Radio’s lost one of its most golden voices

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Thursday, November 2, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local News

I remember when gas cost 27 cents a gallon. I remember fluoroscope machines that showed the bones in your feet when you went to buy saddle shoes. I remember pulling a chilled Hires root beer bottle from the icy bath of an old-fashioned soda cooler.

There are slices of Americana I’m too young to remember. I have faint recollection of TV’s golden age, but missed the glory days of radio. What I know about "Bob and Ray" and "Fibber McGee and Molly," I know from my dad, not from hours spent huddled by the family Philco.

Merrill Mael began his radio career in 1939, just a year after Orson Welles sent listeners into a collective panic with his storied broadcast of "Invasion From Mars."

On Oct. 16, Mael died of complications related to cancer. He was 76. Mael’s death silenced a voice heard in radio programs and ads for six decades, from the golden era to our 24/7 age. For the past year and a half, Mael had lived in Everett.

He was heard on "Breakfast at Sardi’s," "Doctor Kate," "Maxwell House Coffee Time," "Mirth and Madness," "The Standard Symphony Hour" and other vintage programs.

"He did it all in old-time radio," said Mael’s widow, Sandy. "He did a warm-up show for Art Linkletter. He played Uncle Fletcher on ‘Vic and Sade,’ a Chicago program they brought to the West Coast."

Uncle Fletcher "was a grumpy old fellow" whose one-word answer to life’s challenges was "fine," Sandy Mael said. "I teased him a lot about it being typecasting."

Sorry to say, I don’t recall it. But I have heard Mael’s voice. So have you.

After decades in radio, he is best known in these parts for a single line: "I’m standing here with Sunny Kobe Cook."

In recent years, Mael was the mattress maven’s unseen sidekick in Sleep Country USA commercials. Can’t you just hear him, countering a sales pitch with a chipper question: "Sunny, what’s the catch?"

"He’s a delight to work with," Cook said in 1998 when I interviewed her for another column. Others who worked with Mael had similar praise.

Longtime Seattle radio personality Jim French began casting Mael in his mystery dramas in the 1970s.

"You could ask him to play just about any part; he did a magnificent job," said French, whose "Imagination Theater" airs at 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays on KNWX-770 AM. French’s previous credits include KIRO’s "Mystery Playhouse" and "Theater of the Mind."

He recalled one Mael character who was suspected of being crazy.

"The only thing wrong with the dear man was he was hard of hearing. He wore a special hearing aid that picked up broadcasts from the future. He played this man as a bizarre oddity in town. He was lovable," French said.

Mael was involved with Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound, an organization founded by Mike Sprague of Bothell.

"He was one of those guys who started in radio in his teens. He owned stations in Alaska, he was on radio in Europe, he’s done so many things beyond the Sunny Kobe Cook stuff," Sprague said. "He could do anything, from humor to very serious drama."

Radio acting is a bygone art form. But some things never go out of style.

"He was a caring person," Sprague said. "Often I’d pick up my phone messages, and it would be Merrill with some odd voice, cackling or something. But he was always kind. I’m a major fan of Merrill Mael."

Sandy Mael, who still lives in Everett, is her late husband’s biggest fan. "Everybody thinks their husband is the best, but mine actually was," she said. "He exposed me to a world I would never have known."

At its annual convention in June, Sprague said, the Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound will honor Mael "in recognition of what he’s meant in the history of this club."

French can think of no one more deserving.

"I considered Merrill Mael to be one of the most moral and finest men I have ever had the honor of knowing," French said. "The world needs millions of Merrill Maels."

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