- Photo by Enrique Limon
On May 8, Ken Kramer announced dryly on Twitter: “have taken a voluptuous mattress saleswoman as my wife. We will honeymoon in Hot Springs.”
Local TV political reporter Gene Cubbison took the bait and engaged Kramer in some witty repartee, promtping more Kramer wordplay: “I believe you may be thinking of my brief marriage to a tornado forecaster after whirlwind courtship?”
It’s that sort of whimsical humor that sets Kramer apart from other professional historians—if that’s even an appropriate description of what he does.
“What I do should be fun,” Kramer says. “Historians can be very dry, and it can all just become terribly, terribly serious, and it’s not my nature. My nature is to approach people from the flank; I love humor.”
Kramer is the host of About San Diego, a sort of television love letter to the area, its history and its people. The 30-year broadcast veteran’s tireless efforts in chronicling the history behind the landmarks, visionaries and everyday folks that make San Diego what it is have turned him into an enduring, cult-like figure.
Think of him as the Justin Bieber of the blue-hair set. Ladies point and stare while the bolder ones come up for a hug or a conversation.
Taking a seat recently at one of his regular hangouts, Cosmos Coffee Café in La Mesa, Kramer shares his hope that his show is giving locals a much-needed sense of pride.
“You go down to a Chargers game,” he says, “and the crowd is all cheering for the other team. You ask them why and they say, ‘Because I’m from Pittsburgh; I’ve only been here for 23 years.’”
Kramer’s love affair with the airwaves has been lifelong. “I used to sit home in Pasadena and watch the news on Channel 2. They called it ‘The Big News, in color,’” he says, recalling the entire news team’s names by heart. “Jerry Dunphy was the anchor, Gil Stratton did the sports and Bill Keene did the weather. And then there was this guy who came on named Ralph Story. He had these little pieces that he called ‘Human Predicament,’ that he later morphed it to something called ‘Ralph Story’s Los Angeles.’”
Story’s simple yet thoughtful approach inspired Kramer to seek a career in broadcasting, but Kramer never thought of himself as the on-air type.
“Let’s face it,” he says humbly, “I’m not ever going to be on the cover of Gentleman’s Quarterly.”
So, he became enthralled with what went on behind the scenes—the technical aspect of broadcasting. It’s a passion he still indulges in as a ham-radio operator. It wasn’t until a teacher at Pasadena City College recognized Kramer’s gift of gab that he considered approaching the microphone. He did a stint as student program director of the campus’ 370watt station, and after a transfer to San Diego State University in 1972, he served as studio operator of what was then the 780-watt KEBS, which later became KPBS-FM.
It was there that the first About San Diego segment aired. His vision for it from the get-go, however, was to have it televised. KPBS wasn’t sold on the idea, so he formed his own production company and got his capsules featured on a different station.
“What I kind of like to do when I’m telling the story is direct people over—it’s sort of a verbal sleight of hand— there for a moment, so you can surprise them by what’s over here,” the fourth-generation Californian says of his signature style.
Having made a name for himself, in the 1990s the local NBC affiliate came knocking, and Kramer was able to fulfill his dream, though it came with a trade-off: He would also have to cover the general beat.
“I was a reporter covering murders and such, and what’s interesting is that in all the time that I did that—and I did it for years—nobody ever came up to me and said: ‘You did a terrific job on that strangulation murder; you were top notch!’ But people remembered About San Diego stories that I did decades ago on the radio that were only aired once.”
In 2007, in what he calls his “Mary Tyler Moore, throwyour-hat-up-in-the-air” moment, About San Diego became his lone, full-time gig.
His were quirky, slice-of-life pieces that no one else was interested in covering; some were pitched by viewers, others born from Kramer’s own curiosity. There were stories about the fireman who wore tuxedos, how Coronado used to host a seasonal tent city for those who couldn’t afford lodging at the Hotel Del and how Betty Crocker called Valley Center home.
Now back on KPBS, his show, laden with non-linear stories that lead up to what he calls “the big reveal,” have struck a multi-generational chord.
From kicking it with the late Marion Caster Baker— the inspiration behind the iconic neon majorette that was installed first at the College Area Campus Drive-In later at the College Grove Shopping Center—to chatting with Chicano troubadour Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez within the halls of King-Chavez Academies, Kramer’s a living, breathing Wikipedia of San Diego history.
These days, he’s contemplating revisiting one of his favorite subjects (a house in Kensington with an elaborate underground tunnel system), this time to shoot in high definition, and he was recently sent a never-before-seen piece of film of The Beatles performing at Balboa Stadium and another one showing a chimpanzee at the San Diego Zoo smoking a pipe. He plans to air both.
Humor will remain a constant element. “Along with being admired comes great responsibility,” he says with a wry grin. “I do goofy stuff with some deliberateness.”
On his website, he has something called “My Best Post,” a critique on modern-day journalism designed for the “ADD culture in which we live” that reports from a fictitious town called Corco, famed for shady dealings at the local talcum mine.
He also does a mean Huell Howser impersonation, although he dispels any notion of a Magneto / Xavier-like rivalry. Howser “doesn’t pretend to be anything other than [what] he is,” Kramer says of the host of the PBS travel show California’s Gold. “More power to him; he’s got a good thing going.”
Put on the spot for a random San Diego factoid, Kramer draws a blank for a good minute, his blue eyes darting to each corner of the room as he mines his brain. The extended moment of silence is broken by a spurting of odds and ends worthy of a game-show lightning round.
“This wasn’t a very nice place in the old days,” he says of San Diego. “I mean, it was flea-infested, and it was dirty. The first school teacher came here and said it was the worst place she’d ever seen and that she wanted to go back home.…” But a tireless civic cheerleader can’t possibly leave it at that. So, Kramer pauses once more and adds: “Obviously, we’ve grown up since then.”
About San Diego airs at 8 p.m. Thursdays on KPBS-TV. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.