George Putnam, a Newsmax columnist and a newscaster well known and loved by baby boomers who grew up in or around Los Angeles during the 1950s and 60s, died Friday. He was 94.
Many boomer Angelenos saw him as a bit of a caricature. Actor Ted Knight’s stentorian anchorman character on the "Mary Tyler Moore" show was modeled in part on Putnam.
George’s signature salute at the end of his early L.A. newscasts was a geographically changing patriotic affirmation spoken with firm enthusiasm over that day’s image of Old Glory: “The American flag flies proudly over the Azusa City Hall.”
During the 1960s, George Putnam to many youngsters seemed old-fashioned, right-wing, and corny. But George Putnam’s heart and spirit matched his words. He was a genuine patriot, and a much more noble soul than those who criticized or ridiculed him knew.
I remember driving with George one day during noontime rush hour near downtown Los Angeles when he spotted a stray dog that had wandered into traffic and become disoriented. George slammed on the brakes of his Mercedes, leapt out, risked his own life by running among fast-moving cars, and rescued the dog.
George and his “gal Sal” Conlon, his companion for more than 50 years, turned their 20 acre ranch in Chino into not only a farm for thoroughbred horses but also a safe home for stray and abused animals.
“I detest labels,” he once told the Los Angeles Times. “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 [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], member of the Urban League. I went through the Depression, and my father was reduced to selling peanuts door-to-door . . . I fell in love with Franklin D. Roosevelt. I’ve been a lifelong Democrat. I’m a conservative Democrat.”
But his conservatism made George the polar opposite of today’s far-left Democratic Party. George used his considerable influence, for example, to encourage the tax rebellion that become Proposition 13, and I could feel his deep personal bond with anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis when the three of us and my wife Ellen lunched at Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant.
George pioneered one facet of today’s modern broadcast journalism: the blurring — or increasingly, the erasing — of the line between objective reporting and interpretative commentary. Truth be told, that line has always been illusory because news anchors have long had latitude in what stories they choose to cover, who they interview, and which details they decide to omit or emphasize.
But, then, George Putnam was a pioneer in shaping the way all radio and television newscasting is now done. He was one of the last surviving trailblazers born before television who helped create the medium.
George was born in 1914 in Minnesota, where at age 20, he began his first on air job on a 1,000 watt radio station.
By the early 1940s his golden baritone voice, called “the greatest in radio” by powerful columnist Walter Winchell, had already made George Putnam a star. He was a voice on NBC Radio. He and Lowell Thomas were the narrating voices of Fox Movietone News.
Before beginning three years of military service in World War II, George was master of ceremonies for “The Army Hour.”
Along the way he worked as newsman or commentator for ABC, Mutual Broadcasting, DuMont, and Metromedia.
In 1951 he moved to Los Angeles and was soon the highest paid local broadcasting star in America, earning a then-astonishing $200,000 per year, more than most national news anchors.
George had local superstar ratings in part because his values resonated with the community, and in part because he made himself at home in Los Angeles. From 1951 until 2000, when his favorite horse passed on, George was a man on horseback riding his silver-saddled golden Palominos in every New Year’s Day Rose Parade.
He had what has been called “more than a passing relationship” with silver screen stars Theda Bera, Clara Bow, Tallulah Bankhead and Mae West, and appeared on television with many of its early stars.
George was offered co-starring movie roles but only acted in those where he could play a TV reporter. You can see him yet in films such as “I Want to Live!,” “Helter Skelter,” and the smash hit movie “Independence Day.” But instead of Oscars he won multiple Emmys, and his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame is for television broadcasting.
To the end George was an honest, passionate, and independent thinker. At one point I was a guest on his TV show “Both Sides Now,” which he co-hosted with liberal comedian Mort Sahl. At the time George was deeply interested in UFOs and whether the government was covering up information about them. Almost to the end he continued to host shows, ask interesting questions, and investigate new topics.
So where is George Putnam now? In heaven, I believe. He once confided to me that he was a Mormon, a surprise because he rarely discussed religion. He was what church members informally call a “Jack Mormon,” one who ignores certain behavioral values the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints teaches.
George Putnam, for example, drank alcohol on occasion. At one of our private lunches George and I put away a fair amount of such liquids over a five hour period. What I found amazing and admirable is that he never changed. His unwavering and golden announcer’s voice, his demeanor, his penetrating insight, and his values remained exactly as I’d known him sober.
Ancient Romans had a saying: "in vino veritas," or “in wine, truth.” The person you see after he’s been drinking is the real person. My dear friend of many years was entirely genuine.
The American flag flies proudly today over an America that George Putnam helped to make more open-minded, better, kinder, and more free. God bless you, George.
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