Obit…George Putnam

George Putnam, longtime L.A. newsman, dies at 94

 

 

A 1954 file photo of George Putnam in the KTTV newsroom (KTTV)

 

The anchorman and commentator known for his opinion segments had been suffering from a kidney ailment.

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By Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 13, 2008

 

George Putnam, the pioneer television news anchorman and conservative commentator whose distinctive stentorian voice was a mainstay of Southern California broadcasting for decades, has died. He was 94.   (Click on ‘Continue Reading’ for more)

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Putnam, who had been suffering from a kidney ailment since December, died early Friday morning at Chino Valley Medical Center, said Chuck Wilder, Putnam’s cohost, producer and announcer.

 

Beginning at KTTV Channel 11 in the early 1950s, Putnam quickly became a dominant and influential force in Los Angeles TV news. The winner of three Emmy Awards, he reportedly at one time was the highest-rated and highest-paid TV news anchor in Los Angeles.

 

“George Putnam established the template, the prototype of the local news anchorman that everyone came to accept — the deep voice, the carefully groomed hair, the friendly I’m-talking-directly-to-you-and-no-one-else presentation,” Joe Saltzman, a USC journalism professor, said Friday via e-mail.

 

“He became a friend (‘George’) to thousands of viewers, and his ‘One Reporter’s Opinion’ was one friend talking directly to another and explaining how he felt about the issues he spoke about on the news,” said Saltzman.

 

Putnam began his broadcast career on a Minneapolis radio station in 1934.

 

More than 70 years later, he was still at the microphone with his weekday, noon to 2 p.m. “Talk Back With George Putnam” syndicated radio program.

 

Distinguished career

Putnam did his last regular broadcast May 8 but returned July 14 for a one-hour broadcast marking his 94th birthday, during which he fielded phone calls from well-wishers, including actress Doris Day.

 

When Putnam was working for NBC in New York City in the early 1940s, influential newspaper columnist Walter Winchell declared that “George Putnam’s voice is the greatest in radio.”

 

But it was on television in Los Angeles a decade later that the tall, wavy-haired broadcaster with the rich baritone voice made his biggest mark.

 

“George was the great communicator, before that title was ever applied to anyone,” veteran KTLA-TV reporter Stan Chambers wrote in his 1994 book “News at Ten: Fifty Years With Stan Chambers.”

 

“His vibrant enthusiasm, commanding appearance and booming voice blended to make him a major force in television news,” Chambers wrote. “He not only delivered the news, he cared about it and got involved in his stories.”

 

In addition to his three Emmy wins, Putnam was the recipient of six California Associated Press Television and Radio Assn. awards and more than 300 other honors and citations.

 

On KTTV in the 1950s and early ’60s, Putnam would conclude his early evening news broadcast with his signature theatrical flair.

 

“And that’s the up-to-the-minute news, up to the minute, that’s all the news,” he would say, then add: “Back at 10, see you then!”

 

Blurred roles

Putnam was criticized by some for stepping beyond the bounds of his role as a reporter and into that of a commentator.

 

When L.A. County Dist. Atty. William B. McKesson, who had been appointed after Dist. Atty. Ernest Roll’s death in 1956, sought election, Putnam said during his news broadcast: “Many of you have asked where I stand in the race for Los Angeles district attorney. I stand for Los Angeles Dist. Atty. William B. McKesson.” He then listed his reasons for endorsing the candidate.

 

Former President Nixon, speaking on videotape during a 1984 roast of Putnam given by KTTV to celebrate his 50th anniversary in broadcasting, said of the outspoken newscaster: “Some people didn’t like what he said; some people liked what he said. But everybody listened to George Putnam. That is why he has been one of the most influential commentators of our times.”

 

Despite his reputation as a staunch conservative, Putnam said in a 1994 interview with The Times that he “never thought of myself as a conservative.”

 

“I detest labels,” he said. “I’ve been called many things in my career: right-wing extremist, super-patriot, goose-stepping nationalist, jingoistic SOB. And those are some of the nice things!

 

“But those people have never bothered to determine my background: Farmer-Labor Party, Socialist Party, lifelong member of the NAACP, member of the Urban League. I went through the Depression, and my father was reduced to selling peanuts door-to-door. Then, because of that, I fell in love with Franklin D. Roosevelt. I’ve been a lifelong Democrat. I’m a conservative Democrat.”

 

Decades as a broadcaster

Born in Breckenridge, Minn., on July 14, 1914, Putnam landed his first broadcasting job at age 20 on WDGY radio, a 1,000-watt station in Minneapolis. He began by answering the phone and spinning records.

 

By the late 1930s, he had moved to New York City, where his professional stock rose considerably after columnist Winchell praised the sound of his voice.

 

“Winchell made my career,” Putnam told The Times. “I went from $190 a month at NBC to better than $200,000 a year.”

 

During World War II, Putnam was drafted into the Army and then commissioned in the Marine Corps, where he was involved with the Armed Forces Radio Service.

 

In the late 1940s, he was hired by the DuMont television network to write and deliver six commentaries a week on a news show broadcast from New York. He added to his professional prestige by sharing the role as the voice of Fox Movietone News with legendary broadcaster Lowell Thomas.

 

In late 1951, he was hired at KTTV, the independent station then owned by Times-Mirror Co., which also owned the Los Angeles Times, which is now owned by Tribune Co.

 

TV news at the time, Putnam said in a 1983 Times interview, “was pretty damn elementary,” with 15 people at most working on the newscasts, compared with 80 or 90 three decades later. And covering a story in the field was a challenge unto itself, he said. “In those days, it was like moving a house to get the equipment set up.”

 

TV news crews shot with 16-millimeter movie cameras at the time and, Putnam recalled, all the stations would rush to the same processing lab in the afternoon to get the film developed in time for the evening newscasts.

 

“If you got there late, you’d have to stand in line,” Putnam said. “I remember times when someone would run into the studio and yell, ‘Hey, the film will be here in 10 minutes. Ad-lib some stuff!’ You had to be ready for almost anything.”

 

Putnam was said to have been an inspiration for Ted Baxter, Ted Knight’s blustery newscaster character on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

 

In the mid-1960s, Putnam moved to KTLA-TV Channel 5. He returned to KTTV after about two years and then moved back to KTLA in the early 1970s. Brief stints at KHJ-TV Channel 9 and KCOP-TV Channel 13 followed, including cohosting “Both Sides Now,” a short-lived talk show with comedian Mort Sahl.

 

By the early 1980s, most of Putnam’s professional life was devoted to his daily current-events radio talk show, which he launched on KIEV-AM (870) in 1976 and where he remained a fixture for nearly three decades.

 

Since 2004, CRN Digital Talk Radio has syndicated Putnam’s “Talk Back” program to a national audience on cable TV, radio stations and the Internet.

 

Putnam broadcast the show from a studio at his ranch in Chino, where he and his companion of 52 years, Sallilee Conlon, bred thoroughbred horses and provided a home for abandoned animals.

 

For more than 45 years, Putnam rode a silver-saddled palomino in the Rose Parade.

 

He also made cameo appearances as a newscaster in a number of movies over the years, including “I Want to Live!,” “Helter Skelter” and “Independence Day.”

 

In addition to Conlon, Putnam is survived by his estranged wife, Virginia; two daughters, Jan and Jill; his brother, Robert; and three grandchildren.

 

A public memorial service is pending.

 

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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