If you missed Tom Hatten on KTLA-TV’s “Tournament of Roses Parade Countdown” this morningor his small featured role as FDR in “Annie” last month at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--or at the Pasadena Playhouse or the Shubert in Los Angeles before that--don’t worry.
You can probably catch him on the radio today, on television over the weekend, on tape at the video store, or in Palm Springs in February, where he’ll be appearing in “Hello, Dolly!”
Though a long way from being a headliner of “stage, screen and television,” as the show-biz intro goes, the 64-year-old Hatten is a ubiquitous figure on the local entertainment scene.
As early as high school, “I knew I wanted to be in the arts somehow, but I never really sensed that I would be a huge, mammoth, household word--a star,” Hatten recalled in a dressing-room interview recently at the Performing Arts Center.
Hatten hasn’t done badly, though. His “Entertainment Report” airs daily just before 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on KNX (1070 AM) radio and his KTLA movie showcase, “Family Film Festival,” punctuated with anecdotes and occasional interviews, continues Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. His most recent film appearance, as a heavy in “Spies Like Us,” is available on videotape.
Over nearly four decades on the local scene, Hatten has also been a composer, announcer, commercial pitchman, writer and pop and jazz concert producer. He is a member of five industry unions: American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, American Guild of Variety Artists, Screen Actors Guild, Actors’ Equity and Writers Guild of America.
Several generations of Southern Californians are most familiar with Hatten as the doodling, uniformed host of KTLA’s “Popeye and His Friends” daily kids’ show in the early ‘60s and again in the late ‘70s. One such fan, director John Landis, recounted his own unsuccessful efforts as a 10-year-old to get his own kiddie puppet show on “Popeye” when he offered Hatten the “Spies” part.
“I don’t mind having fun in small parts, or doing a kids’ show,” Hatten said. “I don’t mind doing what I’m doing as long as I’m in the business.”
Of his many entertainment hats, acting on stage is clearly Hatten’s favorite, even though it is confined mostly to second- and third-banana parts in road shows and revivals that rarely merit more than a few lines in reviews.
His minimally requited love affair with acting may seem at odds with his radio and television visibility. But in a common show-business conundrum, the work that gives him the greatest satisfaction provides the least remuneration.
“I’d be very poor if I lived off what I’ve made in acting on stage,” Hatten acknowledged.
A native of South Dakota who later moved to Idaho, Hatten joined the Navy just before the close of World War II and attended the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre on the GI Bill, graduating cum laude in 1950. An evaluation by a playhouse director, which Hatten quotes from memory, proved prescient: “Tom is a good, good ‘type.’ He’ll make a wonderful ‘second man.’ ”
That kind of praise, Hatten said, “doesn’t bother me at all. “
The next year Hatten appeared on ABC’s “Space Patrol” and, in 1952, was spotted by KTLA’s Klaus Landsberg and hired as a staff announcer. For the next dozen years, he served as a jack-of-most-trades and utility infielder at the independent station. With Stan Chambers, another KTLA veteran, Hatten covered some of the early Rose Parade telecasts.
In the mid-'60s, Hatten shifted gears, doing guest shots on such television series as “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” appearing in summer-stock productions, three Billy Barnes Revues and writing for such game shows as “Hollywood Squares"--"the nadir of my career,” although it was “a lot of fun.” Hatten returned to KTLA in 1976, launching “Family Film Festival” in 1978.
When Gary Franklin left the “Entertainment Report” at KNX in 1986, Hatten took over. His reports, often based on news stories and column items from the day’s Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Daily Variety, contain little original reporting. When a movie star or industry figure dies, he usually has a personal reminiscence or a bit of trivia to add to the obituary.
“I’ve been accused of following ambulances--not true,” he said. “But I’m interested in somebody not being with us anymore, and I assume people will be.”
The people at KNX “realized early on that I didn’t want to be Gary Franklin, going to every movie that comes out,” Hatten said. “It’s different, because he’s a real reporter . . . I’m more of a ‘suggester.’ I like to like things and I like to be able to tell people with enthusiasm that I think they’ll like it. I’m not out to skewer anybody. I like to find things to praise.”
When he is not working on stage, Hatten said he attends several events a week--parties, benefits and tributes as often as performances. “I see things I want to see, and there aren’t that many things I want to see,” he said.
Hatten said he likes to keep his 2 1/2-minute broadcasts low-key, “more like old-time radio,” usually with three items of equal length. “I enjoyed listening to Jimmy Fidler and Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper and all these people from Hollywood.”
He also makes mistakes, which he is quick to acknowledge. In a recent one, which he said made him feel “like a moron,” he said on the air that he hadn’t heard of Oscar Hijuelos’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love.”
“I’m not any great intellect, I know that,” he said, “and I don’t want people to think that I am.”