St. Paul’s Jim Lange, who rubbed broadcast elbows with Casey Jones and Steve Cannon before seizing fame as the original and best-known host of the legendary “Dating Game” television show during the 1960s and 1970s, has died.
Lange, who graduated from St. Thomas Academy and the University of Minnesota, had a fatal heart attack Tuesday at his home in the Bay Area community of Mill Valley, Calif. He was 81.
After moving to California early in his career, Lange eventually rocketed onto the daytime game-show scene as host of ABC’s “The Dating Game,” which debuted in 1965 and on which he appeared through the 1970s, charming audiences with his mellifluous voice and wide, easygoing grin.
He played host to many celebrity guests on the show as they laid the foundation for their fame as entertainers, among them Michael Jackson, Steve Martin, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Farrah Fawcett.
The show’s format: A young man or woman questions three members of the opposite sex, hidden from view, to determine which one would be the best date. The questions were designed by the show’s writers to elicit sexy answers.
The winning couple received a romantic trip. The destination for the lucky couple appearing on the July 4, 1967, segment was Minneapolis during Aquatennial festivities.
The show’s signature signoff was Lange and the contestants lined up, leaning back and throwing a big smooch at the camera.
Lange’s broadcast career in the Twin Cities was launched after attending an audition on a dare as a teenager to do the sports and be a disc jockey on a local radio station.
“They wanted a boy and a girl,” he said in a 1992 interview with the Bay Area Radio Digest. “They wanted the boy to do sports and the girl to do the dances and stuff that was going on in the Twin Cities — very sexist — and play music once a week.”
Lange said he stuck with radio all through college and “found out that you can make a fair amount of money without any heavy lifting.”
Among his earliest inspirations, Lange said in the interview, was WCCO Radio legend Steve Cannon: “I used to listen to [him] when I was thinking about becoming a DJ. … I later became close friends with Steve Cannon, and he was inspirational in getting me to come out to San Francisco.”
Lange’s first TV gig also came in the Twin Cities, portraying the title character for “Captain 11,” a children’s program in the mid-1950s that joined in the outer space craze of that era and aired on WMIN, Channel 11. It aired on weekday afternoons and featured old movie serials such as “Buck Rogers” and “The Lost Jungle.”
Steve Iverson, a Twin Cities broadcast historian, said Thursday that he interviewed Lange last summer for a documentary on “Lunch with Casey” and other early Channel 11 kids shows.
“We met up at the Pavek Museum [of Broadcasting] last summer,” said Iverson, who runs the “Lunch with Casey” and “Minnesota Kidvid” websites. “He talked about the start of his career at WMIN, which later became WTCN and now KARE. … On the radio, he used the name Jack Teen. He also recalled appearing at Excelsior Amusement Park with Casey Jones [Roger Awsumb] and Wrangler Steve [portrayed by Cannon].”
Al DeRusha, who was floor director on “Captain 11,” also caught up Lange last summer and recalled Thursday that “the guy never changed. He was such a gentleman. Such a warm, human being. … He didn’t come on like a big personality.”
As a St. Paul youngster, Lange worked in the visitors’ clubhouse at old Lexington Park, home of an earlier incarnation of the St. Paul Saints. Lange reminisced about those days when he spent an inning in the broadcast booth at a Saints game during a visit to the Twin Cities in July 2005 to see his mother.
An accomplished golfer, Lange attended the U on the Chick Evans Scholarship through the Western Golf Association. He studied radio and television speech, with a minor concentration in journalism, graduating cum laude in 1954.
After college, he served in the Marines for three years, then moved to San Francisco and made his Bay Area radio debut as “The All-Night Mayor” on KGO.
Iverson said Lange moved to San Francisco with Cannon “to work in radio playing rock ’n’ roll. Cannon was fired and returned to Minneapolis. Lange stayed in California, and his big break came … on ‘The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show’ ” starting in 1962 as the announcer and Ford’s sidekick.
Lange, born on Aug. 15, 1932, in St. Paul, is survived by his wife, former Miss America Nancy Fleming; a sister; five children, two stepchildren and four grandchildren.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.