Saturday, February 14, 2015

Gary Owens: 1934-2015

Longtime voice-over specialist, disc jockey, radio and television personality Gary Owens has died at the age of 80. The cause of death is Diabetes related.

The first time I remember hearing the voice of Gary Owens is back in the 1980's most definitely. Although at that point in time I wasn't really into learning the names of the voice actors and actresses, I had been unknowingly hearing Gary's voice for several years before I found out. My first memory of hearing that voice is on the cartoon series, Space Ghost. I found out the name behind the character in the late '80s on Nick-at-Nite. Although the cable channel aired it after most kid's bedtimes, I couldn't help but stay up just a little longer and see a particular program that aired at 11pm called Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

Does someone around 14 or 15, seeing the program for the first time in the late 1980s, really comprehend all of the one-liners and late 1960s topical jokes? Unless the child is amazingly gifted in American culture history at that age then my answer is "no". Why did the series appeal to me? I think it appealed to me because of it's cartoonish delivery and it's zany atmosphere. Also...the presence of that voice...the voice of Gary Owens and his hysterical seriousness amongst all the chaotic happenings around him.

He served as the program's off-screen announcer, calling the names of the host and cast members, but doubled as an on-screen broadcaster, cupping one hand to his ear, and delivering all sorts of insane dialogue in the guise of a serious news bulletin. Most often a scene would cut from one joke and then to Gary and then to another joke or back to a cast member just looking into the camera and not saying anything until they break up in laughter and leave the stage.

The comedy series had a major impact on television viewers and created several catchphrases. It ran 6 seasons, 1968-1973. Due to it being a mid-season replacement series it had the opportunity of having roughly half a season's worth of programs on the air several months before the start of the official 1968-1969 season. It premiered on January 22, 1968 and initially ran until April 29, 1968. It returned in the fall of 1968 to begin it's first full season and it officially remained in production until early 1973. Gary appeared on every episode during it's five and a half season run. Some of the notable guests that appeared were Richard Nixon, John Wayne, Tiny Tim...and most of them appeared in split second fashion on-screen uttering a one-liner or one of the program's catchphrases. John Wayne appeared in a much longer clip, by comparison to the usual rapid fire pace of the surrounding clips, and delivered a poem in a manner parodying Henry Gibson. Laugh-In also aired, originally, as an hour long program. During it's rerun life on Nick-at-Nite those half hours were cut and edited and spliced into individual half hours.

Unfortunately by my living in the Midwest I didn't get to experience hearing Gary's legendary radio programs that aired in California throughout the '60s, '70s, and into the '80s. His most durable role is that of disc jockey/radio personality and in between songs there'd be comical sketches or banter heard on the air. I wouldn't call him a shock jock, based on today's definitions, but he certainly became legendary for the insertion of humor and intentional blatant nonsense in his broadcasts that you just didn't hear that much of anymore on radio. I've heard snippets of a couple radio broadcasts from his Los Angeles program and the closest thing the Midwest had to Gary Owens happened to be a Cincinnati radio personality named Gary Burbank. The Cincinnati radio entertainer has since retired but he often replied, if asked, that his on-air name is inspired by "Gary" as in Gary Owens and "Burbank" from Gary Owens' Laugh-In catchphrase "...beautiful downtown Burbank". After hearing snippets of the radio program from Gary Owens and being familiar with Gary Burbank's style of radio comedy for so many years I can definitely hear the influence.

Here's an air-check from a 1969 Gary Owens radio HERE. It features the sort of comical banter he'd fill his programs with between songs or introducing commercials and it includes real and fake commercial readings. It's nearly half an hour. Scroll down to the audio button after you click the link. Gary makes on air mentions of Geoff Edwards, Dick Enberg, and more. It's a fabulous audio time capsule. After listening to that, you can click HERE for an air-check from 1970. You'll hear the voice of another Los Angeles DJ, Dick Whittinghill, in that audio clip and other personalities at KMPC in that era. A promo for the California Angels baseball game from Dick Enberg is included in that air-check.

His radio career can be traced back to the early 1950s. He held his KMPC job for 20 years (1962-1982). In his career he had stints at KORN, KMA, KOIL, KROY, KEWB prior to KMPC. After KMPC he found himself working at several stations throughout the 1980s. Those included KKGO, KPRZ, and much later for a brief time on KFI. He continued being associated with radio, on and off, and throughout the late 1990s and into the 2000s he was part of the Music of Your Life format of programs. The series, by the time Gary came aboard, featured celebrities and former AM radio disc jockeys hosting individual radio programs of their own and so Gary happened to be a natural choice. He remained hosting radio programming for Music of Your Life until 2004 according to most sites I've read over the years.

I purposely haven't included a really thorough detailed time line (such as providing specific months, dates, or years) about his radio, voice-over, and television careers because the information is easily available on other sites and blogs all over the internet. This short tribute is more about my thoughts, opinions, and memories.

Along side his radio career he did the announcing on a diverse list of programs and did voice overs for commercials for both radio and television. Myself being a cartoon fan, Gary had the biggest impact on me through not only his Laugh-In appearances but through his vocal performances as Space Ghost and Blue Falcon. Later on in the 1990s I learned about Roger Ramjet thanks to the reruns that were airing at the time on The Family Channel. You can click the collage for a bigger examination. Space Ghost used to air in reruns on a USA Network program called Cartoon Express. This USA series is also where I first seen episodes of Blue Falcon. Technically, though, Blue Falcon didn't have his own self-titled program. Blue Falcon appears on the series, Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. In each series Gary provided the voice for the superhero...Space Ghost is more of a legitimate action-adventure series. It's set in outer space and the plots typically revolve around Space Ghost and his team of helpers (Jan, Jace, and Blip) fighting all sorts of monsters, creatures, and dictatorial leaders from far off galaxies and universes. Space Ghost travels in a ship called The Phantom Cruiser and all members of the crime fighting team have the ability to turn themselves invisible if needed.

The series aired for one season, 1966-1967, and it contains 42 individual adventures. It remained in reruns for another season, 1967-1968, prior to it becoming a long running series (in reruns) in local syndication for the next 10+ years. The Space Ghost series was revived in 1981 as part of a package series called Space Stars. Gary returned as the voice of Space Ghost and an additional 22 episodes aired. So, altogether, Gary voiced Space Ghost on 64 episodic adventures.

Blue Falcon, by contrast, appeared on a comical action-adventure series. Although Blue Falcon is depicted as a serious crime fighter and his vocals provided by Gary Owens in that deep baritone bravado, his sidekick Dynomutt is a klutzy robotic canine that's forever messing up Blue Falcon's strategies and getting the duo in all kinds of predicaments. Gary voiced Blue Falcon during the 1976-1977 television season and later the character surfaced on Scooby's All-Star Laff-a-Lympics and it's sequel, Scooby's All Stars during the next couple of seasons on Saturday morning TV. In those series Blue Falcon and his sidekick had recurring scenes as part of the Scooby Doobie team. The latter two programs are a parody of the Olympics and ABC-TV's Battle of the Network Stars. In all, Gary performed the voice of Blue Falcon on 20 individual episodes during the 1976-1977 season. The adventures are most often aired in reruns as part of package programming due to the limited number of episodes available.

In his later years Owens often appeared on nostalgia programming centered either on AM radio or on the television series, Laugh-In. He had a fascination about Dinosaurs, too, that isn't as widely known as his TV and radio work happens to be. He wrote a book about being in the voice-over business and you can see that book in the above collage I posted. It's available at Amazon. He provided the voice-over messages for classic television network, Antenna TV, during the final years of his life. 

Here's an ARTICLE that features commentary from Barbara Eden and Wink Martindale about their thoughts on Gary.

Gary Owens passed away on Thursday February 12, 2015. The news didn't reach the public until Friday. In a bizarre chain of events the story of his death appeared in a post from Variety magazine early in the morning hours on Friday. There as not a single story confirming the news Variety posted and I immediately assumed it must be one of those death hoaxes that seem to be commonplace particularly with yesterday being Friday the 13th of all days.

Strangely enough more than 8 hours after the news of his death appeared in a social media message from Variety, the publication re-posted the news once again. Suddenly, not long after that re-posting, reports started to pour in from all news sites and from there it became a snowball of reports about him passing away. In the link I posted, if you look at the time it appeared on-line, note it's late in the day on Friday. It happened to be the 5-6pm time frame in which the news of his death spread all over the internet.

Here's something to think about...

Some sites state that he was born in 1936 and others say 1934. All over the internet the various reports say he happened to be 80. His birth month and date is May the 10th and if his true birth year is 1934 then indeed he really was 80. The funny thing is, prior to Friday, all the internet sites listed May 10, 1936 as his birth date. I'm sure 1934 is his accurate birth year...and all of those sites I'd taken a look at Friday have since changed their year of Gary's birth from 1936 to 1934. I'm using the 1934 birth year because that's the one reported by so many outlets and there isn't any conflicting stories using 1936 as his birth year. In the future should it be revealed that 1936 is his true birth year I'll correct the title of this blog entry.

Gary Owens: 1934-2015

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