|Born in Brooklyn, his early career was as an actor appearing on Broadway with Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor. In the movies, Gil appeared with William Holden in Stalag 17 and with Marlon Brandon in The Wild One. He was an umpire for baseball’s Pacific Coast League and coined the term, “I call ’em like I see ’em” and took the line into his broadcast career at “The Big News” during the 60s and 70s on KNXT/Channel 2. He was heard on KNX for decades. To horse racing fans, he was a fixture at local tracks doing the announcing for the weekly horse races that were broadcast on national tv. His ubiquitous sports broadcasting career included the Los Angeles Rams with Bob Kelley.
KNBC – KFWB sports anchor Bill Seward sat with Gil during the year before he died. Bill paid great respect to his mentor in this interview:
“When I was a kid I loved getting the mail from the mailman,” remembered Gil. “I was named a junior and I would see something for Gil Stratton in the mail and of course I opened it. My father said I was not Gil Stratton, I was Gil Stratton, Jr. ‘And don’t open my mail.’ It was that way until I was about to open on Broadway and they asked me how I wanted to be billed as Gil Stratton or Gil Stratton, Jr. I said bill me as Gil Stratton, Jr. I did it really just to show my father and then it just kinda stuck. Particularly after World War II where I primarily made my living as a radio actor the junior part would lead to what part I played on the show. They would read all the parts and if there was a kid’s role and they saw junior they would pick me and it stayed with me all that time.”
Gil grew up in Brooklyn and Garden City, Long Island, spending his time equally between the two cities.
“My dad was in the printing ink business. He manufactured printer’s ink.” Gil remembers his father receiving a holiday or birthday card and spitting on his fingers and then rubbing the ink on the card and invariably say, “cheap ink on this one.”
A long-time sports fan, in 1940, Gil saw 77 home games at Ebbets Field.
“Somebody in our apartment had a pass and all it cost me was a ten-cent tax plus a nickel each way on the subway. In 1941, the Dodgers won their first pennant in 25 years. I saw the only game that the Dodgers won in the 41 World Series. They beat the Yankees 3 – 2 in Yankee Stadium in Game 2 on October the 2nd,” said Gil.
Acting came easy to Gil. He was in all the school plays.
“It was something I did easily and I guess fairly well because I was busy doing those things,” Gil reminisced. “I used to do summer stock in the Brighton Theatre, which is right near the start of Coney Island. It was a legitimate theatre and a girl I went to high school with had gone on to the American Academy. She was in Brother Rat and I went down to see her. I had spent a year in military school, so I had the uniform on. Saw the matinee and went to dinner with the whole cast and we can back and they thought it would great idea to put me on stage because I was in uniform, just like they were on stage. That was probably my real stage debut.”
The following summer he was offered a role in Atlantic City for $5 a week. His parents drove him down and he got a room in the YMCA for $2.75 a week.
“I used to go out on the boardwalk and get a nickel’s worth of Jujubees to kill my appetite.”
Gil played on Broadway as one of the leads in Life With Father. Two years later Gil had the lead in Best Foot Forward.
“This led to a contract with MGM and I headed West, young man. World War II had started and when I got there I had to go to my draft board because we were going out of town for a production in Chicago and you couldn’t leave the state without going to the draft board. This was August and I asked what they thought and they said I would be carrying a gun by the first of October.”
(Gil in Girl Crazy)Standing in front of the draft board building with some other guys, Gil was asked if he knew about the Air Cadets.
“It is the Air Force and if you could qualify for it for bombardiers and things like that and pass the written and physical there is no place to put the guys right now so you can stay out longer, so that’s why I did it. I opened at the Airliner Theatre in Chicago and after passing the exams, they asked if they could swear me in on stage after a matinee. A Major came down and swore me in. I got the call the following March but we hadn’t finished filming yet and I got a deferment until July, so it was almost a year from the time I signed up before I went in.”
“I ended up flying in B-17s and one night we were on a night training navigation mission over Little Rock, Arkansas when they lost two engines on the right side and we were losing altitude over the Ozarks Mountains and the pilot said, ‘Okay, boys, prepare to bail out.’ I snapped on my parachute and I was the first one out. It was kinda like the big hill on a big roller coaster. I jumped, pulled the handle on the rip chord, and nothing happened. I later learned there was a three-second delay between pulling the handle and the parachute opening. It feels like a lot more than three seconds when you’re looking at it and nothing is happening.”
Gil was discharged from the Air Force on October 5, 1945.
“The thing you wanted more than anything else was a civilian suit. The first job I got was in Chicago. The William Morris Agency was my agency at the time and they thought of me primarily as a Broadway actor. I got involved in a radio show and shortly after joining them they moved it to the West Coast. I really wanted to come back to Hollywood any way I could and that worked out great.”
From 1946 to 1954, Gil made his living primarily as a radio actor.
“I was on Lux Radio Theatre 29 times. Meet Corliss Archer, the Life of Riley and on and on. I was Margie’s boyfriend on My Little Margie with Gale Storm and Charlie Farrell. I was a regular on Junior Miss and then we did a television show called, That’s My Boy, which had been a movie with Martin & Lewis. I played the Jerry Lewis part. Everything was fine for the first 13 weeks and then we went up against George Gobel. After 13 more weeks nobody ever heard of us again.”
Beginning in 1954 and up until the late 1990s, Gil fulfilled the final third of an incredible three-career life.
“I was a sports announcer, mostly at CBS,” recalled Gil. He was doing My Little Margie and went to visit his friend Tom Harmon who anchored a coupled of the tv sportscasts. Tom mentioned that he was going to be leaving the late news at Channel 2. His wife had put her foot down and told Tom that he had to choose between the two newscasts. I told him that’s what I wanted to do since I was eight years old. He told about an audition and when I showed up about half of the guys on the Rams team were auditioning along with most of the sports writers in town. I got the job.”
Busy with his radio acting, Gil was also a professional baseball umpire for ten years beginning in 1947.
“I spent five years in Class C baseball; so I did pay my dues. I finally ended up in the Pacific Coast League. I could have done that as a career.”
When Gil joined KNXT/Channel 2 the tv news had revolving anchors.
“We called them the Bum of the Week. The first one was a cowboy actor and he couldn’t even pronounce President Roosevelt, so he was on his way out. Even Bill Stout was an anchor for awhile and he hated it. It was kind of different and it finally shook down around 1960 with The Big News. It became the all-time biggest television news shows in history. We used to get 21 – 23 ratings on that show.”
About five years after joining KNXT/Channel 2, he started doing sports broadcasting on KNX.
“It happened when George Nicholaw took over as general manager. He was smart enough to recognize the pull and success of The Big News and its people. He proceeded to put all of us from tv on radio. Bill Keene and I used to the sports and weather together and we kind of kidded each other as we went along. More people came up to us and said they enjoyed what we did on radio, more so than on television.”
Did Gil enjoy radio or tv more?
“Television was meant for me,” Gil responded without pausing. “It was that kind of medium. Having been an actor I was loose in front of the camera. I don’t mean that as conceit, it is just kind of like I am. On the radio you are reading everything word for word. When I was a radio actor it was the best job I ever had. I can’t think of anything easier. That was the best job we ever had. The Lux Radio Theatre paid $133. That was scale. That was a lot of money back in those days.”
The sports scene in L.A. helped glorify the period for Gil’s reporting.
“Remember John McKay was winning the college football championships at USC. John Wooden was winning the college basketball championships at UCLA. The Lakers were winning. The Dodgers were winning. There were 50,000 people on a Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita. This was the sports capital of the world, without a doubt. And it is no longer.”
Gil carries a money clip with a Rams helmet embedded on it, which reminds him of a special time when he was part of the Rams broadcasts.
“The Rams were an institution. They came out here from Cleveland in 1946. It was a big deal. We had two of the greatest quarterbacks in football – Bob Waterfield and Van Brocklin. Other players like Elroy Hirsch on the end. Ollie Matson came later. He was in a deal for 11 men. There was also Tank Younger and Jon Arnett. It was wonderful. I can remember 100,000 people in the Coliseum for the Chicago Bears games. It was a great rivalry. Everyone was a fan. I was fortunate to be their play-by-play on television for a few years and I certainly enjoyed it.”
For 20 years Gil hosted the Saturday broadcasts that originated at great race tracks in the West.
“It was a very popular show on the West Coast,” said Gil. “We covered races from Canada to Mexico and went as far East as the Rockies. It was on the Pacific Coast Network, which consisted of 34 tv stations. I don’t think there was a bar or a country club or any place where people gathered that they didn’t watch that show. When I would go to one of these other markets they treated me like Frank Sinatra had just come in. What was strange was that I didn’t like horse races. I never did like it and I’m not a gambler. I was lucky to have a partner who really knew everything. He was a real race tracker. I studied so hard to be prepared for that show and people really got the impression that I knew what the hell I was talking about and that was not true.”
“I broke my wrist when breaking a horse out of the gate, which resulted in wearing a cast. I would only let jockeys sign the cast. I turned down all the baseball or football players. Only jockeys could sign it. I think that had something to do with the popularity of the show because I was so accepted by the jockey colony. My size also worked for me because they were used to six foot two guys who were leaning down. I could look eye to eye with most of the jockeys. Consequently I had very good rapport with them. I enjoyed them but I can’t say I enjoyed going out to the track. I looked forward to it every week because I got paid well.”
Gil remembers the times that he would be walking around the track area and fans would come up to him asking for a tip on a winning horse. He would ask which race. They would say the fourth race. He would tell them horse #4 looked good, or if it was the sixth race, he would say the number six horse. If the horse won the race they thought he was a genius. If the horse lost, they just wouldn’t ever ask again. “I didn’t know one horse from another,” confessed Gil.
In 1953, Gil had a major role in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 starring William Holden and The Wild One with Marlon Brando, two of the most successful films of the 50s.
“Stalag 17 was like being in the prison camp. It really was. The director’s assistant acted like a prison sergeant and he would yell at us to get our asses on the set. After a few weeks on the set it really did feel like we were in the service because you are in uniforms all day long.”
Gil revealed that he partied hard during much of his incredible career.
“I was part of it all for a long time and finally I joined AA and that seemed to get me straightened out and from there on there were no problems.”