Wink Martindale gets back in the game with new show
Wink Martindale remembers that when he was a soda jerk at Baker’s Drugstore in his hometown of Jackson, Tenn., after the store closed at 8 p.m. on Sundays, “Mr. Baker and the three or four of us who would still be there would go in the back and listen on the radio to a game show called ‘Stop the Music’ with Bert Parks.”
As fate would have it, some 17 years later he was hosting his own NBC game show, “What’s This Song.” Over the last 45 years, Martindale has gone on to host 19 game shows, including “Tic Tac Dough,” “Gambit,” “High Rollers” and “Debt.”
Earlier this month, the peppy 75-year-old began his 20th game show -- the weekly 30-minute retro “In$tant Recall,” which airs on cable’s GSN.
It’s a hidden-camera show in which contestants find themselves in unlikely situations. Each segment ends with the words “Do you like game shows?” Enter Martindale informing the person that they can win money by remembering what just happened.
“There have been a lot of bombs between the hits,” admits Martindale, in a conference room at the GSN offices in Santa Monica. Talk about a colorful guy: He’s wearing a salmon-colored sports jacket -- “I wore this for you,” he says, well, with a wink -- a purple shirt and a multicolored tie.
“One show I did for Chuck Barris I knew had to be a bomb, I did because I probably needed the money -- ‘How’s Your Mother-in-Law?’ It was a panel lineup where you would have mother-in-law, mother-in-law and mother-in-law. Seated next to them would be a comedian. The mother-in-law would talk about her life and her family, and the comedian would get up and express why she was the best mother-in-law of the three. Then the other comedian would get up and knock the heck out of the first mother-in-law, saying why his was better. It lasted 13 weeks; it should have lasted 13 minutes.”
Most little boys dream of becoming baseball stars or even the president of the United States. But not Winston Conrad Martindale -- he got the nickname Winkie because a childhood friend couldn’t pronounce Winston. Winkie was later shortened to a simple Wink. He dreamed of becoming a radio announcer.
Just three months before graduating from high school, the 17-year-old Martindale got a job as a disc jockey on a Jackson station, WPLI. “My dream job was to work at a station in Memphis, which was to me a metropolis,” says Martindale, who was a mainstay on Los Angeles radio after moving here in 1959 on KHJ, KRLA, KFWB and KMPC.
“My dream was to work at WHBQ radio and do the morning show called ‘Clockwatchers’ -- all the teenagers listened to that.”
His dream came true in 1954, when he auditioned and got the morning gig when he was just 19 years old. It was also the year he met Elvis Presley, with whom he was friends until the King’s death in 1977.
“I happened to be at the radio station one night showing a group of former football buddies from high school around the radio station,” Martindale recalls. “It was at night when there was a show called ‘Red Hot & Blue’ with a guy named Dewey Phillips. He played black music for white kids. All of a sudden I hear a commotion going on. The phones were lit up and I went into Dewey’s control room.”
It so happened that was the night that Sun Records founder Sam Phillips walked into Phillips’ control room with an acetate recording of Presley’s “That’s All Right Mama.”
“Dewey put it on the turntable and the switchboard lit up. He kept playing it over and over. Sam gave me Gladys and Vernon Presley’s telephone number and said get them on the phone and ask them where Elvis is. I was the one who made the call and got Gladys on the phone.”
Martindale told Presley’s mother that Dewey Phillips wanted to interview him that night at the station. His parents got into their truck and found their son at a movie theater by himself catching a western double bill.
“He got into the truck and went down and sat in front of the microphone,” says Martindale. That was the beginning of Presley mania. I think of that as the night when the course of popular music changed forever.”
Martindale turned to television in 1955 when WHBQ-TV began as a CBS affiliate in Memphis. His first series was the weekday kiddie show “Wink Martindale of the Mars Patrol.”
“I interviewed the kids -- we called them Little Mars Guards -- and we drank Bosco and milk.”
Then when “American Bandstand” became a huge hit, he was given “Wink Martindale’s Top 10 Dance Party” in 1956.
“That’s when I got Elvis to come on. Colonel Parker would never speak to me after that because he wanted to be paid for everything. We had no budget. They hardly paid me, for Pete’s sake.”
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