Watch the stoic 68-year-old anchorman deliver the news and you naturally think: biker dude with a pet tarantula.
That’s why you trust Gary Waddell … isn’t it?
Ask Las Vegas’ answer to Walter Cronkite why he buddies around with a tarantula—as he scoops it from its glass case and cradles it, eight legs curling out s-l-o-o-o-o-w-l-y over his palm, crickets hopping around for whenever Frankie the arachnid gets the munchies—and his answer is obvious: “Why not?”
Maybe he’ll make the tarantula a star by letting her crawl across the anchor desk at KLAS Channel 8 on Aug. 3, Waddell’s final air date as Las Vegas’ longest-serving TV news anchor, wrapping a 32-year tenure at the station. (Let’s point out he also has an affinity for traditional pets, such as Bradley, a miniature pinscher … with a tattoo.)
The Nebraska native and onetime Top-40 DJ/radio news director moved here in 1971, joining KORK (now KSNV Channel 3) as a reporter, weatherman, then anchor. Following a five-year sabbatical as a publicist and real estate salesman, he resurfaced at Channel 8 in 1980.
Last month, he was inducted into the Associated Press Television-Radio Association Hall of Fame. Now Gary Waddell looks back—and forward.
Before Frankie, you had several others, including one named Cleopatra that lived for 17 years. So what’s with the tarantulas, anyway?
I was always the kid who brought stuff home when I was little in Nebraska—snakes and frogs and bees. … I have changed an awful lot of opinions in this newsroom about tarantulas. A lot of people here wouldn’t go close to it who will hold it now. But I always told the new employees about it, so they wouldn’t find it on a Saturday afternoon and freak.
You’ve said you’re going to continue doing specials for KLVX Channel 10 and come back to Channel 8 occasionally for events like election coverage, but you’re retiring as an anchorman. Why now?
It’s 32 years, I’m still healthy enough that I can do the things I want to do. I want to ride my motorcycle—that’s my bowling league and my golf. There are a lot of places I want to go. I’ve done a lot of things on my bucket list. I’ve been to Alaska to ride motorcycles, I’ve been to Europe, gone up and down the coast, but never been cross country; I want to do that. My last day here is Aug. 3, and we’re leaving on the 5th to go spread the ashes of my best buddy who died a year ago up in Colorado.
What’s the appeal of riding motorcycles?
It’s a whole different experience. You smell different smells, different climates. You see things from a motorcycle you’d just never see [otherwise]. We go places I’d never go another way. In my [riding] group we’ve got attorneys and dentists and freelance TV guys, me, a bunch of retirees, engineers, dot-com guys. When I first moved to Las Vegas I bought a motorcycle, and I almost killed myself a few times, and mercifully someone stole it so I didn’t get to go kill myself for about 20 years. In 1990 I bought a [new] bike, I had friends who rode. It turned out to be fun. I try not to be what people expect me to be.
Was being a TV anchorman always your career goal?
I never planned to be a television newsperson; I had always been interested in radio. When I was a kid, the radio station in my hometown, the disc jockey sat on Main Street with his back to the window and played records. We used to stand there and watch him with our noses pinned up against the glass, which was the stupidest thing in the world, but it’s fun. …
I got a job working at a radio station in Aurora, Ill. A friend of mine was an engineer at WCFL radio in Chicago, so I would visit him. There was a TV station next door, Channel 32, and they said they were looking for a reporter, so I went over and got a job. I had gone from being a DJ in Aurora to being the news director, a one-man band, reading the police blotter. I didn’t even graduate from college. I went for a couple of semesters, but I never got a degree.
Why did you leave Channel 3 and get out of the TV business for five years before returning at Channel 8?
It was kind of a strange time in television in Las Vegas. Channel 3 was changing hands, and I left. … I wanted to be my own boss for a while, so I went into real estate in the late-’70s and learned that everybody is your boss. And if you remember the late-’70s, interest rates were about 18 percent. Nobody was buying anything for anybody.
This life [in television] is so sort of unreal. It’s not real work. It’s whatever it is. We think maybe we should be working for a living, so we go out and do that, and we find out it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve always described [anchoring] like malaria: You can’t ever really get rid of it. It does get in your blood. Dan Rather may have had the best line about being a television anchor: “It’s indoor work, and there’s no heavy lifting.”
As you depart the business, at least on a daily basis, do you have any parting wisdom to share with those coming into TV news?
Some people come into this business to be famous. I don’t know that they last all that long. What I’ve always told people is that for radio and television, get a broad-based education, know a little bit about politics, a little bit about economics, how government works, study English, be able to write. We can teach you television. Television is not all that complicated.
How would you like Channel 8 to say goodbye to you?
I’m hoping for showgirls.