Gary Owens died the other day. He was 80. I don’t know the exact cause of death but he’d suffered from diabetes for years. In 2011, as a member of the board of directors for the South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association, I recommended we induct Owens into the Hall of Fame in the disc jockey category which we did.
It was then up to me to let him know and extend an invitation to come back home to South Dakota so we could honor him in person. I managed to do that with the help of my pal, J.P. Skelly of Mitchell’s KORN Radio and long time friend of Owens. Below is the blog I wrote at the time about my encounter with this true broadcast legend and South Dakota gentleman.
I had a rather surreal experience the other morning. One of the biggest names in Hollywood gave me a call on my cell. Nah, it wasn’t an offer to be in a movie or TV show..but to respectfully decline an invitation to come home and be present in person for his induction into the South Dakota Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Hollywood big shot is GARY OWENS! Okay, I’ll bet I’ve lost some of you 40 and under types; “Gary who?” you say, “Never heard of him.” Oh, yes you HAVE! Even if the name doesn’t automatically ring a bell you’ve certainly “heard” him. Here’s a little background: Gary Altman was born and raised in Plankinton west of Mitchell. His mom was a teacher and county auditor; his dad was the sheriff. As a kid, he loved the idea of being on the radio and was determined to make that happen. He was just a teenager when KORN Radio in Mitchell gave him a chance. From that humble beginning, he went on to become one of the best known radio voices in the country. At a time when AM radio deejays were superstars who could influence the careers of rock and roll singers just by playing their songs, Gary Owens (he dropped the Altman) was one of the biggest.
With his delicious baritone pipes, clever off- the- wall commentary and crazy comedy characters, he conquered stations thoughout the Midwest and Southeast taking every one of them to number ONE in the ratings. During the fifties and sixties, he not only played the records of Elvis, Buddy Holly and all the other big names in rock and roll but he knew them personally. “I always worked off a playlist, though. I never took a penny in payola,” Owens told me. By 1961, he’d had made it to the top station in Los Angeles. From there he began breaking into television with guest appearances on the Jack Benny Program, McHale’s Navy, and The Munsters just to name a few. He also began doing voices for cartoon characters like Roger Ramjet, Space Ghost and hundreds more. In 1968, because of his quirky sense of humor, he was picked to be the straight laced, gibberish-speaking announcer on the wildly popular Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In which ran for six seasons on NBC. He was known for coining the phrase, “Beautiful Downtown Burbank.” Owens has done over 30 thousand commercials, is a member of the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame right between Walt Disney and Betty White.
Even though partially retired, Gary Owens is still busy. In fact, as I was writing this, I heard him on network TV voicing a movie trailer for an upcoming film.
Anyway, Owens was calling me back to express his genuine gratitude for being inducted into the South Dakota Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and disappointment at not being able to be in Sioux Falls on the 16th because of a prior commitment in San Francisco. We did interview him live for about an hour on Grant Peterson’s radio program over KBRK in Brookings. He is an absolute delight to visit with; humble, hilarious and the pride of Plankinton.
During the induction ceremony, family members from Plankinton were on hand to accept Gary’s plaque and to read a wonderful letter from their famous relative expressing his appreciation. Gary Owens is survived by his wife of 57 years, Arleta, and sons Scott Owens, a producer and Chris Dane Owens, a musician and producer.
I can hear him now with a classic line from “Laugh-in”. “ “This is Borgal the friendly drelb signing off from beautiful downtown Burbank.”
R.I.P. good sir.