Photo: Spade Cooley, named the honorary mayor of Encino, gives dictation to secretary Gloria Murphy, who is riding his stallion, Golden Nugget, 1954.
This is Part 7 of James Curtis’ 1975 interview with Dick Lane. In this segment, Lane discusses roller derby, professional wrestling, Gorgeous George, Spade Cooley, the Santa Monica Ballroom, Klaus Landsberg, and a famous incident in Los Angeles TV lore in which Lane put his hand through the fender of a used car during a commercial.
Sept. 6, 1982: The Times publishes the obituary of Dick Lane by the factually challenged Ted Thackrey Jr., a gifted writer who was eventually fired for making up an incident in the Only in L.A. column.
DICK LANE: He came that night down to the arena and he told me about this whole thing, the whole story, so Betty and I sat in the back of the house during the preliminaries, and she told me this whole story, and I said, “We gotta do something about this.” When he walked into the ring with that orange hair, they screamed and yelled and hooted and booed and raised the devil. The next week, she’d built a robe for him. And I went one step further. I said, “He needs mood music. Play a record.” Instead of the “Star- Spangled Banner,” when he came in we’d play “Pomp and Circumstance.” Later, I changed it to tell the audience what moodhe was in. If he was feeling very regal it was “Pomp and Circumstance.” If he felt a little gay it was “St. Louis Blues” or some little whimsy. But this would tell you what he was supposed to do when he got in the ring–the sound of his music at the entrance. He became a tremendous thing from then on.
JAMES CURTIS:Were you ever conscious of the advertising revenues that came in off of wrestling? Was it a very profitable show for the station?
JC:Was it the most profitable?
DL:For a long time, yes. For many years, before the networks commenced to be important, the Spade Cooley show and wrestling were the top shows in the west. We’d have ratings of around 40 to 42. One week he’d be 42 and we’d be 40, then we’d be 42 and he’d be 40–round 40 to 42 all the time.
JC: Did the fans ever get out of hand?
DL:Not with me. The fans have never been rough with me. The fan mail has been great.
JC:What kind of fan mail would you get from a show like wrestling or roller derby?
DL:Well, mainly they’re complaining about the referees. Who are blind and couldn’t see the dirty things the other guy was doing. And so-n-so ought to be run out of town, ought to be barred from wrestling. Cause I saw him stick his thumb in the other fella’s eye…
JC:Did you ever contemplate getting into news broadcasting or some form of broadcasting other than sports?
DL:No, that’s another line that’s important to someone, but it’s never been important to me.
JC:So you stayed with wrestling, you stayed with roller games… How long have you been doing the roller games now?
DL:Since June, 1947.
JC:When did you get started with Spade Cooley?
DL:That was in ‘48.
JC:A fellow at the college remembers watching you on the Spade Cooley show when he was a kid, and he remembers you selling Chevrolets and putting a dent in one.
DL: Oh, yes.
Well, I was never that impressed with the product or the sponsor. I pounded those cars something fierce. Bu that was born of necessity–mine. Desperation. That place where we were shooting was the Santa Monica Ballroom, out on the pier. It was a great big barn of a place, and we had a stage in the end with the Spade Cooley show, and out about 30 feet from the stage we had two parallels–two platforms parallel to the stage with our cameras. Another 30 feet out, I had three cars–a new car, a used car, and a truck.
When it came time for the commercial, the cameras would come around on me. Now we could seat about 2,000 people on benches we had in there; there was another couple of thousand that came down from Oxnard somewhere to wave in the cameras. They’d sit around on top, in between, and over these automobiles, and when the cameras came on to the commercial they’d whoop and holler and scream and climb on the cameras and hold the baby up so grandma could see it at home–it was bedlam. And for a couple of weeks I just shouted to keep their attention.
One night they were stampeding like animals in there, and in desperation I took a whack at that hood. It sounded like a cannon went off in that place, and they nailed their shoes to the floor. I said, “There’s a gimmick! Anytime these people start hollerin’ I’ll pound this thing.” But it backfired on me. The sponsor called up and he said, “Look–that’s the greatest thing that ever happened. Don’t you ever open your mouth unless you hit that car.” And, you know, for nine years and eight months I pounded that damn buggy…
JC:Ever break your hand?
DL: Oh, one night I reached around and the model had changed and I didn’t realize it. They had a different hood ornament, and I reached around and took a whack at it and hit the hood ornament on the hand. My fingers cramped up and I couldn’t straighten them out… One night I laid a dent in that car deliberately, and I said, “I’ll roll that out for you in a minute.” And when I took a slap at the side of the fender, by George, it popped up!
One night we had an old 1938 (or something) old Chevy–beautiful green paint job. I think it was held together by the paint. It had spent most of its life in Redondo Beach, and the salt spray had beat us to the underside of the fenders. I took a whack at that fender and my hand went right through; I could feel the tire. It was like getting your hand caught in a mailbox; I couldn’t get out. The cameraman–stupidly–went down to see what it was, and he put it on the air. I just said, “I’ll knock $30 off of this right now!”
And don’t you know that sponsor called up and raised the devil? He said, “Don’t cut prices on the air!” Well, we had to use the same car again in the next commercial, so they jockeyed the thing around and we turned the other side of the car to the camera. And I took a whack at it with the left hand and the headlight ring fell off with a clatter on the floor. I said, “Let’s back this one off into a swamp when nobody’s looking and get the insurance out of it!” I almost lost my job over that one.
JC:When did Klaus Landsberg die?
JC:What was the difference in the station run by Klaus Landsberg as opposed to later on?
DL: Well, one thing: He was a one-man operation. To clarify, he was the head of every department. He departmentalized his entire station, but he was the head of every department. And the only trouble with that was that it dwarfed initiative. To a point where there was really no initiative in each department, because the heads of departments wouldn’t try anything different or new because it had to go through his office anyway. So they’d wait for an order or something to change, and a lot of good engineers and people were being kind of wasted back there.
And only until about his last year of life did he realize what he was doing, because I was close enough to him to tell him. And I told him what he was doing. I said, “You’re a wonderful engineer, but you don’t know beans about show business. You couldn’t tell whether a scene was good or not unless it looked good on the camera, and then you couldn’t tell whether it had any theatrical value or not. Except that it has a good picture and good sound. So why don’t you leave the people alone that know the business and let them run their end?”
Well, he saw that and he changed. During his last year, he let the departments work. But that was his big trouble. He was a little czar… but he was a wizard, just a wizard. He squirmed at controls; he didn’t like anybody to control him. His demise, of course, was a miserable thing. He had a little mole on his back, just to the right of his spinal column, about the size of a dime or less. Wearing suspenders, the suspender buttons on his trousers would irritate it. And it’d form a little scale. He said, “I’m gonna have this damn thing taken off.”
So he went to a doctor, who said, “Well, before I do I’m going to take a biopsy of it.” And he did, and it was malignant. It was a skin cancer. Its malignancy was so much in that area that they took quite an area out of his back. And then his lymph glands started to trouble him. And the signs of cancer somewhere in his body were impaired. They took the lymph glands out from his left side, from under his left ear, all the way down, inside of his leg. And they said they had arrested it. And he married; they okayed his marriage. And his child was born after he died. They operated twice before they found the cancer; it was located under the lobe of the liver. A black melanoma–a bad kind of a cancer.
JC:Have you ever entertained the prospect of retiring?
DL:What? Retiring? That’s a dirty word. No, I’ll never retire. As long as anybody will hire me, if I can be of any use to anybody, and they’re willing to pay me for doing it, I’ll be there… I’d like to feel I’d rather wear out than rust out. And I think I’ve still got something that can satisfy a lot of people. I may not startle ‘em, but I’ll amuse ‘em. I guarantee I’ll never have anyone asleep when I’m on.
JC:That’s for sure.
DL:And I have such a peculiar voice and delivery that I don’t have to stop and identify myself. Whenever they hear me they’ll say, “Here’s that blabbermouth again!”
JC:Thank you very much for giving us the time today.
DL: It’s been a delight. Thank you very much.