A Conversation with Wink Martindale

(as told by David Hammett, Apr. 3, 1996)

Just recently, I got an opportunity to talk with game show host and creator Wink Martindale. As most of us know, Wink began his career as a disc jockey, and then eventually added game show hosting to his credits, most notably for "Gambit" and "Tic Tac Dough." He eventually began creating and producing his own shows, first with "Headline Chasers," and most recently with the interactive games shown on FAM.

Wink was the morning DJ at WHBQ in Memphis. The evening DJ was known for playing what was then called "race music," and it was one evening that a record brought in by Sam Phillips featuring an artist by the name of Elvis Presley was played. "You could tell that something exciting was going on when the record was played," says Wink. Eventually Elvis appeared on Wink's "Teenage Dance Party" show to be interviewed and to promote an upcoming concert -- it was one of Elvis' first two television interviews.

Wink and Elvis remained friends for a long time. Ironically, Wink's wife Sandy had dated Elvis for six years, after meeting him at the Red Velvet Club in Hollywood; this year Wink and Sandy are celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary! The last time Wink saw Elvis was in Las Vegas, when he was invited back to Presley's dressing room. Presley commented, "I just saw you on `Tattletales'... what is it about us Southern guys? Must be a special kind of charm." Says Wink, "I had a feeling it would be the last time I'd see him."

As a DJ at KFWB, Los Angeles' #1 rock and roll station in the early 60s, Wink had a reputation for other musical firsts. "Brian Wilson told me that the first time he ever heard the Beach Boys' song `Surfin'' was when I played it on KFWB while he was driving down the San Diego freeway. Wayne Newton heard his own "Danke Schoen" for the first time on my show."

As a kid, the young Winston Martindale was called Winkie, mainly because one of the other kids in the neighborhood couldn't say Winston -- "Winkie" was what came out. When he started in Memphis, it was shortened to Wink. But when he was picked to host "What's This Song?" NBC thought the name was too juvenile, and so for the 48 weeks the show aired, he was known as "Win" Martindale. WTS was wink's first game show; it aired for 13 weeks in Los Angeles as "What's the Name of This Song?" before NBC bought it. "I liked the show... as the host, I got to sing, and we had celebrities who had singing backgrounds appear on the show, such as Bobby Rydell, Gene Pitney... even Lorne Greene!"

After WTS, Wink auditioned for the hosting job on "Everybody's Talking." "Lloyd Thaxton ended up hosting the show, but they asked me to do the announcing." That was in 1967; later that year, Chuck Barris contacted Wink about taking over the hosting duties on "Dream Girl of '67." "Dick Stewart (the original host) had supposedly gotten his girlfriend a spot on the show, and she won... so he was let go." Not long after he began his work on DG, Barris called again to tap Wink for his latest project, "How's Your Mother- in-Law?" "Chuck was hot -- everything he did was a hit," recalls Wink. Well, almost. As Wink jokes, "Many shows are cancelled after 13 weeks; we were cancelled after 13 minutes."

The 1970s first saw Wink hosting an NBC show called "Words and Music." "It was developed by Jack Quigley, who'd never done game shows. It just didn't work; every week they'd change something." Eventually Howard Felsher was brought in to see what he could do. "He was like the game show `doctor.' He got upset because of my needing cue cards; I told him, `Every week you're changing the show... it's the only way I know what to say and do!' We had a falling out after that... the show was probably the low point of my career."

Wink also did a syndicated entry called "Can You Top This?" "Morey Amsterdam bought the rights to the show, which originally aired in the 50s but didn't work. He also produced it, and as a result got some elite people to come on the show... Danny Thomas, Milton Berle, Paul Winchell, and Henny Youngman. Richard Dawson, and then Dick Gautier, were the home-viewer joke tellers. The show really taught me how to interact with celebrities."

And then came "Gambit" in 1972. "It was the first Heatter-Quigley show that I did. I consider myself lucky to have been chosen as host -- Dick Clark also auditioned for it." Of Elaine Stewart, Wink says, "She was sweet, terrific... a delightful lady." (Right now Wink is currently working on another project with Merrill Heatter, nearly 25 years after their first one.) Wink enjoyed "Gambit," and had high hopes when it was revived in 1980 as "Las Vegas Gambit." "The ratings just weren't there... that's why we eventually brought in the `High Rollers' bonus round!"

Of course, Wink's other hit series was "Tic Tac Dough." "I'd never worked with Barry/Enright, but I ended up being one of many who auditioned for the TTD hosting job after Jack had revived `The Joker's Wild' in syndication. Dan Enright taught me more than anyone about doing Q & A games; we rehearsed for a month before doing the pilot." (Wink understands that Patrick Wayne watched tapes of Wink's TTD for weeks before taking over as host of the 1990 version.) The show was sold simultaneously to CBS for daytime broadcast beginning in July and into syndication for a September start. Unfortunately, the daytime show's ratings were so bad that it was cancelled before the syndicated version started! "We were worried about what the stations who'd bought the syndicated version would do, but we went ahead with it anyway. Then comes the November sweeps... it was a hit! At the next NATPE, stations were telling me, `You're a hero!'"

I asked him about perhaps the most famous TTD contestant, Thom McKee. "The guy won 8 cars! He sold seven of them; he also bought a Mercedes with a license plate that said TIC TAC. He was the quintessential contestant." And was there any problems dealing with suggestions that a scandal was brewing? Acording to Wink, not hardly... given everything that Barry and Enright had been through in the 50s, they were determined not to make the same mistake twice. Says Wink, "If anything ever happened again, it would wipe out game shows forever."

Then Wink turns his attention to developing his own shows. His first effort was "Headline Chasers." "I asked Dan (Enright) to let me out of TTD to host HC. They ended up saving money in the deal, so he had no problems with that." HC didn't do so well, but Wink was glad that he did it. In fact, as further evidence that Enright had no hard feelings toward Wink, Dan later asked him to do a pilot he was developing called "Banko."

Wink developed HC for Merv Griffin; he later developed "Second Honeymoon," which Merv subsequently bought and then dropped, possibly because of the failure of HC. Wink did get the show done in Canada, however; CBN picked it up. In fact, Wink says that FAM was considering another version of SH for this fall.

Wink also later hosted a newer version of "High Rollers," as well as a new one, "The Last Word," both Heatter shows. Again, it didn't take off as well as it needed to in first-run syndication. "These days, you don't have any time to prove yourself. If the numbers aren't there, you can be gone in a month."

And what about the interactive games on FAM? "We did pioneer a way to do it; you're very limited when you're working with a telephone keypad. The problem was that charging people $5 each time they played wasn't going to work all the time. Even with that, they only broke even." Wink regrets not being able to do "Trivial Pursuit" when the box game was so popular. He did, however, do a new pilot of the show for syndication two years ago. That pilot involved dollar amounts, which explains the scene we see on the Trivial Pursuit Game Show box game.

So what's in Wink's future? Well, as we've discussed on the newsgroup, he's working on a new show called "Debt" which will air on a cable network starting this summer. "They say this show will do for me what MTV did for Tony Bennett," Wink says. He'll also be starting a new radio music show on May 1, doing three hours via satellite from a studio in his own home. "It'll be music from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and we're calling it `The New Music of Your Life.' Gary Owens will do three hours, and so will Jim Lange."

And what does he think about the future of game shows in general? Wink says that everything is somewhat cyclic, and that game shows will probably reappear in greater numbers in the next couple of years. "Panel shows like `I've Got a Secret' and `What's My Line?' could be spruced up, and a show like `Tattletales' ought to be able to make it."

Wink, all of us here at a.t.g-s hope that your prediction of more game shows to come is right!
(I think Wink was damn near psychic!! - ed.)

(NOTE: I, Chuck Donegan, had no contact whatsoever w/the GS personality whose reminiscences appear above; what you have just read was a transcript of a phone interview conducted by David Hammett, as originally posted to ATGS on the date mentioned at the top of the page)