-camera part. The engineer told me that Gary immediately recognized me and said he wanted to wait a beat before the next line to be sure he Gary Owens and Randy Westdidn’t ‘step on’ me. I knew then that I had arrived.” Getting off one of the finest of the ongoing stack of tribute lines, West (at left with Owens in a vintage picture) humorously opines, “As Gary would be saying right now, ‘Services will he held in the Krellman room at Foonman Brothers memorial center and matzo ball bakery.'” Following various stints as an on-air radio talent, Joe Cipriano has become one of television’s most successful, omnipresent promo voices. “One of my favorite things about moving to Los Angeles in 1980 was that I could turn on KMPC and actually hear Gary Owens live on my car radio every day while driving to work,” Cipriano recounts. “All of us in broadcasting idolized him as the iconic voice and face of ‘Laugh In,’ but to be in the same city where he was on the radio every day was such a gift. He was the ‘king of silly.’ I think he befriended just about everyone in Los Angeles broadcasting from the 1960s right up to 2015. I was lucky to be one of those who worked with him in radio and voiceovers and I was treated with ‘Gary-isms’ daily. What a gentle man, a funny man, and a real treasure. I’m one of so many who will miss his smile, his kindness, and his hilarious stories.” Veteran major market programmer and longtime wakeup talent on Tucson adult contemporary KMXZ “Mix,” Tucson Bobby Rich is among those “honored” to have known Owens. “I invited him to speak at a small radio conference in Orange County, California,” Rich posts. “When I hadn’t heard from him an hour before the Saturday morning he was scheduled to appear, I called his home. He was so apologetic to have forgotten the event that he jumped in his car and arrived 45 minutes later, [but] still on time.” If you canGary Owens, Wink Martindale, Casey Kasem imagine it, KMPC, Los Angeles boasted both Owens and television game show icon Wink Martindale in back-to-back on-air shifts. “I’m saddened at the passing of ‘Laugh-In’ announcer and voice extraordinaire Gary Owens,” mentions Martindale (at right with Owens and the late Casey Kasem). “When I did the 12:00 noon – 3:00 pm shift on KMPC and preceded Gary, my specialty was audio biographies of showbiz folks, mostly singers. Gary agreed to participate in one on his own career in the 1970s. It was Gary at his typical, zany best. What a talent – rest in peace, Gary.” Sonoma Media Group president Michael O’Shea is “blessed” to have had two experiences with Owens. “The first one was in 1979 [when O’Shea was] Gary Owens with Michael O'Shea and Budd Friedmannational program director for Gene Autry‘s Golden West Broadcasters and KMPC, Los Angeles; Gary did afternoon drive.” Twenty-two years, O’Shea (shown at left with Owens and The Improv founder Budd Friedman) was co-founder of Hollywood’s All-Comedy Radio and points out, “Gary was our off-stage announcer. Rest in peace Gary – in ‘beautiful downtown Burbank.'”

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TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian can be emailed at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.

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