There's only one Wink.
Before he got his nickname, young Winston Martindale spent his Tennessee childhood listening to the radio and dreaming of show business. His single-minded focus on getting on the air gave him his start, but it was his years of hosting television game shows that made him a fixture in American homes. Among his many game show credits are Gambit and Tic Tac Dough, which he worked on while still hosting daily radio programs in Los Angeles.
The role of game show host was a natural fit for Martindale. "I like people, and you get to meet so many different people in the world of game shows," he explains. His hosting style could be described as his own brand of down-home, straight-talk charm. "I only know how to be me and that's it."
Martindale was interviewed in April 2017 by John Dalton for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire discussion can be screened here.
Q: How did you get the name Wink?
A: When I was growing up in Jackson, Tennessee, my buddy, Jimmy McCord, called me Winkie. When he said "Winston," it came out sounding like "Winkie." So in the neighborhood as a kid I was Winkie Martindale, and when I got into the business we shortened it to Wink. It has served me well.
Q: Tell us about your start in radio.
A: I always wanted to be in the forefront in show business, and when I was young, show business meant radio. From the time I was seven or eight, I began listening to the radio. My Sunday school teacher, Chick Wingate, also happened to run the little 250-watt station, WPLI. I remember saying to him at Sunday school, "Chick, when are you going to give me a job? I want to work at the station." And he would put me off — until one night when I was 17, right out of high school.
I was sitting with two of my football buddies and up pulls Chick, in his Henry J automobile. I said, "Chick, when are you going to give me a…" He said, "Come on upstairs."
He sat me in front of a microphone, ripped off some Associated Press wire copy and a couple of commercials, and said, "Let me hear you do these." Little did he know that I'd been practicing for this moment for years.
My dad didn't make much money, but every Christmas he would get a 50-dollar bonus and a year's subscription to Life magazine. I grew up reading Life, and I would tear out the advertisements and go into the back bedroom where we slept, close the door, and pretend I was on the radio and ad lib commercials from what I'd read on these advertisements.
So I knocked out those two commercials for Chick like Grant going through Richmond. He couldn't believe it. I read the news perfectly for him. He said, "Come down here tomorrow — George Smith will be here." He was the mayor of Jackson and he owned the station. Chick said, "Do this for him, and if he likes what he hears, we'll hire you." He came, I conquered. Twenty-five bucks a week for my first job at WPLI.
Q: How did Clockwatchers come along?
A: Clockwatchers was my dream job. I went from WPLI to WTJS, then to WDXI, a 5,000-watter. While I was at WDXI, my dream was to do Clockwatchers on WHBQ in Memphis, Tennessee. WHBQ played music we loved, the top hits of the day. And the top show on WHBQ, in my estimation, was Clockwatchers, the morning show.
One Sunday afternoon at WDXI, I quietly made an audition transcription and sent it to the program director at WHBQ. Within two weeks he called me and asked me to come for an audition. My dad drove me over, I auditioned, and I was hired at 95 dollars a week.
Q: Tell us about meeting a young Elvis Presley at WHBQ.
A: One night in July 1954, I saw the switchboard light up like a Christmas tree. We had a deejay from 9 p.m. to midnight named Dewey Phillips, who did a show called Red, Hot and Blue. I went into his control room and discovered that Sam Phillips, who'd founded Sun Records, had handed Dewey an acetate copy of a song — not a test pressing, it hadn't even been tested yet — to see how it would be accepted by the listeners.
He played it once, twice, three times, four times, five times…. Listeners wanted to hear it over and over again. Played it seven times in a row. The song was "That's All Right, Mama" by a truck-driving singer for Crown Electric named Elvis Aron Presley.
Phillips happened to have the phone number of Gladys and Vernon, Elvis's parents, who lived in East Memphis. I was designated to call to see where Elvis was, because we wanted him to come down to the station. I called, and Gladys answered. She said, "He went to the Suzore Theatre to see a double-feature western."
He was so nervous about his record being played on the air that he'd gone to the theater. They found him sitting there by himself and brought him to the station. Dewey put him in front of a microphone and just started talking to him. So I met Elvis that night. He became my friend and he continued to be my friend until the day he died.
Q: Let's talk about your start in television.
A: My mentors came to me when they went on the air with Channel 13, WHBQ-TV, and they said, "Wink, would you like to do a television show?" I said, "Are you serious?" I wanted to be on the radio — it had never occurred to me to be on television. But I said, "Well, of course."
They had come up with an idea for a half-hour daily show for kids called Wink Martindale and the Mars Patrol. So I became sort of the Flash Gordon of Memphis. Every afternoon from 5:30 to 6, my six little Mars guards and I would drink our Bosco and milk and blast off into outer space. We would segue into the old Flash Gordon Saturday afternoon movies, but the rest of the time I spent talking to the kids. It was a great learning experience for me because I learned how to ad lib and do interviews.
Q: Did being on camera come naturally to you?
A: It did. After that, they offered me another show. I became the Memphis version of Dick Clark, doing a Saturday afternoon top-10 dance party with a cohostess.
Q: Tell us about P.O.P. Dance Party.
A: In late 1958 I was transferred at my request [to KHJ in Los Angeles] by RKO, which owned WHBQ and KHJ. In the fall of '59, I went on to KRLA in Pasadena, one of the top rock-and-roll stations. [Producer] Al Burton came and talked to me about doing a teenage dance party at Pacific Ocean Park [P.O.P., in Santa Monica]. I had done one at KHJ when I first came out here.
So I began that in the summer of 1960. The number-one record that year was "Theme from a Summer Place" by Percy Faith. The artists would come to town and lip-sync their records, like on American Bandstand. It was a very popular show — we did it every day from 4 to 5.
Q: You were doing TV, but you were also on the radio. Was it hard to balance everything?
A: No. I would do radio for three hours every morning, Monday through Saturday, and in the afternoon I'd go out to P.O.P. and we'd do our dance party — and on Saturday night we'd do a dance party. No problems whatsoever.
Q: What do you love about radio?
A: The immediacy. My dance party was live, but in the world of game shows, you always record live to tape, and you never know when they're going to be seen. Radio was always right there for you and with you. You can call up and request a song and have it put right on the air.
Q: Speaking of game shows, you got your debut in 1963 on ZOOM.
A: Yes, that was the first game show I did. It was local, on KTLA, and produced by Ralph Andrews and Bill Yagemann of Andrews-Yagemann Productions — I ended up doing several shows for them. ZOOM had a very simple format. Players would compete to recognize what the camera was zooming out from. It would start real close on a person, place or thing and then, with every correct answer from one of the two players, it would zoom back a little bit until you saw enough of the image to figure it out.
Q: Did you realize at the time that the game show was a great format for you?
A: I never really got into the idea of being a game show host, although I enjoyed doing ZOOM and I enjoyed doing another show, What's the Name of That Song? It was also produced on KTLA. It became successful and went on to NBC as What's This Song? That was my first network game show.
But prior to What's This Song? I used to get off the air in the morning and rush home to watch Password. I loved that simple format, and I did some research on [host] Allen Ludden. I discovered that he came in two days a week, knocked out 10 shows and the other five days he played golf. I thought, "This is not a bad way to make a buck." I went to my agent and said, "I'd love for you to send me out on some game show auditions." The second audition I went on was for What's This Song?
Q: Are there other game show hosts you've looked up to?
A: Number one, Bill Cullen. He, without question, was my hero. He could do it all. He had a sense of humor, and he was a people person.
Q: In 1972 you became the host of Gambit.
A: Gambit was based on blackjack. Twenty-one. It was produced by Heatter-Quigley Productions in Beverly Hills, by Merrill Heatter and Bob Quigley.
Q: They produced Hollywood Squares.
A: Correct. They had a great deal of success going into Gambit. I remember that they auditioned practically every possible host. It came down to Dick Clark and me, and this is one time I beat Dick Clark.
We did the pilot at CBS. It sold and we were on for about five years. [The format involved] two couples and a dealer, who happened to be Merrill's wife, actress Elaine Stewart. I would ask a question, whoever buzzed in first would answer, and they could either take the card from Elaine or pass it on. That was basically the game, trying to get to twenty-one without going over.
Q: What made it so popular?
A: Everybody knows how to play twenty-one. People gravitate to games that they know. They can say to themselves, "Man, I could have gotten that. I could play that game." When you get that from a home viewer or a person in the you've got them captured.
Q: How did you became host of Tic Tac Dough in 1978?
A: A lot of people auditioned, and I was blessed to be selected by Dan Enright and Jack Barry. Early on, I went in every Saturday morning and almost every weekday afternoon to rehearse with Dan Enright. He wanted me to be able to do the pilot perfectly, without having to rely on cue cards. So I had that show memorized, and we did a terrific pilot for CBS.
Q: What do you recall about contestant Thom McKee?
A: He was our biggest winner on Tic Tac Dough, Lieutenant Thom McKee. He was in the navy, down in San Diego. He was in The Guinness Book of World Records until Ken Jennings won on Jeopardy!
After Thom lost, I remember asking Dan Enright, "What made Thom such a good contestant?" And he said, "Several reasons. He was good-looking. He wore the uniform of our country. He loved playing the game. He had incredible knowledge of all-around trivia. And he had a beautiful wife, and that wife sat in the audience for every show, and she just happened to be pregnant. Put all of these together and that's why he was such a great contestant."
He went on to win $317,000 and eight Buicks. He gave one to his brother, who was a missionary in Africa, and he sold the other seven and bought himself a Mercedes.
Q: Do you recall any bloopers from the show?
A: Every fall during sweeps we did a tournament, and all the contestants had to be over age 80. One of our contestants, Dr. Reba Kelley, didn't wear her teeth. She ended up winning for this particular week. Dr. Kelley was a widow, 88, and during the interview segment, I asked, "Dr. Kelley, do you ever think about dating anymore?" And she said, "Yes, Wink. I have four boyfriends."
I said, "Really?" She said, "Yes. I get up with Will Power. I take a walk with Arthur Itis. I come home with Charlie Horse. And I go to bed with Ben Gay." The audience went nuts. We had to stop tape. I couldn't stop laughing. As a host, you dream about responses like that. I never learned whether the producers gave that answer to her, but nobody knew that I was going to ask her specifically that question.
Q: How did Debt come about?
A: I got a call one day from Michael Davies, who was a producer at Disney at the time. He was getting ready to produce this show called Debt for Lifetime, and he wanted me to come in for an interview. The next day I met with Michael, and he ended up hiring me to host. It's one of my favorite shows. We paid off young people's debts, up to $10,000. It was a real fun show, as you know. You were one of the contestants.
Q: My debts were $8,500 and they were wiped out from that show, so thank you, Wink.
A: That's great! That first season of Debt was terrific. The colors on the set matched the colors on a Visa card and after that first season, Visa made us change the colors.
We also received a complaint from Merv Griffin Productions that some of our questions and answers were too much like those on Jeopardy! They sued us and won. We had to change the way the game was played — it never was the same, and the ratings showed it. So after two seasons, unfortunately, Debt went by the wayside. But it was a terrific show.
Q: What do you like about hosting?
A: I like people, and you get to meet so many different people in the world of game shows. I enjoy finding out what makes people tick. As you play a game, you see why one person is more successful than another. But I just love working with people, and I love talking. I could sit here and talk all day.
Q: What is your particular hosting style?
A: I only know how to be me, and that's it. Your question reminds me of the night that I flew into Los Angeles for the first time with my program director, Mark Forrester. I turned to him and said, "What if I don't make it out here and I have to go back to Memphis with my tail between my legs?" He said, "People in Memphis are the same as in Los Angeles. Just be yourself. Do what you did in Memphis. Don't change yourself. Don't change your style. Just be you, and you'll be fine."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2018