By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, Feb. 14, 2015 — He signed his first note to me “Best Krelbs, Gary Owens.”
In later years, he introduced me to the Maytag repairman, sent me a vintage copy of Laugh-In magazine from his own personal stockpile, and invited me to Los Angeles to be his guest at one of the monthly get-togethers of Yarmy’s Army.
And yet, the fact was, I barely knew him.
But corresponding with the press, even a reporter located 3,000 miles away in New York, was how a certain generation of TV and radio personalities conducted their own publicity. And so, I would receive these handwritten notes and occasional phone calls from Gary Owens in which he would update me on his career.
He would call and announce in his distinctive voice that it was Gary Owens calling from “beautiful downtown Encino.” And he’d tell me what he was up to, including the latest news about Yarmy’s Army.
This was a loosely structured club whose members were mainly comedians and character actors whose faces, but not necessarily their names, were familiar to anyone who regularly watched the TV situation-comedies of the 1960s and 1970s.
It was named for an actor named Dick Yarmy, brother of Don Adams (born Donald Yarmy), who was stricken with cancer. To cheer him up, his friends rallied to entertain him. After he died, they continued to meet once a month, calling themselves Yarmy’s Army. Gary Owens was proud to belong to this group, and he mentioned them often.
Today, many of those club members who I may have met if I had accepted his invitation (proffered sometime in the 1990s) are now gone, some long-gone. And now, Gary’s gone too. He died Thursday at age 80.
And now, I’m writing one of these remembrance blogs — again. It’s not that I go around looking for opportunities to eulogize the dead. But due to what you might call “lifespan arithmetic,” a handful of personalities I first met when I was in my 20s and 30s are now in their 80s and now, well, you do the math.
The truth is, I formed relationships with very few such people over the years. It is a very finite list. But it just so happens, though, that Gary Owens was one of them (as was Joe Franklin, who died a few weeks ago and who I wrote about HERE).
I first made contact with Gary Owens in March 1983 because I had just read in the Washington Post that Owens, then a radio personality in Los Angeles, was spearheading a campaign to honor the Three Stooges with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
The Three Stooges and Gary Owens: For me, this was a winning combination.
So, I decided to try and get him on the phone — probably the first time in my career that I attempted to reach some public personality on the phone in my capacity as a journalist covering the broadcasting business. To be specific, I was covering radio as the editor of a small biweekly newsletter called RadioNews, based in Bethesda, Md.
To my amazement, Gary Owens — who I knew best as the comical announcer on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” — came to the phone after I called his L.A. station and simply asked to speak with him. He then told me of his campaign to honor the Stooges with a bronze sidewalk star (a “campaign” that became successful just a few months later) and explained that he’d known the Stooges personally (at least some of them).
If memory serves, he was particularly fond of Larry Fine (who died in 1975) — telling me how he’d often run into Larry shopping for groceries at a supermarket in Hollywood (I believe it was a Safeway) and my imagination blazed with a mental image of the “beautiful downtown Burbank” announcer from “Laugh-In” chatting amiably with wild-haired Larry Fine of the Three Stooges somewhere in a supermarket produce department.
Gary’s note with his nonsensical “Best Krelbs” sign-off accompanied a clipping from the Los Angeles Times reporting on the success of his Three Stooges campaign. “Thanks for the help,” he wrote, which was very gracious of him to do since I had written just one tiny story on this subject for RadioNews, a newsletter whose circulation was a paltry 800 subscribers scattered around the country, which meant my tiny story had no bearing on the success or failure of his Three Stooges campaign.
I came face to face with Gary Owens only once, at one of the broadcasting-industry conventions I used to cover in the 1980s. This one was the National Association of Broadcasters’ Radio ’87 Convention in Anaheim, Calif., and I ran into Gary in a hotel suite in the company of two of his friends — Jesse White, the actor best known as the original Maytag repairman and Jack Riley, a character actor best known for playing a neurotic patient of Dr. Bob Hartley on the old “Bob Newhart Show.”
(I wrote about this encounter, from which my memories of the Maytag repairman are most prominent, in my book “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” excerpted below.)
Gary’s notes to me, handwritten (actually, printed — he didn’t use cursive) on simple stationery, were cheerful missives. “Well, finally, one of the vintage Laugh-in magazines! Sorry it took so long!” he wrote in a note in January 1997 that came with this magazine that he had apparently promised me but I had completely forgotten about (nor ever really expected to receive).
“Hell has certainly broke loose weather-wise,” he continued, commenting on some severe winter weather that had apparently hit New York. “In L.A., the kids build smog-men in the yard & put a carrot in for a nose,” he joked.
For some reason, he then segued into a story about Elvis Presley because Elvis’s long-time manager, Col. Tom Parker, had recently died. “Sorry about Col. Tom Parker,” he wrote. “First time I met him I was a kid in radio in New Orleans and was chatting with Elvis — suddenly about 20 girls stormed the mezzanine of the St. Charles Hotel and ripped Presley’s clothes & mine! (all set up by the Colonel!) Best — GO.”
I possess five notes from Gary Owens, a photo of Gary and me at the 1987 radio convention, the copy of Laugh-In magazine he gave me, and an autographed picture (the one above).
“Thought I’d drop you a line to let you know what’s happening,” he wrote to me in January 1999.
“After guesting on a recent ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch,’ I’ve been doing a lot of on-camera goodies. Just finished taping a comedy commercial for Roseanne’s talk show. I’ll be playing myself on February 21st on Fox on ‘That ’70s Show.’ Also guesting on TBS — ‘Friday Night at the Drive-In,’ ‘Politically Incorrect’ on ABC-TV and ‘The American Comedy Awards’ on Fox.”
He ended this letter: “My national radio show continues strong – getting great ratings on WLUX in Nassau-Suffolk [Long Island] (we’re now in more than 150 cities.)
“Best wishes [not Best Krelbs],
And the same to you, Gary.
Book excerpt, from “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television,” by Adam Buckman (all rights reserved)
From Chapter Two: A LICENSE TO PRINT MONEY
Part IV: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS
The whole point of the television business, then as now, was to make money from advertising. The programs, whether good or bad, were produced solely to create an environment for the commercials.
And the star of one of the most famous series of commercials in the history of television gave me a lesson in another part of show business – the money part. He was a blustery character actor named Jesse White, who worked steadily in movies and TV shows from the 1940s to the 1990s, but became best known as the Maytag repairman, a role he played in TV commercials for 22 years.
I met him in September 1987 in Anaheim, Calif., in the company of a Los Angeles radio personality with whom I was faintly acquainted, Gary Owens, who years before had become famous as the “beautiful downtown Burbank” announcer on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” I ran into both of them in a hotel suite adjacent to the Anaheim Convention Center, where the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual radio convention was being held.
I was always flying out to cover trade shows in those years. There were at least a half-dozen a year, maybe more. The TV and radio industries loved to organize themselves into groups and hold conventions, mainly in warm climates – Anaheim and Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta, San Antonio, Atlantic City. There was even one meeting in Toledo, Ohio – a midsummer convention of an association representing TV stations from smaller cities. All attendees, including journalists, were treated to a Toledo Mud Hens game and dinner at Tony Packo’s, a hot-dog and sausage joint made famous by a fictional character who hailed from Toledo, the cross-dressing Corporal Klinger played by Jamie Farr (also a Toledo native) on the TV show “M*A*S*H.”
I loved covering the trade shows. You were expected to produce a couple of stories for the following week’s edition of Electronic Media, but I spent most of my time checking out the exhibition booths and hanging around the hotel bars. On the exhibition floor, you’d get to see the new models of TV cameras put on display by the big electronics companies – the portable, shoulder-mounted video cameras used in newsgathering and the big stationary cameras used in television studios. You’d also get to play around with them if you could effectively convince the salespeople manning the booths that you were interested in writing a story about their products (though I never actually did). Among the innovations on display at every TV trade show in those years: High-definition TV, a good 10-15 years before the technology would be widely available to broadcasters or consumers.
In the bars, you’d prospect for stories by chatting up the convention attendees. Among other things, I discovered that nearly everyone in the radio business has a radio voice, having invariably done on-air work earlier in their careers before moving up the ladder to station management. You’d meet some executive then in his 50s or 60s who ran a station or group of stations and then learn some time later that once upon a time this guy had been a disc jockey known as Wild Willie, King of the Kilocycles.
In the evenings, I’d make the rounds of the hotel suites reserved by the big radio and TV companies in search of free food and drink. These “hospitality suites” were set up to fete the many station managers, air personalities and journalists who’d come to the conventions from all over the country.
Gary Owens then had a syndicated radio show or two and he was stationed for the evening at the 1987 NAB radio convention – “NAB Radio ’87” – in his syndicator’s hospitality suite, where I found him with Jesse White and another friend who’d tagged along with them, Jack Riley, a dour comic actor who was best known for playing an irascible neurotic named Mr. Carlin on the old “Bob Newhart Show.” I found myself in conversation with Jesse White, then 70, who told me some things about his career, focusing mainly on what apparently had been a career highlight – his supporting role in the 1950 film “Harvey,” starring Jimmy Stewart.
The conversation eventually turned to his long association with Maytag (a relationship which was then nearing its end). In light of all the movies and TV shows in which he had acted (including the 1951 film version of “Death of a Salesman,” starring Fredric March), I asked him why he stayed in the Maytag repairman role for so many years. He answered my question by suddenly pulling a rolled-up wad of one-, five-, 10- and 20-dollar bills out of his pocket. He thrust out his hand in triumph, and in his palm lay a wad of money that was so thick he couldn’t close his fingers around it. “This is why!” he said, grinning demonically.
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Contact Adam Buckman: firstname.lastname@example.org