It's 11:30 on a Los Angeles Saturday morning when Ernie Anderson-- ‘‘Ghoulardi’ to you, ‘‘the Voiceover Guy’’ to everyone in Hollywood-- walks into the Studio City Grille and orders a Bloody Mary.
He doesn't exactly ‘‘order’’ it. The barmaid, whom he greets by name,automatically swings into action the moment he arrives.
The drink is a complicated mix, involving various size dashes of three types of hot sauce and one shot of celery salt. And, of course, vodka. Lot sand lots of vodka. So much vodka that the glass is more pink than bloody.
Anderson is wearing jeans, a stubble of white whiskers and an untucked knit shirt that is hanging below the bottom of his beige windbreaker.
Not exactly the persona you might expect from a man making a million dollars a year. But ‘‘that's Ernie,’’ as his friends, agents and colleagues invariably put it.
‘‘He's the original hippie,’’ says Chuck Schodowski, the WJW (Channel 8)movie host who was an engineer at Channel 8 when Anderson unleashed his legendary Ghoulardi character in 1963. ‘‘Ernie was Doing His Own Thing before the term was ever known. He's just a wild man.’’
Anderson put that trait to good use in Northeast Ohio, creating a deranged late-night movie host who, during breaks in the action, would ridicule the quality of the movie, blow up toy cars and verbally assault such local icons as Dorothy Fuldheim and Mike Douglas.
That kind of irreverence was unknown in the early ‘60s, when television personalities like Douglas made their living by offering relentlessly sugary assessments of every aspect of life. Suddenly, here came a TV host who told his viewers to ‘‘turn blue’’ while wearing one-lens sunglasses, a fake goatee, a white smock and a maniacal grin.
The program, saddled with bad horror movies, drew an astonishing 80 percent share of the TV audience on many Friday nights. Police departments said the crime rate dipped when the show came on because potential criminals stayed home to watch.
Perhaps the best indication of Ghoulardi's popularity: Even though the show was on the air for only 2 1/2 years, almost everyone who grew up in Northeast Ohio during that era still remembers it a quarter-century later.
Today, Anderson is at least as well-known in Hollywood as he ever was in Ohio.
Not only has he made millions doing freelance voice work on commercials,he has been the primary staff announcer for ABC.
His was the voice that thundered down from the heavens promoting such miniseries as Roots, The Winds of War and Rich Man, Poor Man. His was the voice that told us who was playing whom on Monday Night Football and what was coming ‘‘` Saturday on the Luuuuuuuuuuuuuv Boat.’’
Anderson is about as famous as a voiceover guy can get. That's pretty famous in comparison to most of us. In 1986, for instance, he was a guest on David Letterman's show. (Things didn't go well: The irrepressible Anderson made a crack he thought was funny; Dave didn't, and went into his let's-get-this-thing-over-with mode.)
But in comparison to a TV or movie actor, Anderson's star is faint.Voiceover guys just don't get that kind of attention. Ironically, if the athletic, 6-foot, 185-pound Anderson had been short and fat, America might know his face as well as it knows his voice.
Well, here's the scoop: In 1962, when Anderson jumped from Cleveland's KYW (then Channel 3) to Channel 8, he brought along a pudgy little friend named Tom Conway, a native of Chagrin Falls. The two teamed up as writers and hosts on a morning movie series called Ernie's Place.
One day, actress Rose Marie came to Channel 8 during a CBS promotional tour for The Dick Van Dyke Show. Anderson and Conway took her to a local pub,brought her back in a great mood and showed her some of their tapes. She loved them, and took copies back to Hollywood, where she played them for Steve Allen.
Allen reportedly said, ‘‘Hey, this stuff is funny. And I could use a little fat guy.’’ That would be Conway, who headed west and changed his name to Tim Conway because someone else in the Screen Actors Guild already was using his real name. Because Allen was perfectly capable of handling the role of straight man, there was no need for Anderson.
So who knows what Anderson might have achieved had he looked dumpier?
Nah. An acting career never would have worked anyway, because Anderson has the memory of a turnip.
Although he showed up on time for this interview, that was purely by accident. He had forgotten about the appointment -- despite several phone calls from his agent the day before -- and was only in the right place at the right time because his son had suggested they go to breakfast at their favorite haunt.
The problem is not that Anderson has turned 69. The problem is not even that those 69 years have encompassed a lot of living. The problem is that Anderson's memory has always stunk.
‘‘I can't call it a learning disability,’’ he says, ‘‘but I have a real flaw in my mental makeup. I can't remember [bleep]. It's been that way since I was a child.
‘‘I did a little thing in a church. It was five lines. I'm 7 years old, and I couldn't remember the five lines.
‘‘My father sent me to an ‘elocution’ teacher, as they used to call it. And I had to learn Casey at the Bat. Not a chance. Not a prayer. I couldn't remember Casey at the Bat if I spent the rest of my [bleeping] life at it.’’
When Anderson first arrived in Hollywood, he wanted to follow in Conway's on-camera footsteps. He landed a small role in a John Badham movie, The Law,playing a newscaster. After trying like mad to learn his lines, he suggested to Badham that the newscaster use a TelePrompTer for the sake of ‘‘realism.’’Badham quickly figured out the real problem, but brought in the ‘PrompTer anyway. Badham also allowed Anderson to ad-lib another scene.
So much for dreams of lengthy silver-screen soliloquies.
Fortunately, Anderson's voice is as good as his memory is bad.
He first hooked up with the network when ABC was looking for someone to do sports promos. That quickly led to more promotional work. But Anderson's career really took off when fair-haired boy Fred Silverman arrived in the mid '70s.
Silverman, taking advantage of improvements in TV technology, pushed the network away from generic promos and toward promos geared to specific episodes.
‘‘Instead of, ‘Watch Combat,’ now it was, ‘Watch Combat tonight,’ ’’ Anderson says in a voice that saturates the room.
‘‘It was a whole new concept. We were the first ones to do it. That's when ABC was really No. 1. That's when I was doing 14, 15 promos a day.... And that's when I got to the stage that I don't have to work anymore.’’
He laughs, something he does frequently. And why not? How would you like to get paid piles of money to go into a room and read words off a card? ‘‘I've got the best job in the [bleep bleep] world,’’ he says, sipping slowly on his Bloody Mary. ‘‘I really have. I own it. I never get any sweat on my lip. I got it. Gimme the paper. Put the microphone here. I'm gone.’’
There's a bit more to it, of course. For starters, you need a voice like his, a voice seemingly capable of opening up the San Andreas Fault.
‘‘It's just a natural gift,’’ he says of his golden pipes. ‘‘I have cultivated it. I will not deny that.
‘‘I used to listen to myself in the headset and purify myself, you know?'Cause I knew when I was wrong. I had a fairly good ear. Not a great ear. I can't do imitations, so I don't have a really great ear. But I can hear myself.
‘‘I knew I could go from up here to down here. Happy Days. Winds of War. I had that range.’’
He first began to realize his voice was special when a professor at Boston's Suffolk University cornered him during his sophomore year and suggested he try radio. That summer, Anderson, who had been aiming for a career in law, won a fill-in job at a station in Montpelier, Vt. Soon he was hooked.
After 18 months in Montpelier, he became the top-rated disc jockey in Providence, R.I. He then stopped in Albany, N.Y., before arriving at Cleveland's WHK (1420-AM) in 1959.
The meat of Anderson's career, though, would come in network television during the peak of that medium's power. When the Big Three networks ruled the entertainment cosmos during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, no voiceover person made more money, did more promos or did promos better than Ernie Anderson.
‘‘I was a little shaky on Roots,’’ he says, talking about the blockbuster's phonetics. ‘‘It's all a vowel. You know what I mean? There's nothing you can harden up on. It's all just air blowing out of your face.
‘‘But I loved War and Remembrance. And The Winds of Waaaaaaaaaaaar.’’'
Let us pause now while the other patrons of the Studio City Grille pick themselves up off the floor.
Today Anderson has cut back his ABC work, doing three to five promos a day. Although his voice still rattles windows, his powers of concentration have slipped, making all-day sessions difficult.
In terms of commercial work, he picks and chooses.
‘‘I'm at the stage where I say, ‘How long is it, how much, and where?’ I ain't goin' over to a recording studio in Santa Monica. It's gotta be somewhere around ‘the campus’ [Studio City, where he lives, works and parties]. It's gotta be fairly decent money. And it's gotta be prestige stuff. If it's one of those ‘Sale, sale, sale!’ things, don't call me.’’
But Anderson prides himself on giving people their money's worth and being accessible. A portable telephone is with him at the restaurant. When he is about to go on a vacation, his agents alert potential employers. He's even available during a vacation: Ford once tracked him down in London, and he trotted right into a British studio.
Anderson wasn't always so reliable. As a matter of fact, during his Cleveland days, the native of Lynn, Mass., drove Channel 8's management crazy. As the Ghoulardi phenomenon grew bigger and bigger, the blue-suit crowd got increasingly nervous. It wasn't so much the wacky incidents, such as riding his motorcycle through the program director's office (a memo from management instructing him not to do that anymore hangs in a frame on the wall of his house).
It was more Anderson's on-air attitude. Things finally came to a head when a new general manager suggested that the irreverent Ghoulardi was being an‘‘irresponsible’’ broadcaster and needed to ‘‘shape up,’’ thereby missing the whole point: Shape up Ghoulardi and you kill his popularity.
Anderson told colleagues: ‘‘If they threaten to fire you, they can fire you.’’ So he beat them to the punch and quit.
The new Channel 8 honcho ‘‘didn't understand me because his kids didn't understand me,’’ Anderson says today. ‘‘They came from Atlanta and don't know anybody I was talking about. I put the mayor down -- they don't know who the mayor is. I put Dorothy [Fuldheim] down -- they don't know who Dorothy is.’’
Fuldheim, the revered but quirky WEWS (Channel 5) commentator, was among those who ‘‘got’’ it. She knew what Anderson was up to and didn't seem to mind. The same could not be said of Mike Douglas, the Channel 3 host who went on to national fame.
Maybe it had something to do with Ghoulardi throwing daggers at a cardboard cutout of Douglas. ‘‘He hated me,’’ Anderson says, laughing. Years later, when Anderson and buddy Conway were promoting a comedy album on the talk-show circuit, Douglas, then in Philadelphia, refused to let Anderson on his show.
So Conway wouldn't do the show, either.
Conway and Anderson remain close friends. Anderson also hangs out with a number of other Hollywood biggies, such as Rob Reiner. The one thing they all have in common, apparently, is an appreciation for bluntness.
Says Channel 8's Schodowski, whose Big Chuck and Lil' John show is the third-generation offshoot of Ghoulardi: ‘‘If you want to know the truth, ask Ernie. If you don't, don't ask, because he'll tell you that, too. He'll tell you if he doesn't like you.’’
‘‘I go right for it,’’ Anderson admits when confronted with Schodowski's words. ‘‘I'll pin you right to the wall. A lot of people, strangely enough,respect that and like it. ‘[Bleep], don't [bleep] with him, he'll kill you.’ But I don't draw blood. There's an element of humor to it -- always.’’
But enough introspection. It's time to get back over to the bar, grab another Bloody Mary, watch some football, and start some friendly harassment of everybody else in the room, from the barmaid to the patrons to his son,Paul, one of 10 children from two marriages. The second marriage recently ended, so there's probably no harm in mentioning the female friend who arrives later wearing black-leather pants.
‘‘People are always asking when I'm going to retire,’’ Anderson says. ‘‘Why retire? I've got nothing to retire from.’’
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.