"Good Night, George"

2008
Sep
13

GEORGE PUTNAM (all caps, because that’s the way he said everything), Los Angeles Television/Radio Legend, has died at the age of 94. A protege of Walter Winchell who came to L.A. in 1951 to restart a stalled career as a news anchor, he was famous for his dramatic style and extremely UNobjective reporting. Retrospective of his colorful career: Part One, Part Two. Best known on the Web as the "outstanding news reporter" who narrated the ’50s alarmist documentary "Perversion for Profit", he was also acknowledged as the model for the Mary Tyler Moore show’s bombastic newsman character Ted Baxter (seen here sitting in on a real newscast). Not restricting his editorializing to his daily "One Reporter’s Opinion" segment, he is credited/blamed for the election of Sam Yorty as mayor of Los Angeles. And when TV News outgrew him, he found a home for the next 30 years doing Talk Radio (where some of us believe Rush Limbaugh also modeled his style after him). And that’s the up-to-the-minute obitfilter; up to the minute, that’s all the obitfilter.

I have a personal memory of this bombastic broadcaster. In 1976, KFI Radio moved its studios, giving up a facility that included a ‘live audience’ studio where Golden Age radio shows including Jack Benny’s was produced. “Sweet” Dick Whittington, who was doing a daily offbeat talk show at KFI at the time, put his own spin onto the event and staged a final broadcast that was an old-style talent show with amateur talent recruited and auditioned over the phone on his regular show. Every television station in Los Angeles sent a news crew to the event, filming the singers, dancers, magicians and jugglers performing on the radio. (Think about that a moment)

When a couple of the performers failed to show up, Dick saw one of his better known ‘regular’ callers (a college student who would later work for him as his Producer at another station) in the audience and sent an assistant to ask him to get on stage and do SOMETHING. A few minutes later, Dick feigned surprise as he introduced an all-too-familiar ‘amateur’ who stepped out in front of several hundred people and a half-dozen cameras and announced his intent to do… a tightrope-walking act. Nervous laughter ensued; the chubby teenager in street clothes didn’t look the part. So he went on to explain that the truck with all his equipment was stuck in traffic so he would have to improvise. He then picked up a large cable sitting near the front of the stage, laid it out as straight as he could, and, while scat-singing some circus music, carefully walked the “Ground-Level High-Wire” across the stage and back again, earning enthusiastic applause after he jumped off the cable and yelled “TA DAA!” Afterwards, KFI’s Chief Engineer took him aside and told him to never touch the cables again.

That evening, the News broadcasts on every Los Angeles station showed ‘highlights’ of the broadcast, most as their show-closing ‘Lighter Side of the News’ segment, but none of them showed the Ground-Level High-Wire Act. Except George Putnam. and it wasn’t part of the official report; instead he deviated from his signature closing (something he did less than a dozen times in 20 years) to say “You know, television is a great medium, but there are still some things that you can only do on radio…” Then the newscast ended by showing the entire minute-and-a-half ‘act’ behind the credit crawl.

And, if you haven’t guessed yet, that college kid was me. I have never felt prouder to be the punchline of a joke in my life. Instead of closing by pointing at the American Flag, George Putnam pointed at me. “Here’s to a better America, George.”

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