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WESTSIDE / VALLEY : After All These Careers, Deejay Wink Martindale Is Still on the Air

August 22, 1993|MICHAEL ARKUSH | Michael Arkush is a Times staff writer.

In 1959, the disc jockey from Memphis took a job at a station in Los Angeles, convinced he had made the mistake of his life.

"What have I done?" Wink Martindale asked when he saw the city's intimidating bright lights as his plane was about to land at LAX.

What hasn't he done? In 34 years, Winston Conrad Martindale--his real name--or "the Winker" as he is known by his peers, has hosted nine television game shows, formed a production company and spun records at six local radio stations. At 58, his latest stop is the Westwood-based KJQI-AM (1260 and 540), from 10 a.m to 3 p.m. weekdays.

"I love playing this kind of music," said Martindale, who worked in the same format--adult standards--at KMPC-AM (710) in the 1970s and '80s. "I'm like a warhorse. Let me out of the gate."

Martindale was drawn to radio as a boy in Jackson, Tenn., a small town halfway between Memphis and Nashville. "I was fascinated that someone on the other end could hear you," said Martindale, who lives in Westwood and has four grown children. "I still get a rush from it."

He used to go to bed with the radio to his ear, listening to all the radio dramas. After graduating from high school, he spent the summer at the local radio station.

Through the years, he has interviewed some of the biggest names in show business. He has kept most of the tapes, and squeezes a few minutes into each day's broadcast, moments with such names as Vicki Carr, Neil Diamond, Natalie Cole and Tony Bennett.

Among his most memorable chats with the famous is a meeting with Elvis Presley. In 1954, Martindale, the morning disc jockey at WHBQ-AM in Memphis, met the King when the station played two Elvis singles, "That's All Right" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky," during disc jockey Dewey Phillips' night shift. Martindale was at the station preparing for the next day's program.

"Kids were swarming the place after we put those records on," Martindale recalled. "We called his parents to get him down there, and they said he was at the movies by himself. We went there and walked up and down the aisle, found him and brought him back. He was so nervous."

Something else about Presley surprised many at the station. "From the way he sounded, we thought he was black," Martindale said.

After seven years at WHBQ, Martindale requested a transfer to the big time--New York or Los Angeles. "I had done all I could in Memphis," he said.

He started at KHJ-AM, a rock 'n' roll station, and hosted the daily "Teenage Dance Party," a Los Angeles television version of "American Bandstand," featuring songs and interviews, at Pacific Ocean Park by the Santa Monica Pier. Guests included Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Sam Cooke and Johnny Mathis. "It was the most exciting time, a great time for music," he said.

In 1965, he embarked on a new career--television game shows. His big, shiny white teeth became a trademark in the business. "You smile a lot on television," he said.

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Martindale got his first break with "What's This Song?" on NBC.

"I loved game shows, so I thought, why not try it?" he said. "I wanted to get out of the rock 'n' roll area, so I got auditions for different shows. I was lucky to get this one."

Some of the shows he has hosted include "Gambit" on CBS from 1971-75, and two syndicated shows, "Tic-Tac-Dough," from 1977-84, and "High Rollers" from 1987-88.

In 1984, Martindale established a production company to make game shows, reality-based re-creations and talk shows. He formed a partnership two years ago with Bill Hillier, a producer who developed the concept for the "PM Magazine" news shows across the country. The company currently produces the syndicated "Why Didn't I Think of That?" which airs at noon Saturdays on KABC-TV (Channel 7). Martindale calls it a "star search of home inventions."

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In June, his company started a show based on the popular game Trivial Pursuit that currently airs from noon to 1 p.m. each weekday on the Family Channel.

"People love to be involved at home," said Martindale, who also hosts the program. "Millions buy that game every year."

The experience is different from the days when he was merely a host.

"The fact that we are producing the show means so much more responsibility," he said. "It's our baby."

But Martindale is not ready to abandon radio. Saul Levine, KJQI's owner, hired him after he took over the station in January.

"He has an immense knowledge of music," said Chuck Southcott, KJQI's program director, "and a relationship with all the performers. He's done this kind of radio for so many years."

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Wink Martindale can be heard from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays on KJQI-AM (540 and 1260).

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