Ex-Gossip Nears 90 : Hollywood Observer Likes to Talk

Times Staff Writer

These days, Jimmy Fidler has a hard time hearing the radio that used to carry his voice to millions of listeners with news of Hollywood's latest gossip.

During the 1940s, Fidler was heard on 486 radio stations, including the CBS and NBC networks, and his gossip column was syndicated to 360 newspapers nationwide. Fidler's four-bell movie ratings and insider gossip drew accolades, storms of protest and sacks of mail from both stars and fans.

But Fidler doesn't get out much anymore. Of Hollywood's current crop of stars, he said: "I don't know them anymore and, I don't want to sound mean, but I'm not interested in them."

Friends of Fidler, who lives in the Thousand Oaks community of Northgate with his wife, Kay, are planning a 90th birthday party for him May 22. "I don't see what all the fuss is about that a gossip columnist rates all this attention," he said with a laugh. "It's pretty awful to be old; I'd just as soon stay home and watch a little television."

Despite his growing deafness and other infirmities associated with old age, the man who is credited with being Hollywood's first gossip columnist remains one of a handful of people who still can recall Hollywood's Golden Age. And, despite his misgivings about the current Hollywood, he admits that little has changed.

'Looked Darn Ridiculous'

"I saw that woman, Cher, the one who just won the Academy Award, on television the other night with all these screaming fans around her, must have been thousands following her down the street, and it looked so darn ridiculous," Fidler said in an interview last week at his home.

"But it's no more ridiculous than it was in the old days when I was Gloria Swanson's press agent and we couldn't even get her inside a hotel because of all of the fans," he said.

Beneath what sounds like mild disdain for the industry that brought him considerable fame and fortune is a sense of humor and fondness for the years he spend chasing rumors and competing with the likes of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

Fidler's story is a long one, beginning with his arrival in Hollywood after World War I with hopes of becoming a movie star. He said he tells his story from the beginning because "I can still talk like hell."

Fidler, in fact, talked his way into Hollywood. After the war, Fidler returned to his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., long enough to earn his train fare to Los Angeles. He started work doing publicity for a dance hall that used photographs of movie stars in a promotion he dreamed up so he could gain access to movie studios.

Those connections got him work as an extra in about a dozen films, but Fidler said he soon realized that he would never be a star.

He knew enough about Hollywood by then, however, to land a job as drama editor of the Hollywood News, then a four-page insert in the old Los Angeles Express. In 1920, when he was 22, he added motion picture editor to his title and wrote the first Hollywood gossip column.

"I was still just a lad, but I started a newspaper campaign to clean up Hollywood because there had been a rash of scandals: a dead lady found during one of Fatty Arbuckle's parties; Wallace Reid was trying to get off dope," Fidler said. "The campaign was so popular we picked up 10,000 readers in two months."

Fidler said that to quell his controversial columns, Famous Players-Lasky, now Paramount Studios, offered him a job at three times his salary. The job, which paid $75 a week, was as press agent for Swanson, a star who had fired five previous agents.

"Then I realized that they were just trying to remove a thorn from their side," Fidler said. "But I guess this bare-faced kid appealed to her because, when I told her my story, she said, 'You're going to handle my pictures,' and I became her personal publicity agent."

'I Got Wiped Out'

In the next five years, Fidler opened his own office and added 15 more movie stars as clients. He wrote stories for dozens of movie magazines and, with his growing fortunes, invested about $300,000 in the stock market. "Then the big crash hit and I got wiped out," he said.

He continued writing about Hollywood and tried his hand at fiction writing with only moderate success. "Enough to keep me eating," he said. He married and divorced a starlet and then in 1934 got the break that launched his radio career.

An NBC radio official called to tell him that Barbara Jordan was going to be the first movie star to be interviewed on a Hollywood gossip program the station was going to air. Jordan, who was a friend of Fidler's, asked that he conduct the interview.

"We were nervous and the interview was terrible," Fidler said. "But she got 5,000 fan letters from it and I got 500. I figured that anything that got me 500 fan letters was something I should get into."

The success of that first program earned Fidler a regular radio slot, and movie stars anxious for the publicity lined up for a chance to appear on the 15-minute show. With the assistance of the William Morris Agency, which offered to represent him, Fidler began syndicating his radio show, as well as newspaper columns, with a total estimated weekly audience of 40 million people.

Golfing Buddies

Eventually, he developed a staff of 14 reporters and then broke the biggest stories of the era, including the Mary Pickford-Douglas Fairbanks divorce, Fidler said. He was friendly with competitor Hedda Hopper, and "I got along with Louella Parsons."

By then, he was golfing buddies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and spent summers in Laguna Beach with Walter Winchell. In his house are photographs showing Humphrey Bogart helping Fidler with his golf swing, as well as Fidler shaking hands with a preteen Shirley Temple and clowning with Barbara Stanwyck. Rudolph Valentino, Clark Gable, Norma Shearer, Betty Grable, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis--he knew them all, Fidler said.

But the big money for Fidler, who was earning more than $250,000 a year in 1950 at the height of his career, ended with the invasion of television in the early 1950s.

Although he had invested wisely in real estate, Fidler said he could not leave the radio business, so he began producing his own radio shows, which he sold independently to stations nationwide. Through much of the next 30 years, his 15-minute radio show, "Jimmy Fidler in Hollywood," was broadcast on about 50 stations, though it was not aired in Los Angeles, he said.

Fidler, who raised four daughters, retired from radio in 1983. He now spends most of his time at home, having given up golf because he can no longer hit the ball the way he once could.

Of his career, Fidler says: "There were many better columnists, but not many who were better at finding opportunities. I had no great prowess, really. Anybody with the same willingness to go after the same opportunities could have done it."

As for any of his old Hollywood friends showing up at his birthday party, Fidler says that with the exception of Bob Hope and George Burns, most have passed away. "It's been a long time."

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