“Space Ghost” was part of Hanna-Barbera’s all-too-brief run of adventure cartoons on Saturday mornings. Those cartoons still have extremely loyal fans. I’m not much of a “Space Ghost” fan—take away the kids and mandatory troublesome little animal and I might have been interested in it—and the show is a little later than the time frame this blog deals with, but I can’t let the death of Gary Owens pass without posting something.
Gary, of course, was Space Ghost. He was the narrator on “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop” and... well, I won’t get into a list of his cartoon shows and specials (which included work for Disney). His biggest fame is thanks to the now 47-year-old “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” where he seriously intoned silly announcements, the same kind of thing he brought to the narration of “Pitstop.”
He revelled in the ridiculous and was a wonderfully creative person. He began life as a radio newsman, becoming news editor at KOIL Omaha in November 1956 but somehow ended up as the station’s morning disc jockey before heading to KIMN Denver the following March to spin records. Broadcasting-Telecasting magazine reveals some of his early on-air hijinks:
“Top 60” is a record formula that has been succeeding well for disc jockey Gary Owens of KIMN Denver. Wondering if this program philosophy might not be a universal truth, Mr. Owens set out to telephone Radio Moscow. For two days he negotiated strike-bound domestic service, the Russian Embassy, the Atlantic Ocean and connecting points on the European continent, finally reaching a “Mr. Chekov” of Radio Moscow’s department of culture and music.
In English Mr. Chekov told the Denver d. j. that, no, Radio Moscow does not play “top tunes.” Nor do “the people” like rock -and -roll, Mr. Chekov told his interviewer. Listener requests are honored, however. Music by Prokofiev and Khachaturian leads the list of requests in the Red capital.
The taped conversation was played on Mr. Owens’ show Sept. 13.
(Sept. 23, 1957)
WNOE’s Owens Breaks Up N.O.
Gary Owens, WNOE New Orleans’ morning disc jockey, has teamed up with author Gerald Monday to produce a daily comic strip of the air. One Man's Frenzy, as the strip is called, satirizes various facets of the radio industry. Morning man Owens uses his versatile voice to portray eight different
characters. The gimmick is now being sold to New Orleans sponsors, the station reports.
(Jan. 27, 1958)
WIL D.J.’s Club Gives Hope
“Failures” in the St. Louis area may feel they are unsuccessful but at least they are organized, thanks to d.j. Gray Owens’ [sic] “Complete Failure” club on WIL St. Louis. Mr. Owens has issued more than 10,000 membership cards which certify that “I ... am a complete failure because I listen to The Gary Owens Show on WIL Radio.” Club founder Owens presented the "Failure" award of the year to a 14-year-old boy at the St. Louis Auto Show. Among the prizes were a gold-plated plaque and “the gift that keeps on giving”—an amoeba.
(Dec. 29, 1958)
By May 1961, Broadcasting reported that Owens had joined the announcing staff at KFWB Los Angeles. Less than four months later, he was on strike with five other employees, including Elliot Field, the original voice of Blabber. The strike created a lot of rancour and Elliot recalls the damage. He left KFWB. So did Owens who, in September 1962, arrived at KMPC Los Angeles to replace Jerry Dexter, another name that should be familiar to Hanna-Barbera fans.
TV critics didn’t take Saturday morning cartoons all that seriously; until 1965 that time of day was devoted to either puppet shows or failed/old kid fodder. So no one was rushing to interview the star of “Space Ghost” when it debuted in 1966. Except one columnist from the National Enterprise Association, who included this in his column of August 4, 1966.
By DICK KLEINER
MEET THE MERRY moonlighter. His name is Gary Owens and everybody in Southern California knows him. His basic claim to fiscal solidarity is as a disc jockey on a local radio station, KMPC. He’s either the funniest disc jockey in the world or else the disc jockiest comedian, one or the other.
Now he’s branching out again. Again. He already has several branch vocations, but the new one is the biggest and branchiest. He’ll play a regular part on the new Green Hornet series on ABC. He’s also the announcer on Bewitched, he does a lot of voices for Hanna-Barbera cartoons, he does many commercials and he has two sons.
Owens comes from Plankinton, S.D., and not many moonlighters can make that claim he’s jockied discs in Omaha, Denver, San Antonio, New Orleans, St. Louis and San Francisco, but he always wanted to work here because the moon lighting is better.
“That’s why I came here,” he says.
Now he’s so busy with his moonlighting that there’s barely enough time to squeeze the sunlighting in. But Gary isn’t ambitious to be a big actor. What he wants to do is have a company to produce television commercials. He’s now working on his first venture in that direction, a cigarette pitch which will feature only hands.
Watch for Gary Owens on Green Hornet. To use his own favorite word, he’s insegrevious.
Along came “Laugh-In” in January 1968. Along came instant fame. There’s no way to understate just how big a hit it was. Here’s an unbylined syndicated newspaper story from August 7, 1968. Cartoons get a brief mention.
Disc Jockey To Appear In ‘Laugh-In’
“Laugh-In” demolished Lucy last spring in the ratings, and radio’s Gary Owens, the regular with the deep voice and the glasses who derisively calls himself Irving Whiteshoes, expects the show to be in the top five for at least another season. Free to take an occasional day off from his 3-to-6 p. m. Los Angeles radio show, Owens will appear in more blackouts and do more writing.
Though Schlatter has 14 writers on the payroll, Gary is allowed to slip funnies into the community hopper, tidbits scribbed between his radio program, commercial-making (one or two a week is the average), guest appearances around town and voice recording sessions of TV kiddie cartoons “Roger Ramjet” and “Space Ghost.”
TV commercial takeoffs, song titles like “On a Clear Day You Can See Claire Trevor,” and lines about beautiful Burbank are Owens contributions. Burbank has been the disc jockey’s joke property for a number of years, and when Schlatter called up Owens, inviting him to be a serious regular, the Burbank material went along with the deal.
The show even makes use of Gary’s cartooning ability in the monthly “Laugh-In” magazine, debuting on newstands in August and the disc jocky ought to be heard on the show’s first record album of sound tracks to be released in mid-summer.
All this exposure naturally can’t hurt Gary. Fans familiar with the voice can associate with Irving Whiteshoes, a bespectacled mid-westerner with hair combed back in the old Harold Teen style. Owens Junior of Chamber Commerce front hides a humming mind that shoots out material while the man spins records, forcing the disc jockey to keep note paper always within reach.
Now, The Voice contemplates making a slapstick movie along the lines of a “Pink Panther.” The improved, free-wheeling wonders of Buster Keaton, a former neighbor, and the “Keystone Kops” turn Gary on, and he declares that “Laugh-In” has inherited some of that tradition using gems made up by the cast during the taping.
Owens could survive by writing, yet he likes to perform, letting out the ham, and he might as well work his extra special vocal chords, emitting a rick, deep sound without the help of any lymph nodules, bumps that usually contribute to the reasonance of an Alexander Scourby. Like Mel Brooks, Dick Cavett who wrote for Jack Paar, Carl Reiner and Chris Beard, the Canadian ax dancer on the show, writer Owens slows on stage or before a mike, but he’ll always play himself. Richard Burton doesn’t have to worry.
Gary’s main effort these busy days is simply to be at the radio studio by air time. He left the “Jeannie” set at 2:45 and just beat the clock, and was seen a few weeks earlier, running for his life down Hollywood Boulevard trying to make his deadline. He’s never been late, but close calls are on the upswing.
Gary’s cup is full, yet he has one problem. “I don’t know how to relax,” he says. “I must look into that some day.”
Owens had plenty of irons in the proverbial fire after this including humorous books, syndicated radio programmes, a stunningly unfunny TV show called “Letters To Laugh-In” (I stared at it in disbelief when I saw it in 1969) another venture called “The Gong Show” where he was just too professional to fit the amateur surroundings (the awkward and tic-ridden Chuck Barris was the perfect host) and even more cartoons such as “Dynomutt” and “Ren & Stimpy.”
One of the nice things to learn reading various tributes on the internet is that Gary Owens really was the upbeat, offbeat-loving guy he appeared on camera and universally liked. If you’d like to read more about him, there are so many places to go on the internet. Here are only two. Read this great interview with Kliph Nesteroff and this touching remembrance by baseball colour man and sitcom writer Ken Levine.