by Ryan Meehan and Emily Allyn
In the history of televised game shows no name is more synonymous with “host” than Wink, the man who has guided twenty-one game shows. But Martindale’s fifty-plus years in broadcasting encompass more than the hit programs for which he is best known. Before TV there was radio. Before game shows there was a Platinum record, “Deck of Cards”, leading to an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Along with “host” there have been numerous “producer” credits as well. Winston C. Martindale – nicknamed “Wink” by a neighborhood pal – was born and raised in Jackson, Tennessee. As long as he can remember there was a strong desire to be a radio announcer…a desire that was realized prior to graduation from high school at age 17. In less than two years on small stations in his hometown Martindale advanced to the much larger WHBQ in Memphis where he quickly became one of the city’s most popular personalities on both radio and television. In 1959 after being transferred by RKO to Los Angeles Wink caught on immediately. Five years of continued success on radio led to a series of popular network game shows, including “Gambit”, “High Rollers”, “Trivial Pursuit” and ten years as host of the enormously successful “Tic-Tac-Dough”. In 2006 Wink was presented with his Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2012 he was honored as an original inductee into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame. May 11th of this year his alma mater, The University of Memphis, named Wink their Alumni of the Year with their Lifetime Achievement Award. Currently Martindale continues to develop television shows for network and first-run syndication. Retirement? “Why retire? I’m not tired”! Wink is the father of four children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. This August 2nd Wink and Sandy will have been married forty years and have lived in Mt. View Estates, Calabasas for twenty-three of those years. It is an absolute honor to have the legendary Wink Martindale as our guest today in 10 questions.
RM: How would you best summarize the story of how you came to be involved with radio?
WM: My fascination with radio began during my pre-teen years. I always knew I wanted to be, “on the radio”. I grew up reading LIFE Magazine. I would clip the advertisement pages from the magazine, pretend I was “on the air,” and ad-lib ‘commercials’ around them. When my Sunday school teacher (who also managed WPLI the 250 Watt radio station in my hometown Jackson, TN) auditioned me for my first job in radio, I was ready! I was hired at age 17 just prior to graduation from high school; $25 bucks a week. I was over-the-moon. Onward!
EA: When you were a Disc Jockey coming up in the Memphis scene, did you realize that you were part of something big right away, or was there a moment where it struck you that you were a major player in the birth of rock n’ roll?
WM: The ‘magic moment’ occurred on a hot evening in July, 1954. As deejay of the morning “Clockwatchers” show on WHBQ Radio I happened to be at the station that night showing some friends around the station. Suddenly I noticed the phones lighting up. Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, had just handed the legendary Dewey Phillips (no relation), deejay of the top rated, 9-Midnight “Red, Hot & Blue” show, an acetate copy of “That’s All Right” by a truck-driving singer named Elvis Presley. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Dewey played this song no less than a dozen times. Sam gave me Elvis’ home telephone number. His mom Gladys answered the phone and said Elvis, nervous about the reaction to his first record being played, went to the Suzores Theatre to see a double-feature. She and EP’s dad Vernon drove to the theatre whispered to him the excitement being generated by “That’s All Right” and drove him WHBQ on South Main Street downtown. Dewey sat Elvis in front of a mike and proceded to conduct the FIRST EVER interview with this man destined to become The King of Rock ‘N Roll. From that initial meeting in 1954 Elvis and I were close friends until the day he died. An evening etched in my mind for all time. The six of us in Dewey’s studio that night felt we were experiencing something very special. But little did we know it was the the birth of Presleymania. I am the only living person who was there on that memorable and historical night.
RM: Where did the idea for “Deck of Cards” originate? Who was the first individual that you shared that concept with; and what did they think of it when you explained it to them?
WM: Randy Wood, founder of Dot Records remembered this narrative as a big seller following WWII by country singer T. Texas Tyler. Following my signing with Dot in 1959 Randy felt perhaps this could be re-made in pop style with vocal backing. The day Randy first played the scratchy, 78 RPM record by Tyler for me in his office the top hits of the day were “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price and “Venus” by Frankie Avalon. Teens buy single records. I wondered, “Who’ll buy a semi-religious talking record.” But I also knew Randy’s excellent track record for picking hits for the likes of Pat Boone, The Hilltoppers, Billy Vaughn and others on his label. Needless to say he was spot-on. Though the record had been out for several months with little or no air-play, top-rated morning deejay Bob Clayton in Boston played it one morning….and I experienced MAGIC for the second time in my career. First with Elvis in ’54. Now with “Deck of Cards” in ’59. It began selling across the U.S. overnight. And in the UK as well (where it’s attained hit status 4 different times). By November I was invited to perform it on The Ed Sullivan Show. And by December I had my one and only gold record. The subsequent LP of narratives sold very well too. To this day a person will ask me, “Are you the same Wink Martindale who recorded the “Deck of Cards”? With tongue in check my reply is always the same. “Do you possibly think there are TWO persons roaming the planet with a silly name like Wink Martindale?”
EA: We know that you were good friends with Elvis Presley and many other influential rockers over the years. If you could narrow it down, who were/are your favorites and why?
WM: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, interviewing and counting as either personal and/or professional friends so many recording stars. So it would be far too difficult to name individual favorites. But if “pressed”, I might mention a half-dozen or so names that stand out for differing reasons. Aside from Elvis, my all-time favorite would be Nat “King” Cole. Nobody could wrap him or herself around a lyric like Nat. Add to that his prowess at the keyboard and you have a stand-alone talent. Then come likely names such as Sinatra, Steve Lawrence, Neil Diamond, Sammy, Ella, Como, Clooney, The Eagles, the legendary Cole Porter….and on and on.
RM: For those who aren’t familiar with the videos, what do people need to know about “Sinatra Saturdays”? In all your years following his work, what did you find to be the one quality that was most critical in making him such a legendary entertainer?
WM: “Sinatra Saturdays” are broken up into 17 “chapters” and are featured weekly on my Facebook. Frank Sinatra would have been 100 years old this December. During my 12 years at Gene Autry’s flagship station in Los Angeles KMPC, I produced “Audiobiographies” for my Noon-3PM show. In producing one of these in-depth shows on Sinatra I set about to interview as many friends and family of “The Voice” as I possibly could. When I left KMPC I retained all the interviews and it is those that are spotlighted on my “Sinatra Saturdays.” These 5 to 6 minute features give a complete and thorough insight into the man and his music. The iconic Sinatra was, like Elvis in his own way, a one-of-a-kind. There will never be another like him. His way with a lyric was magical. Quality songs tell stories. And there was no better storyteller than Francis Albert Sinatra.
RM: What was the most bizarre thing that ever happened on the set of any of the game shows you hosted? If it had happened to you any later in your career, do you think that you would have reacted differently?
WM: During my years as host of “Tic-Tac-Dough” each fall during “Sweeps Week” we would present an “Over 80’s” tournament. As I was interviewing one of the contestants, an 87 year old widower Dr. Reba Kelley, I happened to ask…”At your advanced age do you ever consider dating again?” Without hesitation Dr. Kelley said, “Yes Wink. As a matter of fact I have FOUR boyfriends. I get up in the morning with “WILL-power”; I take a walk with “ARTHUR-itis”. I come home with “CHARLIE-horse”; And I go to bed at night with “BEN-gue!” Again it was one of those “magic moments” a host dreams of. We had to stop tape for about 15 minutes for everyone, including me, to regain our composure. As for the question of “reacting differently”…..I feel that a GOOD host should be able to react to anthing that happens during a show. Whether early OR late in his/her career.
EA: Would you consider being the host of a new game show if one were offered to you? How do you go about choosing your projects these days?
WM: I would jump at the chance to host another show. But ONLY if the show was a good, quality show with a compelling and entertaining format. I thought such a show was “Instant Recall” which I hosted on GSN five or six years ago. Sadly the hidden camera bits were not funny enough to sustain the format, thus the show failed miserably. But on paper and in run-throughs it showed great promise. As for my projects I take it day-to-day. Currently my associate John Ricci, Jr. and I, have re-developed Jan Murray’s “Treasure Hunt” and are pitching it to networks and syndicators. It was last on the air in the mid-seventies, produced by Chuck Barris and hosted by the late Geoff Edwards.
EA: You support a charity, the Dream Factory, which helps make dreams come true terminally ill children…How did you come to be involved with the organization?
WM: Several years ago I was asked by some friends in Memphis, TN to host an event for Dream Factory. After that event I was “hooked”. Simple as that. Dream Factory does great work. Not as large as Make-A-Wish Foundation, but growing nationally.
RM: Out of all of the unfavorable trends that exist in the entertainment industry today, which one bothers you the most and why? Do you think that there is any chance that tendency will disappear or change any time soon?
WM: Certain so-called “Reality” shows bother me the most. Not all of them. Some are good and certainly worthy. But ours is a “follow me” business. One successful genre begets another to the point where there becomes too much “sameness”. On the other hand that can be positive as well. Without “American Idol” perhaps we would never have seen (my current favorite) “The Voice” become successful.
EA: You have embraced new technology and social media much more than a lot of other individuals in your peer group…Did you have an adviser or PR person who told you this was the way to go, or did you just see it and get into it on your own? Have you always been one to see and become a part of trends in media?
WM: My wife Sandy kept “on me” to get involved in social media. Then two producers in the game show world Caleb Nelson and John Ricci, Jr. met with me about building a Facebook with my name on it. I agreed and about 15 months ago it was posted for the first time. My “likes” are several thousand now, and growing week by week. Plus I also Tweet each day. I find it fun to stay “in tune” and “in touch” with those who have followed my career over the years.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
WM: My wife Sandy (who dated Elvis for six years) and I have just been invited to Graceland in August to participate in Elvis Week. Always fun meeting the Elvis fans (who hear us often on George Klein’s Elvis Show Friday’s on the Sirius XM Elvis channel). Also – there is a new and exciting syndicated game show being developed to be produced by Erni DeMassa. The one-hour “BINGO NATION” will be produced LIVE each week from several different Indian Casinos in the US and Canada with a possible million-dollar payout each week. The show is to be co-hosted by Peter Marshall, Chuck Woolery, Bob Eubanks and me. Our hope is for the show to be on-the-air before the end of this year.
Wink on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/winkmartindalegames
Wink on Twitter: https://twitter.com/WinkMartindale
Dream Factory Official Website: http://dreamfactoryinc.org/
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