By CYNTHIA G. ROBERTSON
American radio and TV personality “Shotgun Tom Kelly,” sporting his trademark ranger hat, was in La Mesa last month for an appearance at the La Mesa Lions Club.
The minute that I walked into the door to meet him in, his booming voice took me straight back to 1981 when I’d first moved to San Diego. I used to listen to him make announcements and make goodwill wishes for everyone listening to B-100, and I knew the day would go well.
He still has that effect today on people. Lions Club members and friends crowded around Kelly, who now DJs for Sirius XM Satellite Radio’s “60s on 6” station. Two of his high school buddies, Tom Rosenberg and Charlie Lewis, along with Lions Club member David Shaw, introduced me to Kelly, who shook my hand firmly but gently. He immediately began regaling me with stories.
Kelly said that just when he was ready to retire after a 22-year run as host of the afternoon slot on K-EARTH 101, he was invited to work with Sirius XM for five hours a day, five days a week. But he’d had it in mind to start traveling to see places in America like Mount Rushmore and even the big train yard in Nebraska (he’s a big fan of trains) so he initially turned the offer down.
“Then my wife sat me down and pointed her finger at me and said, ‘Listen, you need to get busy doing something. So take the job,’” Kelly said, laughing with us at his story. “Honestly, it’s the best thing I could have done because working with Sirius XM has helped me become nationally known.”
When the Lions Club meeting came to order, member Beth Morgante got up and read a little history of how Kelly got the “broadcasting bug” when he was just 10 years old. She invited him to come up and tell his story.
He walked to the podium, looked around at everyone, bent his head, then looked around again and said, “Hello, I’m Tom and I’m an alcoholic,” to uproarious laughter in the room. It was classic Shotgun Tom Kelly. He grinned and waited for the chuckles to die down.
“Seriously, though, Beth was right. When I was 10 years old, my mother took me to a DJ doing a radio show in a Lemon Grove shopping center. That DJ was Frank Thompson on KOGO-Am. When Thompson saw me looking through the window, he put me on the air. He gave me tickets to the LA T-Birds in Westgate Park,” he said.
Kelly’s fascination with broadcasting prompted him to set up a mock radio studio in his bedroom. He ran extension speakers to his friends Rosenberg and Lewis across the street. Another friend of his made a 25-watt transmitter that reached out to La Mesa and Lemon Grove.
“And I was in complete violation of FCC,” Kelly admitted in his low, booming voice.
While in study hall at Mt. Miguel High School, he secretly listened to different stations, including his own, on his radio. When the FCC came to his house, his dad went out and smashed the transmitter.
“That was the end of my illegal run,” Kelly said.
From there, he took the straight and narrow and headed to the William B. Ogden Radio Operational Engineering School. Graduating in 1969 with his FCC First Class radio license, Shotgun Tom went to work at a radio station in Merced, California.
Over the next 35 years, Kelly worked in both radio and TV, including hosting the kids’ TV game show “Words-A-Poppin” that aired on KGTV Channel 10 in San Diego, and syndicated to other cities. Shotgun Tom won an Emmy for the show in 1978. That same year, he was invited to host the “Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon,” serving as host for more than 30 years.
Someone in the Lions Club audience asked “Shotgun Tom” how he earned his nickname. Kelly laughed and said, “Do you want to hear the lie which is more interesting, or the truth which is boring?”
To the audience’s reply of “both,” Kelly said he’d start with the fake story of his name creation.
“I used to fill in for weatherman ‘Captain’ Mike Ambrose when he needed to take a vacation. Well, one day someone in the News 10 studio asked me where I picked up the name ‘Shotgun.’ So I said, ‘Well, I always ride in the front of the car with people, never wanting to sit in the back, so I say I always go shotgun.’ And then I went right into the forecast: ‘A high pressure system is working its way across California,’” Kelly said.
The real story of Kelly’s name change began at KACY in 1970, when he was using the name “Bobby McAllister,” even though his true name is Thomas Irwin. He met DJ Dave Conley who named him Bobby. Less than a year later, both Kelly and Conley moved to KAFY in Bakersfield. Kelly wanted to use his real name, but the general manager did not like the name Irwin.
“He said it sounded too Jewish. Well, I am Jewish,” Kelly said, laughing.
Conley suggested the name “Shotgun” from “Bobby Shotgun McAllister,” and that’s what they all went with.
“That’s show business for you,” Kelly said.
“What’s the story about the hat?,” I asked Kelly.
“Well, when I was a kid, every summer our family would go to the Redwoods National Forest. I always admired the forest rangers, and in 1970 I bought my first ranger hats. I now have a couple black and blue hats along with a green one for St. Patrick’s Day,” he said.
That hat ended up leading him straight to the President of the United States. In November 1987, Rep. Duncan Hunter invited Kelly to the White House. While visiting with President Ronald Reagan, Kelly presented him with one of his ranger hats. Kelly had an unforgettable Kodak moment when the president put the hat on and posed with Kelly.
Another great encounter for Kelly occurred six years ago at Bravado’s in Beverly Hills. There he saw Clint Eastwood with Tom Dreesen, who was Frank Sinatra’s comedic announcer.
“I went up to Mr. Eastwood, told him how much I admire his work — after all, he often plays a major character in the movies he directs — and I introduced myself. And he said, ‘Oh, yes, hi, I know who you are. I hear you on the radio,’ and he shook hands with me.
“That made my day,” Kelly quipped.
Nowadays, Kelly likes making everyone’s day by playing great oldies on Sirius XM 60’s on 6. He also appreciates emails from his listeners as he mans the studio. Email him your requests for songs and include a little note about yourself and what’s going on in your life at shotguntomkelly.com@60son6.
— Cynthia G. Robertson is ta freelance journalist and photographer and author of “Where You See Forever.” She also authors a blog at shutterbug-angel.blogspot.com. For more information, visit cynthiarobertson.com.