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Obituaries

Gene Moss, 75; Children's TV Writer, Smokey Bear's Voice

July 22, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gene Moss, who co-wrote the TV cartoon show "Roger Ramjet" and co-wrote and hosted the satiric Los Angeles television children's show "Shrimpenstein" in the mid-1960s during a varied career that included a 10-year stint supplying the voice of Smokey Bear, has died. He was 75.

A Palm Desert resident since retiring from advertising and voice-over work, he died of cancer July 15 at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage.

Moss and his writing partner in comedy and advertising, Jim Thurman, co-wrote all 156 episodes of "Roger Ramjet," a 1965 syndicated cartoon show known for its puns, Hollywood in-jokes and cultural references. Gary Owens supplied the voice of the show's patriotic, "Proton Energy Pill"-popping superhero, with Moss providing the voices of Doodle and Noodles Romanoff.

But many Southern California baby boomers may know Moss best as the host of "Shrimpenstein," a half-hour afternoon show on KHJ-TV (Channel 9) in the late '60s.

Shrimpenstein was a miniature Frankenstein's monster--a hand puppet controlled by Moss, who appeared on camera as the mad scientist Dr. Rudolph Von Schtick, whose laboratory was in a medieval castle.

Thurman provided the voice of Shrimpenstein and manipulated and supplied the voices of the other ghoulish puppet cast members. They included Claus (only the arm and hand of a big purple monster appeared on camera), It (just a roaring and chomping sound effect of a monster who would eat any visitors to the castle), Wilfred the Wolf (just a gnarly hand poking out of a box) and the swinging Tijuana Bats (hand puppets that did record parodies). Moss and Thurman co-wrote the show.

"Co-ad-libbed is probably more to the point," Thurman said from his home in Sheffield, Mass. "We had a script the first two or three shows. They were kind of dopey little kid things, and we kind of ad-libbed around it, and [because of that] the show became hip and wasn't for little kids anymore."

Indeed, the show began attracting nearly as many adults as children. Rod Serling was a big fan of the show's irreverent humor, Thurman said, as was actress Elizabeth Montgomery. And, he said, "the Disney people loved the show."

Although "Shrimpenstein" started out with Moss and Thurman bantering between the two cartoons that aired during the half hour, the in-studio comedy became so popular that the cartoons were dropped.

At the same time they were doing "Shrimpenstein," Moss and Thurman briefly hosted a live one-hour talk show on KHJ, "The Moss and Thurman or Thurman and Moss or Show."

It was canceled after about eight weeks. And after about a year and a half on the air, so was "Shrimpenstein." But it had made an impression.

"There are huge fans out there; it's amazing," said Moss' son, Chuck Moshontz, a former newscaster for KLOS-FM in Los Angeles.

Hosting the show was a natural for Moss, who a few years earlier had written and sung the songs on a novelty album called "Dracula's Greatest Hits." (Many of the songs were take-offs on Beatles tunes such as "I Want to Bite Your Hand.")

"He was a total ham, an absolute ham," Moshontz said of his father.

Born Eugene Harold Moshontz in 1926, Moss grew up in Cleveland. He was in Army basic training when World War II ended and served in the occupying forces in Japan.

After his discharge, he moved to Los Angeles, where he married his first wife, Ileen, and held a variety of jobs, including owning a couple of used bookstores. Then he was editor of the Brentwood Spectator, a weekly community newspaper.

But he cut his journalistic career short in 1959 when he landed a job writing liner notes at Capitol Records. In the early 1960s, he turned to advertising, writing print ads and commercials.

After "Shrimpenstein," Moss and Thurman became staff comedy writers for Dean Martin, Carol Burnett and Bob Hope. At the same time, they launched their own boutique agency, Moss and Thurman Creative Advertising Stuff.

In 1979, the U.S. Forest Service tapped Moss' hard-edged baritone for a 10-year stint as Smokey.

He retired to Palm Desert in 1989.

In addition to his son, Moss is survived by his wife of 30 years, Carolyn; two other children, Ron Moshontz of Wilmington, N.C., and Linda Parks of Thousand Oaks; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Sportsman's Lodge, 12833 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

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