By Brian Feinzimer
By Charles Lam
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Joel Beers
To properly orient infamous talk-show host Wally George within the history of Orange County, it's best to paraphrase the introduction of a fellow pop-culture icon with a cult following. So, with apologies to The Big Lebowski:
Now this a-here story I'm about to unfold took place back in the early '80s—just about the time of our conflict with Reagan and the invasion of Grenada. Sometimes there's a man—I won't say a hero 'cause, what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a man—and I'm talkin' about Wally George here. Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's Wally George in Orange County in the 1980s.
Oh, Wally and his Hot Seat, that weekly flash of Orange County lunacy that brought Reagan's morning in America and the punks who were trying to tear down the Orange Curtain together in a tiny UHF studio in Anaheim. Perfect late-night watching for folks stumbling back from bars or sweaty shows, needing one final cap to their insane evenings. It was great daytime TV whenever George hosted Hot Seat Hotline, a call-in version that was essentially an invitation for smart asses to crank call about his wig—that wig!—and his impotence.
George's set was just a desk, an American flag, framed photos of John Wayne and the Space Shuttle (with the latter bearing the legend, "USA is #1"), and him, resplendent in a suit and tie, the veneer of geniality ready to heap invectives on a parade of liberals, gays, minorities, musicians, wrestlers, pacifists, pinkos and the Poorman. He struggled to contain the madness, banging a gavel on his desk and proclaiming, "Hold it!" every 30 seconds, finger pointing, lips pursed, then yelling, "SICK SICK SICK!" and booting guests outta there to the roar of his adoring crowd of 80 sitting on the KDOC floor.
"WALL-Y! WALL-Y! WALL-Y!" The chant still echoes across the county, even though new episodes of Hot Seat aired only for a decade, kept alive by George in best-of reruns he'd host until the end of his life, playing on an endless loop on YouTube, as ingrained in the Orange County id as Huntington Beach riots and Bob Dornan. He paved the way for outrageous national television hosts to make millions—our Wally.
He died 10 years ago this week. In his honor, friends, former guests and foes give the oral history of Wally George.
MEETING MR. AMERICA
Oderus Urungus, lead singer of GWAR: Honestly, of all the talk shows—we've been on everything from Springer to Joan Rivers to Jimmy Fallon—it was our favorite one. That cheesy, little public-access show with that weirdo Wally George, he kicked ass on all those other multimillion-dollar, fuckin' Hollywood-TV creation, constructed human being . . . yuck. Those people really make me sick.
Dexter Holland, lead singer of the Offspring: It was punk. The kids in the audience, or whatever it was, it was cool. Realizing this was all of 30 years ago, that was pretty outrageous TV for back then.
Blase Bonpane, human-rights activist: He was an opportunist who would do anything and be for or against anything that was lucrative. He would be putting on a show and never reflecting what he truly believed. I saw him as a complete phony.
Jim "The Poorman" Trenton, media legend: In real life, he was very, very open-minded. He may have had conservative beliefs, but as a showman, he loved the most crazy people. Just loved it. Even today, it amazes me that he has such a cult following. There's a sort of ferocious fandom to Wally George.
Richard Blade, SiriuxXM DJ: For the people in the audience, it was fun! It was a good escape for a couple of hours. The taping was pretty quick—it wasn't two hours of waiting for some ego-obsessed celebrity to come out. Instead, Wally was there to talk to them. He was down to earth, very human, and bless him for that.
Nikolas Schreck, lead singer of Radio Werewolf: It was like [Wally] was a microcosm of Hollywood taking over politics. In a way, it could seem harmless or like it was just a joke, but when we were actually in the studio, and Wally was presenting me as a scapegoat for all societal ills . . . the audience was whipped into a genuine frenzy. They did not take it as a joke, and it felt very dangerous to be there. It's easy to think that he was a humorous phenomenon, but it was part of the whole. There was a very violent craziness to the '80s that I don't think Americans can remember exactly how it was. I went to a Ronald Reagan rally in 1984, and I sensed that same inherent violence. You know the novel Lord of the Flies? It reminded me of that.
George had been a presence in Southern California media since the 1960s, hosting a radio show on now-defunct KTYM-FM 103.9 (now a Spanish-language oldies station) before producing a television program on KCOP-TV Channel 13 for then-Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty. He got his own KCOP gig before moving over to KDOC in 1983.
George Kuc, Hot Seat regular and founder of Wally George Alumni group: Wally was kind of mellow at first. This was before his audience chanted, "Wally! Wally!" The audience actually used to clap for his guests instead of boo and hiss. Wally became more well-known, and he developed a combative personality with his guests, and he became more in touch with his audience.
Hot Seat changed forever when George invited Bonpane as a guest.
Bonpane: He called me—this had to be 1983—and asked if I could come on his program. It was right during Reagan's war in Grenada. In a phone conversation, he seemed just delightful. I was in the background listening to his interviewee just before me, a Mexican-American attorney, and Wally was just insulting him with racial slurs and so on, and I was quite irritated just hearing him operate. When it was my turn, I went to the interview, and he had a large group of young people in the audience, and just as he was getting started, I turned toward the audience and I said, "I hope you won't go and die as the enemy in a place like Grenada where you're not wanted."
He got a little upset when I made that comment. He came over and assaulted me and battered me. He attacked me from behind. It was a little difficult for a long-standing boxer to not respond, but I thought that would be a terrible thing to do, so I looked at his desk, and I saw there was no one near it and that no one would be harmed, so I just flipped the desk over and walked out.
I came home and told my wife and two children how surprised I was, and within moments, we saw it on ABC, CBS, NBC—it was all over the country. I think that particular episode has been played 1,000 times across the country. I still see it. It's amazing how it made an impact on TV.
There was no staging, however. After the security men ushered me to my car, I went home, and the following morning, Wally called and said, "Blase, we have a terrific thing going here. We can do this all over the country." I said, "Wally, you're a charlatan, and there will be no further interviews, thank you."
After that, Hot Seat became a smash. George began booking provocative guests from pop culture.
The Poorman: I was terrified to go on [Hot Seat] because I saw the way his all-male audience just ate up the guests. I just thought, "Oh, my god, I'm going to get killed on this thing." . . . I knew there was one thing that could [appease] all those guys, and that would be to come out with hot girls in bikinis. That was my whole idea for making myself able to survive being on Wally's show.
Blade: The secretary at Channel 56 asked, "Would you like to be on Wally George's show?" and I said, "Isn't that that lunatic in Orange County?" and she said, "Yep, that's him." So I wiggled my rabbit ears to try to bring in Channel 56, and I watched the show, and I thought, "I could do this." My first memory was, "God, this guy's a lunatic"—and I don't mean to be mean, but [he was] not very intelligent. The person I was with at the time said, "Oh, my god, I can't believe you're going on that [show]," and I said, "Why are you worried? It's going to be fine." She thought I was going to get the shit kicked out of me.
Urungus: I had been hearing rumors about him. It was right as GWAR was starting to break out. We heard he was a potential adversary of GWAR, and we were even thinking about kidnapping him from his show and sacrificing him nightly on our tour.
Holland: We were fans of the show. . . . We saw the Hags on [Hot Seat], and he was great. [Front man Mark Dead] was kind of friends of ours, so we sent Wally George a record, and he called us right away and had us down. . . . A lot of guys would go on the show and make an ass of themselves, but really, for bands, we didn't have to talk too much, and I think he made us look cooler.
Kuc: The Offspring had one of the shortest segments in the history of Hot Seat.
Holland: I was getting ready to say something, but it didn't work out. I think we got just a couple of words in, but he knew how to interact with his audience and get the right reaction. It took a really long time to break [our] record [in pieces]. It wasn't wanting to break for him.
Blade: He'd say, "We've got that layabout, useless person Richard Blade coming out. He is just an abominable DJ and terrible influence to the young people. You advocate pot use with your songs that you play there . . . and all the sex use," and I'd say, "Like what?" He'd say, "Oh, you know the ones, like 'Johnny Are You Queer?' and songs like that, and it's disgusting!" I'd say, "Well, what kinds of songs do you like, Wally?" "Well, I like the '60s stuff," and I'd say, "Like what? Those psychedelic, acid-dropping Beatles?"
Kuc: Timothy Leary, I think he was a riot on the show. He wasn't intimidated by [Wally]. He told Wally to "Calm down, calm down." Not even the audience got to him. After he appeared on Hot Seat, I saw him . . . doing a lecture. He was taking questions from the audience, and I asked, "Hey, what do you think about Wally George?" and he said, "He's too nice of a guy."
Jeff Tolcher, frequent Hot Seat guest: [White supremacist Tom] Metzger insulted [Jewish Defense League chairman, Irv] Rubin, and Rubin stood up, took a cup of water and threw it in his face. Next thing you know, security comes up, and they actually had to call the Anaheim Police.
Jim Myers, also a frequent Hot Seat guest: I argued with Irv Rubin one time, and he was a big dude. He . . . ended up in prison for conspiracy to commit murder or something like that and actually died in prison. I accused him of downing an airplane—it just came off the top of my head—and he gave me some static, so I got up like I kinda like to do there, and he got up and literally threw me across the stage. You could see me on the screen, and then disappear off the screen.
Eventually, George began relying on stock guests he knew were good for a hoot. There was Rudi Krause, the singing Spicolli-look alike who always sported a visor; the tall, mustachioed Tolcher with his huge glasses; and the long-haired, bearded Reverend Bud Green always looking for an excuse to light up.
Craig McIlvany, Hot Seat regular: One time, I actually had to turn him down for an appearance—I forget why. And at that point, I figured something out: if you turn Wally down, he'll start paying you! He said, "Is there any debt you have? Any small debt?" and I said, "Yeah, I owe $90 to Southern California Edison," and he said, "We'll pay that for you!" and from that point on, it became an arranged deal. Like I would go on, and he would pay my utility bills. Whenever I'd need money, I'd call up Wally and say, "Hey, is there anything you need right now 'cuz I gotta pay this bill?"
Tolcher: When I was on the show, I would bring a newspaper article related to the topic we were talking about, and when I was reading from it, he would come over, grab it from me, rip it up, and the audience would go wild. There were certain things he would plan that would make it more entertaining.
Frank Thorpe, frequent Hot Seat Hotline crank caller and audience member: I don't know if Hot Seat would be as great without Larry Rice and Jim Myers. They're like the Kramer of the show. One time, Larry Rice came on to defend freedom of speech—I think this was right after that [Body Count] song "Cop Killer" came out—but at the end of his segment, Jim Myers came out to tell Larry Rice he was wrong this time. Eventually, Larry Rice told him to fuck off, and they scuffled on the stage.
Myers: I was introduced to the show first by Larry Rice, a longtime friend of mine. On that show, we had not planned to get physical; we had just planned to argue. When Larry first introduced me to Wally, Wally said, "Well, what do you want to argue about?" I said, "I'll argue about anything." He said, "Well, for example?" and I said, "Well, all religions are false, and drugs should be legal," and he said, "How about coming on next week?"
Charli Hayes, professional female wrestler: I got him on the table, sat on his chest, picked up his tie and rode him. This was all planned—sorry, guys.
Queen Kong, professional female wrestler who appeared with Wally in GRUNT: The Movie: We never discussed if it was going to be okay for me to grab him or do anything—I just did it, and he rolled with it. He didn't pay me for my last appearance, either. In that sense, he could have used a little work. Other than that, I thought he was a good sport.
Myers: One time, [Wally] said he wanted to go into the ministry, and I said, "The only thing you could go into is old ladies' purses and little boys' pants."
McIlvany: Swearing on television was a funny topic because Jim Myers was on his show the day before me, and I was just learning my ways on how to act on TV, how to make myself more interesting, and Jim Myers says, "Look, this is what you gotta do: When you go on and debate this subject, you gotta point out John Wayne and imitate him and include a few swear words. Don't forget to insult the audience—you gotta do that!" and so I told the audience, "Shut up!" and Wally stood up and held his tie. That was like a comedian counting laughs—when I saw Wally stand up, I knew I had scored a hit. And also when I pointed at John Wayne and I imitated his voice, I said, "Well, I'll tell ya, Pilgrim, why don't you go fuck yourself."
BENEATH THE WIG
Off-stage, George was different person.
Hayes, in reference to a kiss she laid on George: He tried to stick his tongue in my mouth—bad boy.
McIlvany: I remember one time I was in the bathroom with him at [legendary metal station] KNAC-FM, and we were both peeing at urinals, and while we were both talkin', I remember thinking, "Wow, this is so surreal."
Blade: Backstage at Channel 56, we would talk in the little corridor, and he would say, "I'm going to talk to you about pop news, and I'm going to talk to you about the music, and then I'm going to scream at you, and about 15 minutes in, we're going to get you thrown off." I'd say, "Sounds like fun, Wally," and he'd say, "Okay, well have a good time, all right?"
The Poorman: He would always throw me off, and then after say, "Jim, that was really great with the bikini girls! I really think that was awesome. Thanks so much, Jim." It was just surprising. I thought he was this hard-ass, but behind the scenes, he was just the coolest dude of all time.
Urungus: As soon as we got there, this guy comes into our dressing room and says, "Hey, GWAR!" and it didn't even look anything like Wally George, and then we realized it was Wally George, and we proceeded to have a wonderful conversation in which he basically just said, "I love your stuff. . . . This is all a show. . . . This is all an act; let's just go out there and have fun with it," and that's exactly what we did. His reputation preceded him, and I must say, whenwe met him for the first time, not only did he impress us, but he also saved his own life. He was like, "Dudes, I'd love to come on tour with you and get hacked and mangled and have a dead dog stuffed up my butt every night, but I think I'm going to stay here in sunny California and do my TV show."
Holland: He actually was nice, and then he tore us apart onstage, and after that, we all felt happy when it was done. We felt like, "Yeah, this was great! We've really helped our band out today."
Schreck: I ran into him occasionally socially afterward, so I got to know him well. I ran into him in a nightclub in Hollywood. He seemed to be a little bit inebriated, and we got to talking. It was completely schizophrenic; whenever we were on the air, he was hostile and playing up this "Wally George" persona he had created, and when he was off the air, he was almost shy and humble.
Pat Matthews, news anchor for KDOC: Wally had a stutter. He would never do it on TV, but behind the scenes, he stuttered like crazy.
Schreck: He was a frustrated performer and musician himself, and I don't really think he took this Republican persona as seriously as he presented it. He told me that he used to be a music reviewer for a magazine or newspaper. We got to discussing our mutual taste in music for the film composer Les Baxter's and Martin Denny's 1950s and 1960s exotica music, and we were both very admiring of Brian Wilson's more experimental work, so it would be surreal to see the difference between our onscreen relationship and our off-screen.
Urungus: From Wally, I felt true warmth and camaraderie. We both played characters; we understood each other perfectly. When I told him on the show, "I'd like to see you crucified," nothing could've be further from the truth.
Todd Witteles, Wally George fan: In eighth grade, my teacher told us to write to a celebrity we admired, and I wrote to Wally George. I didn't tell him it was for a class or anything. Out of 30 people, I was only one of two kids to get a personal response. He even sent me an autographed picture.
Renee Vicary, female wrestler: Did he ask me out? I'd like to plead the Fifth on that one.
But George held a secret: His family life was in shambles.
Schreck: I was very sadistic and arrogant in my youth at that time, obviously, and before I went on the show, I researched him in detail so I would have ammunition. I recall very vividly the only thing that got his goat on the air was when I touched on his complicated personal life. On one of these radio interviews I did with him, I said we had initiated his estranged daughter Rebecca DeMornay into the Radio Werewolf Youth Party, and he turned 10 shades of purple and acted like he was going to have a stroke. That was one of the few times he faltered. It seems like I hit a nerve.
The Poorman: He would always date young women, which I thought was really fun.
Matthews: He married this woman from England and that was also disappointing to him. She was just a trophy wife. He was very sensitive about that; I think it was because he was so much older. She was, like, 40 years younger than him, and I always thought she married him to get U.S. citizenship. When he married . . . we all had our opinions. Mine was, it was doomed from the start. She didn't marry him for love. But they had a daughter named Holly. And she was around the station sometimes, and he was real happy about her and everything.
Myers: Here's this good lookin' gal. What the heck is goin' on? And, like, a year later, she brings in their daughter, and I'm trying to imagine this couple that created this baby.
Thorpe: I was one of the most abusive callers, but I loved Wally, and I still do. One time, I [called Hot Seat Hotline and] said something about his wife . . . and they bleeped it out. He was very, very angry. He said, "Come down to the studio, meet me outside, and I'll break your nose!" and I'm, like, a 13-year-old boy at the time. After he threatened me and everything—and I remember it like it was yesterday—he looked into the camera and said, "Your mother should have had an abortion."
Schreck: After I hadn't seen him for years, I remember one of his last wives had [moved] to England with their daughter, and I thought that was very strange. You just got the impression that there was something weighing on him.
McIlvany: I was on Hot Seat Hotline the day his wife [left]. He asked me things that, as an 18-year-old, I didn't know how to answer, like, "Why would she leave me and take a gun with her?" In my head, I was thinking, "Well, maybe she's feeling a little claustrophobic," but I didn't want to tell Wally that, so I said, "I'unno." Then he had his radio show and complained as if he had heard all the things [Tom] Leykis had said [about his wife leaving], when really it was me who filled him in.
Matthews: It was a shame because he was like a tragic figure. Bad things always happened to him.
THE HOT SEAT COOLS DOWN
Despite all of the national buzz, George only remained a regional cult hit. Nationwide, George was a media joke—Howard Stern memorably referred to him as a "wig-wearing hump." KDOC canceled his show in 1993 but allowed George to host weekly clips of Hot Seat classics.
Tolcher: He claimed to be in more than 160 television markets in the United States, including being on in Australia and Britain.
Blade: I think he always wanted a little fame, a little accolade, a little adoration. He got it in a small way with the TV show. If you hear him talk about the TV show, he talks about millions of people watching, and it's seen all over the U.S. and and South America, places like that. It was all B.S. None of that was correct. There was maybe a cable channel in Milwaukee that had it on channel 87, which in those days was impossible to find because most TVs only went to 13.
The Poorman: I think he was so broke that Calvin Brack, who was the owner of KDOC, he actually . . . Wally was living at [Brack's] house in the later years because he was broke, and Cal took care of him.
Tolcher: Jerry Springer's net worth is $75 million. Wally, at the end of his life, was unfortunately not good. He didn't make a lot of money doing this show.
Kuc: He filed for bankruptcy.
In the pages of the Weekly in his final years, he was a recurring object of loathing and pity. In a story from 2000, Greg Stacy wrote, "Wally was going to do an appearance at a local titty bar. . . . It turned out to be one of the most depressing scenes I've ever witnessed. The place was about the size of your living room, and there were maybe eight guys in the audience, none of whom were there to see Wally. Wally's handlers led him in, and my heart sank into my socks. Wally looked 100 years old. His skin was spoiled-milk gray, and he was wearing a wig. I could barely hear the club's thumping music over the sound of Wally knocking at death's door. He was signing autographs with this sweet ol' grandpa smile, and I just knew it was all over. There was no way I could kick a guy when he was this down. I got my picture taken with him (I wish I could tell you where it's gone) and fled into the night."
In 2002, after Gustavo Arellano described him as a "coffin-dodging conservative" in a food review, George threatened the paper with a libel suit—then proceeded to cry.
Former Weekly editor Will Swaim wrote in 2003, "The Thomas Edison of Combat TV was suddenly Bawly George. He was old, he said, 'and you don't know what it's like to escape death so often.' There was some near-deadly car wreck, brain cancer and heart trouble—and his prostate, I figured—all of it followed (and he made this sound dramatic) by Arellano's food review. He didn't say, 'Oh, how could you mock me?' But that was kind of the point. Could I understand how he hurt? 'Wally, I had no idea you were human,' I said. 'I'm sorry. Really. Never meant any harm.'"
George died on Oct. 5, 2003, of complications from cancer. Former music editor Chris Ziegler penned an obituary for the Weekly. In it, Ziegler recalls the time he and his friends had seen George host a karaoke event at a La Mirada bar. "Wally had spent just about 20 years gnashing at the freaks and weirdoes and longhairs and mutants and dopers and punks and burnouts, and at the end, he came back to us because, I guess, we were the ones who really loved him for what he was. . . . We clapped when he finished and started to leave. 'Hey, Wally,' said the kid in the leather jacket as Wally was shaking hands on his way out of the bar. 'What's up?' 'This guy!' barked Wally good-naturedly. 'I haven't seen you since the Hot Seat! C'mere!' And he gave him a happy, comradely hug."
Matthews: I went to the funeral. The Reverend Robert Schuller presided over the ceremony; I remember it was held at the Crystal Cathedral. It was mostly people telling Wally stories and stuff. I don't recall it being that somber, except when [his former wife] showed up. . . . She was acting like the distraught widow. They had been apart when he died [for] several years. Everybody wondered if Rebecca DeMornay would show up, but she didn't. That was sad.
Blade: It's not one of those graves where a mystery admirer puts flowers on it every year.
Kuc: Wally may not have been the most popular talk-show host, or the most well-regarded, but he was our talk-show host. He was not distant in some Ivory Tower somewhere. He was somewhere we could go get tickets to see. That accessibility made him special.
Urungus: We need more Wally George. I was truly very sad when I heard he passed. His influence on people was obviously great, and maybe as years go by, he will actually get greater.
Schreck: Because he was just so outrageous, me and the other musicians in Radio Werewolf would constantly quote him for years. To this day, we still say, "You're out of here! You sicko!" We still use Wally jargon all the time.
The Poorman: He was the modern-day P.T. Barnum. He was just a ringleader. He was Mr. Promotion.
Blade: I hate to say this, but his legacy is like throwing a rock into a lake; he made a ripple, but the ripples have gone. I don't think he left a legacy. I don't think his show made any sort of cultural impact. A few people watched it, and a few people laughed at it, and as soon as it was off the air and Wally was gone, the impact went with it. I don't think anyone followed in Wally's footsteps—no one watched that show and said, "I want to be the next Wally George."
The Poorman: I love Wally, but I always worried my own career would end up like his. He tried really hard to go national, and Morton Downey Jr. actually beat him to the punch, but Morton Downey Jr. wasn't half as fun as Wally George.
Tolcher: One of the sad things is that KDOC did not archive all of Wally's shows because they were such a small station. They just recorded over the tapes.
Kuc: That's the beauty of YouTube. [Now] there's a whole new generation of Hot Seat fans. One of the things we want to do is to encourage people to dig into their garages, their closets, and find lost episodes of Hot Seat and upload them. I know somewhere in heaven, Wally is greeting the dregs of humanity at the pearly gates and telling them, "You're outta here!"
Blade: Unfortunately, Wally wanted to reach the stars, but he barely left Anaheim.