Tales of the Tape - January 1996 (Gary Owens Interview Pt. 1)

by Dennis Daniel

While I was at NAB in New Orleans last September, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview the legendary Gary Owens. There's lots to share, so without further adieu, here's the first in a special 2-part Tales of the Tape.

gary-owens-jan96Dennis: How did you get from an announcer at a local station into television and film and all the various areas you've been in?
Gary: Well, mine was sort of planned. A lot of it was serendipity that just happened by accident. But, for the most part, I wanted to come to California because that's where the film business was. It was where the television business was--primarily comedy in television and animated cartoons, even though New York has always had its fair share of that, too. Hollywood was the place to be at the time when I came out from the Midwest. I came out from St. Louis to San Francisco and then from San Francisco down to Hollywood. I was transferred from KEWB, which was the number one station in the San Francisco area, down to KFWB, and we were number one here. It was a phenomenal time. One out of every two radios was tuned to our stations, and you couldn't get any better than that.

But, I had to make a decision because I didn't come here only for radio. The reason I came to Hollywood at that time was to do all those other things. Now KMPC, which was the leading middle of the road radio station, offered me a job to come over and do the afternoon show. Albeit I was doing mornings at KFWB and doing very, very well, I wasn't doing a lot of commercials, and I wasn't doing a lot of outside television. I was primarily on air, although I was writing for Jay Ward at that same time as an animated cartoon writer. Jay at that time was doing Bullwinkle and Fractured Flickers and a show called The Nuthouse, which was sort of a forerunner to Laugh-In in many respects. At that time there were a number of us who were hired to write for the various shows that he had, and that was a great opportunity. The only thing is, I wanted to do a lot of things. I wanted to get into acting, so I knew I had to do something to bring my name to the people who made television shows like the producers, the directors, the writers, and so on. And they weren't really listening to rock and roll necessarily. So when I got the job offer at KMPC, which was a middle of the road Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Nelson Riddle kind of station, I didn't jump at the chance. I had to think about it because, why should I give up a number one morning show in Los Angeles? But I did it because I felt I should be looking at the twenty-year plan, and I was correct. It was a difficult thing to do, but after being at KMPC for about a year, I started doing a lot of things. I did McHale's Navy, The Munsters, all of those kinds of shows, and primarily it was from direct results of directors, writers, and producers listening to my radio show on the way home. And, of course, there aren't many cities like that.

But that was part of my plan, and each thing you did, you tried to publicize as best as you could. You would buy an ad in the trade papers, Variety, and the Hollywood Reporter. I had several different agents working for me. They would usually buy an ad for you and say, "We'd like to congratulate our client, Harlo Goublee, for doing this or that, for appearing in the movie 'How's Your Sister,'" or whatever it might be. There's a lot of self-promotion that does take place in radio all the time, but even more so in the other fields because there are many people after the same thing, even more today when you have Gene Hackman, Michael Douglas, and James Coburn, who are primarily actors, doing commercials all the time.

Dennis: There are a lot of famous disk jockeys that have moved into television, and most of them are from Los Angeles, like Jay Thomas and Rick Dees. What other names come to mind that our readers might not recognize as former disk jockeys?
Gary: Bob Crane went into it in the same way. He came out from Hartford, Connecticut, where he had been a good disk jockey. He did the morning show at KNX in Los Angeles and eventually started working part-time on the Donna Reed Show. Then, of course, he got on Hogan's Heroes which was tremendous for him. So he had planned that even that far back. Prior to that, there were people like Dick Haynes who did many, many motion pictures. He probably did a hundred movies, a hundred westerns, and he was the morning disk jockey at KLAC for years.

Now, New York, for example, is more of a publishing area than Los Angeles is, so if you're a top disk jockey in New York, your chance of getting a couple of books or an autobiography of yourself is much easier in New York than it would be, say, in Chicago or San Francisco or Detroit or wherever you might be. So each city has its own special talents waiting for you.

There's nothing wrong with being only in radio because that unto itself is a very high paying field and a great reward for what you do. It's just that as long as you're in Hollywood, you may as well take advantage of all the other things. I guested on Love and War late last year with Jay Thomas. You brought Jay's name up and he is a fine actor. Jay developed into a wonderful actor, and he does some great comedic things.

Dennis: Your deep, dulcet, beautiful voice is so recognizable. There's a definitive quality to your voice. How did you cultivate it?
Gary: Well, I've always studied. When I was about twelve years old, I had a little recording machine at home, and I would practice reading out of a newspaper every day, even at lunchtime, much to the chagrin of my parents. "Gary, eat your soup." "No, I'm reading the news, I'm sorry. Meanwhile, federal mediators on Capitol Hill...." "But, dear...." "No, I'm sorry, Mom, but I can't finish until the sports page is over." So I would do that. Practice makes perfect.

Dennis: What was your first job in radio?
Gary: Well, as it turned out, reading news is how I started; I started as a newscaster. I really never wanted to be a disk jockey. It's a silly, quick story of how I became a disk jockey in Omaha. I was hired as a newscaster at KOIL which was one of the two top stations. Then one day the News Director sent a telegram to the boss saying, "I'm staying on vacation in Porterville, California. Good-bye." So the manager comes in and says, "Gary, you'll have to take over as News Director." Well, I was a teenage News Director and learned a lot about the business at that time. Tom Brokaw and I are from the same area of South Dakota, my native state, and Tom always wanted to be in news, too. He certainly has done a great job at it with NBC. But that was my first love.

So suddenly, after being there about two weeks, the guy who was the disk jockey couldn't take it any more. He didn't like the guy who owned the radio station, and he quit on the air in the middle of his show. He said, "That's it. I'm leaving. Good-bye." And he runs out the door and they said, "Well, somebody's got to take over," so I take over. I'd never run turntables before. We had six turntables, two lavaliere microphones, and a couple of tape recorders. It was just terrible. I'd make up jokes about how bad I was. But I finally got to learn imperceptible overlap with turntables where there was no squeak, no nothing, and I became pretty adroit at it. Within a couple of months I became number one in Omaha. Then KIMN Denver heard about me and hired me away from Omaha, and that started the whole thing.

Dennis: Are there any people working in the voice-over and radio production industry right now that you have reverence for or about whom you would say, "This is who you should listen to" or "these are the people you should check out."
Gary: Well, I think there are a lot of great talents in the business, and I think you should listen to almost every talent in the top ten markets because if they weren't good, they wouldn't be in those markets for the most part. That's a pretty good generic forum. You can take the same humor and use it for television, cartoons, newspapers, radio, and it's all maybe the same thought for the most part. Stan Freberg, one of the great comedy minds of all time and a great advertising genius, did wonderful things with sound effects and with musicals and choruses and orchestras and all of these things. You can learn from everybody. It doesn't mean you should copy what they are doing, but if it sets your mind in a pattern....

When I was a kid I read Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelman and listened to Henry Morgan. Henry Morgan was a very offbeat comic on radio. He had one of the strangest, silliest shows of all time, and sponsors would cancel him every week. Then they'd come back again shortly. If you have a chance to listen to the old Henry Morgan tapes, he was a brilliant performer.

Dennis: My big guys were Orson Welles and Ernie Kovacs.
Gary: Oh, sure. Orson did comedy. Most people don't think of Orson Welles as a comedic actor necessarily, but he did comedy very well. I worked with him on, I guess perhaps fifteen or sixteen occasions, and of course, every Laugh-In Halloween Show was with Orson Welles and Vincent Price. And Orson had this wonderful stentorian tone, always doing that Shakespearian kind of actor that he was, and he was so very good. But he did have a sense of humor. Orson Welles was one of those great voices. And Ernie Kovacs...a brilliant man.

Dennis: Did you ever know Ernie?
Gary: Oh yes indeed. Edie Adams and I chat about him frequently. He did some very funny things. Rowan and Martin were appearing in Las Vegas--this is back in the late fifties or early sixties--and they were doing a show in Vegas. And Ernie, of course, was an inveterate gambler. He loved to gamble. So they were in the hotel suite, and Ernie has a terrible headache. So he says, "Guys, I've got to sit out the next hand. I've got to go down to the drugstore downstairs. I've been trying room service and it's busy. I can't wait any longer. I've got a splitting headache. I'll be right back. I've got to go buy a bottle of aspirin." So about thirty minutes later, Ernie shows up. He's been gambling, playing baccarat, playing at any gaming table he could find, and he lost fifty thousand dollars in thirty minutes.

Dennis: On his way to get aspirin.
Gary: Yeah, and he says, "This is a fifty thousand dollar headache." He was brilliant.

Dennis: A lot of younger people don't have the patience to understand historically what they're viewing or what they're listening to and put it in its perspective. You should make yourself go back to the nineteen fifties and realize what was going on at that time. It will enrich you and give you inspiration.
Gary: That's true. Be a voracious reader and a voracious listener. Most people don't listen in retrospect to know what happened before. People like Milt Kamen and others who are brilliant comics and did some spectacular things. Bob Crane, when he started in Los Angeles, was one of the wizards of the turntable. He had wonderful things taking place. Wally Phillips, when he was in Cincinnati at WLW had some of the great quick sound effects of all time. You know, a guy would come in, just some little voice, "Hey, what are you doing?" and then he would have a joke pertaining to whatever the little disembodied voice would say. But it would always be a funny joke, so it wasn't just a silly voice coming in. There was a joke for the payoff. And you can insult a disembodied voice easier than you can insult a real person.

My forte, if it is a forte, has always been dealing with comedy because I have a voice like a person who does the news or sounds like he knows what he's talking about.

Dennis: Right, and while you're doing the news or whatever and then all of a sudden you're silly, that's the shocking aspect of it. And that's what makes it work.
Gary: Yeah, so practically everything I've done has had a comedy base to it, and although it's very funny, many people don't even stop to think of that. I started as a comedy writer years ago. My actual beginnings were that of a cartoonist. I was selling cartoons when I was a teenager, those little one-panel gag cartoons. And there isn't any difference between doing that and writing a television show because that's all television sitcoms really are, a series of one-panel cartoons themed together.

Dennis wraps up his interview with Gary Owens next month. We'd like to pass on a special thanks to B.J. Cohen of the NAB for her assistance in putting this interview together.

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