Gil Stratton, a longtime presence in Southern California as an anchor on Channel 2 and KNX-AM 1070, died Saturday of congestive heart failure at this home in Toluca Lake, according to his wife, Dee. He was 86.
A former radio, theater and film actor and Pacific Coast League umpire, Stratton used the signature line “Time to call ‘em as I see ‘em.” It first became familiar to generations of Southern Californians during his 16-year tenure on “The Big News,” the KNXT (now KCBS-TV Channel 2) broadcast in the mid-1960s that scored huge ratings as the first hourlong news program in the region. The groundbreaking newscast at various times featured Clete Roberts, Jerry Dunphy, Ralph Story, Bill Stout and Bill Keene.
Stratton covered virtually every kind of sporting event, including the Summer Olympics from Rome in 1960. For years, he hosted the feature horse race on Saturdays from Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. He also worked as an announcer for the L.A. Rams.
MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann worked with Stratton at KCBS and at KNX 1070.
“There aren’t many renaissance men in any age, but Gil was one of them,” Olbermann said in an e-mail to the Times on Sunday.
“He used to enthrall me. Stories of sports in L.A. in the 1950s. Working with Brando. Umpiring. Bill Stout stories. Jerry Dunphy stories. More Jerry Dunphy stories. Kissing Judy Garland every night for a year on Broadway. He knew everybody and everything and seemed to delight in them all.”
Olbermann also recalled him as a man who didn’t take himself too seriously.
“In ’56 or ’57, he had it on the highest authority that the Dodgers would not be moving to L.A. and said so on the air (and he used to laugh like hell when he said it on the air). In fact he told his viewers on KNXT that if the Dodgers did move to L.A., he’d jump off the end of the Santa Monica pier. They did, and so he did.”
Stratton was born June 2, 1922, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He attended Poly Prep in Brooklyn and earned his bachelor’s degree from St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.
He started his acting career as a teenager and, at 19, appeared on Broadway in the George Abbot production “Best Foot Forward,” also working as a radio actor. Two years later, he appeared in the film “Girl Crazy” with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, singing “Embraceable You” in a duet with Garland.
Stratton joined the Army Air Forces during World War II; he was inducted on stage in Chicago after a performance of “Best Foot Forward” and trained at the gunnery school in Las Vegas. But he spent much of his service time umpiring ball, a skill he had picked up in college.
Years later, he would remember calling Joe DiMaggio out on a third strike at a game in Westwood and having the Yankee Clipper remark to him, “It was a little low, wasn’t it, son?”
After the war, he settled in Southern California and became a fixture on dramatic radio. He played opposite Shirley Temple in the radio version of “The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer” and, according to his website, was a regular on classic programs, including “The Life of Riley” and “The Lux Radio Theater.”
When Gale Storm’s “My Little Margie” went from television to radio, Stratton played her boyfriend, Freddie, for several years. And he also played Ed Tatum, the soda jerk, on “Fibber McGee and Molly.”
He appeared in a number of films, including “Stalag 17,” for which he also supplied the narration; “The Wild One”; “Monkey Business”; and “Bundle of Joy.”
When he wasn’t working behind the mike or the camera, he was often behind the plate as an umpire for Pacific Coast League games for nine years.
He joined Channel 2 in the mid-1950s and worked in either radio or television until the late 1990s. He also lived for a time in Hawaii, where he owned a radio station.
Olbermann recalled Stratton as “a lovely man and a consummate professional.”
“But more importantly I have never seen anybody in any field accept a change in the circumstances in his career better than Gil did. He was the king [in Southern California] well into the ‘70s, and then he had to come back in the ‘80s and do things like work as a backup to punks like me. And not only was there never a word of complaint, but he was never anything less than enthusiastic about his new role, and generous in how he treated and encouraged me,” he said.
During Stratton’s years in broadcasting, he won two local Emmys and six Golden Mikes from the Radio and Television News Assn. of Southern California, and was inducted into the Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
He is survived by his wife of 47 years, Dee; his children, Gilda Stratton, Billy Norvas, Gibby Stratton, Laurie O’Brien and Cary Stratton; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Services are pending.
Instead of flowers, the family suggests a donation in Stratton’s name be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund, 23388 Mulholland Drive, Woodland Hills, CA 91364.