Tom Hatten, who died Saturday at the age of 92, was best known for showing “Popeye” cartoons on local Los Angeles television.
This might seem to some an insignificant sort of credit. But as the host of “The Pier 5 Club” and then “The Popeye Show,” which ran on KTLA-TV Channel 5 (a station formerly connected to this paper) from 1956 to 1964, Hatten was very much an important person in my young life, just as, back hosting “Popeye and His Friends,” from 1976 to 1988, he surely influenced younger generations. He was as big and exciting a celebrity to me then, and indeed now, as any celebrity you’d care to name. Brando. Beyoncé. The Obamas. Anybody.
As a child, I watched anyone who would show me cartoons, but I was a Tom Hatten fan more ardently than I was a fan of Engineer Bill or Sheriff John, to name the era’s two other great local kids’ show hosts. For one thing, I always knew him as Tom Hatten, while it takes a visit to the Internet to remind me that Engineer Bill was William Stulla and Sheriff John, John Rovick. Where others in his line were often costumed characters, his television persona was lightly applied. That he was dressed in Navy whites, though it certainly related to “Popeye,” seemed incidental; it was just something he looked good in. (As a veteran, the uniform might well have been his own.) He was youthful and fit and handsome, relatable, like a particularly cool teacher or camp counselor. He projected a light-footed capability.
More than just a bringer of cartoons, Hatten could also draw them. (And I liked to draw!) Although modest about his abilities, he had an easy way with a crayon and a sketch pad; born as a gimmick, because he was told he needed one, it gave him an extra layer of credibility as a presenter of animated art. His first-generation “Popeye” shows featured a segment in which Hatten and his guests — kids from the home audience, chosen by lottery, once including someone from my elementary school — would make a random “squiggle” the basis of a larger drawing. You could join in from home, if you had a mind to.
Unlike other local kids’ show hosts, who might later intermittently rise from their rockers for a nostalgic celebration — many were not otherwise professional entertainers — Hatten remained a public presence. Sometime in the mid-1970s, when it was basically impossible to find the early “Popeye” cartoons, I went to see him in person at Cal State Northridge, where he showed them, and probably some Betty Boop shorts, for a couple of hours. (I still have the flier.) Not long afterward, he returned to KTLA with “Popeye and His Friends” (in civilian clothing), and I watched him regularly again, if from a more sophisticated point of view. Because his focus was so particular — the 1930s work of animators Max and Dave Fleischer — there was something sort of educational, even evangelical about his programs. You could approach them as a connoisseur, a cultist.
Hatten’s innate, inspirational friendliness was also on display as the host of KTLA’s “Family Film Festival” from 1978 to 1992. It was common once, in a way more lately familiar from Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz on Turner Classic Movies, for a host to introduce the old movies that were a large part of local TV’s stock in trade, and the expertise and interest Hatten displayed there also seemed to be very much his own. He gave a viewer the sense, even to a child, that cartoons and movies were something that people made, that there was craft and intelligence behind them — which is to say, you might go on to make them yourself.
All along the way, Hatten, who studied at the Pasadena Playhouse on the G.I. Bill, maintained a small but long-lived sideline as an actor. In the 1960s, he made multiple visits to “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “Hogan’s Heroes,” and later popped up on “Hawaii Five-0,” “Newhart” and “Wings.” There were a few lines in Elvis Presley’s “Easy Come, Easy Go.” There were also big roles in regional theater (“Hello Dolly!”) and touring companies (“Annie!”).
For an old “Popeye Show” fan, it was always a little exciting to see him out of context, and a little bit strange, like running into your teacher in the supermarket. Hearing him later, as an entertainment reporter on KNX 1070 Newsradio, which he left in 2007, was just a happy reminder that an old friend was still alive, well and working.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd