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When the widow of legendary Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In announcer Gary Owens got up to speak at his memorial on April 12, there was a tense moment. Arleta Owens is a tiny woman in her late 70s who couldn’t quite reach the microphone, so a small box was brought out for her to stand on. Just as she got her bearings atop the box, a voice yelled out, “Don’t jump!” It was an interjection from Owens’ former boss, 82-year-old Laugh-In producer George Schlatter — an ad-lib that Owens, who died in February at the age of 80, would doubtless have appreciated. All went smoothly after that.
The affectionate celebration of Owens’ rich life, held at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills, was hosted by Arleta and their sons, Scott and Chris, and “produced” by writer-producer John H. Rappaport (Laugh-In, M*A*S*H), Mark Evanier (comedy/variety writer and animation producer) and writer Arnie Kogen (The Carol Burnett Show). On hand were about 300 guests who knew, worked with and/or admired Gary Owens in the various incarnations of his life and lengthy career — family, radio, television, commercials, animation, etc. The program included several delightful photo/clip montages showcasing Owens’ life and career. As expected, Laugh-In was well-represented, but there were also terrific clips of Owens from The Munsters, I Dream of Jeannie, The Love Bug, Space Ghost, Roger Ramjet and much more. And, of course, all the clips — audio and video — featured Owens’ unmistakably droll announcer baritone.
Ten shrewdly selected speakers shared affectionate, fascinating and laugh-out-loud funny stories and reminiscences. Ben Fong Torres, Owens’ friend of 50 years, began his remarks with, “Even though I worked for Rolling Stone, what I’m going to tell you is true…”
Schlatter explained how truly vital Owens was to Laugh-In. He said that hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin tended to ramble on forever in their comedy routines, so he brought in Owens to record wild lines in the style of an old-time radio announcer, such as, “Meanwhile, in another part of town…” and “Later that same night…” which could then be used to cut away from Rowan and Martin and go to, say, a party sequence or the famed joke wall. Laugh-In cast member Jo Anne Worley, 77, did her famous pearl-necklace spin — at which point it broke, causing her to look up toward the ceiling and say, “That never happened before. Thanks, Gary!”
With great sincerity, Fred Willard stated, “I know Gary’s in heaven because he already went through hell working with George Schlatter.” Then he feigned noticing Schlatter and deadpanned, “I did not realize Mr. Schlatter was here today, so I have a backup version: ‘I know Gary’s in heaven, because he already went through hell working with Arte Johnson.’ ” No problem, as Mr. Johnson was not in attendance. As Willard got to his seat, Schlatter yelled out, “You were the best one!”
As Kogen rattled off all that Gary had done for his career and his wife and son (The Simpsons writer-producer Jay Kogen), he said, “Come to think of it, Gary Owens did more for my family than I did.”
Others in attendance included Laugh-In writers Chris Bearde and Allan Katz, former mayor Richard Riordan, Mad magazine cartoonist Sergio Aragones, writer Ken Levine (Cheers, The Simpsons), comedian-director Howard Storm, Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall, documentarian Donna Kanter, writer-singer Monty Aidem (The New Laugh-In), actress Jolene Brand Schlatter (The Ernie Kovacs Show), actress Jackie Joseph (Little Shop of Horrors) and actor Hank Garrett (Car 54, Where Are You?), among many others.
Before leaving the podium, Worley asked everyone in the theater to stand, cup their right ear a la Gary Owens, and shout out, “Beautiful downtown Burbank!” The crowd was only too happy to oblige.
Steve Stoliar is the author of Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House.
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