“Whoah, Nellie!” Happy Birthday, Richard “Dick” Lane
He was Joe Penner’s frequent foil on film and radio, Jackie Robinson’s celluloid manager, the human soundtrack to a generation of wrestling and roller derby-mad Angelenos, and the man who first uttered the phrase, “Whooooaaaah, Nellie!” into a broadcasting microphone.
Richard “Dick” Lane was born in Rice Lake, Wisconsin on May 28, 1899. After early success as an announcer and emcee (and as an “iron jaw” act in various circuses…an odd occupation for such a gifted talker), he came to Broadway in 1928, where he appeared in the long-running comedy Present Arms. In 1930, he appeared in the Vanderbilt Revue alongside eventual film and radio co-star Joe Penner (the subject of my Wanna Buy a Duck? website, where you’ll find plenty of info, video & photos of Lane).
Lane made his film debut beside Bob Hope in the 1935 comedy Shop Talk, and following 110 stage performances of George White’s Scandals of 1936 (where he appeared with Bert Lahr, Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards and Rudy Vallee, among many others), it was off to Hollywood for good.
In this rare autographed photo from the set of RKO’s 1938 feature I’m From the City, Dick Lane (third from right) receives a birthday cake from star Joe Penner. Also in the shot to the left of Penner are (l to r) director Ben Holmes, Kay Sutton and Lorraine Krueger. Co-star Kathryn Sheldon is on the far right. Check out stuntman/gorilla performer (you read that right) Charles Gemora’s sketch of himself at far left.
Starting with RKO’s New Faces of 1937 (where he portrayed a conniving stockbroker opposite Milton Berle), he appeared in six of Joe Penner’s feature films, as well as on the comedian’s CBS radio program, The Park Avenue Penners. In the 1947-48 season, he starred as Oliver Anderson in his own syndicated radio series, The Anderson Family (to stream or download an episode, click HERE).
Frequently cast as a fast-talking con-man, carnival barker or grifter, he was also at home in roles on the good side of the law. From 1941 (when Penner passed away) to 1949, he portrayed Inspector Farraday in thirteen Boston Blackie program pictures for Columbia Studios. He also was cast as a baseball coach in The Babe Ruth Story, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and The Jackie Robinson Story.
Lane was born with the gift of gab, and could keep up a steady patter with the best in the business. By the late 1940s, he’d largely returned to his first love, the announcer’s booth, both in film roles and the new medium of television.
Dick Lane at work in the KTLA broadcast booth
As Dick Lane, he is perhaps best known to 1950s and 1960s Los Angeles sports fans as the ubiquitous broadcast voice of wrestling, roller derby (The Los Angeles Thunderbirds) and midget auto racing, among many other sports. He was a regular on The Spade Cooley Show, and his work for station KTLA’s weekly variety show, Dixie Showboat, earned him an Emmy nomination in 1951. He is also fondly remembered for his Chevrolet commercials, where he slapped the fenders of the cars to accentuate his sales pitch.
He frequently used the phrase “Whoooaaah, Nellie” to punctuate the action on his wrestling and roller derby broadcasts, and it was soon adopted by a young Keith Jackson. To his credit, Jackson has always attributed the phrase to Lane.
For two brief recordings (and a really bad screen capture photo) of Lane in the broadcast booth (including a terrific “Whoah, Nellie” at a “Gorgeous George” wrestling match), click HERE for a brief article with two Dick Lane audio/video links.
Here’s a short scene from The Day the Bookies Wept, starring Joe Penner. That’s Lane on the left:
For a video clip featuring Lane and Penner from I’m From the City, click HERE.
Lane died on September 5, 1982 in Newport Beach, California. He was inducted into the Southern California Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2002.