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Northwest TV legend Bob Newman has died

Bob Newman (right) played Gertrude alongside J.P. Patches on KIRO TV in Seattle for decades; he passed away this week after a long illness. (KIRO TV)

Legendary and beloved local TV performer Bob Newman, who played Gertrude and Boris S. Wart and other iconic characters alongside J.P. Patches on KIRO TV for decades, passed away earlier this week. Bob’s family asked KIRO Radio’s resident historian Feliks Banel, who knew and worked with Bob for many years, to help prepare this obituary, which was released by the family late Friday evening.

Robert Lee “Fabulous Bob” Newman
January 24, 1932 to December 13, 2020

Beloved father, uncle, brother, son – and local television icon – Robert Lee “Fabulous Bob” Newman passed away Sunday, December 13 in Shoreline after a long illness. He was 88 years old.

Mr. Newman was best known for playing Gertrude, sidekick/girlfriend/City Dump telephone operator to J.P. Patches – played by Chris Wedes – on the long-running television program on KIRO TV. However, Gertrude was only one of many characters that the talented and versatile Newman played on the show. Others included the villainous Boris S. Wart – the Second Meanest Man in the World (moo-ho-haha!); Ketchikan the Animal Man, proprietor of the Bongo Congo Kennels; one-eyed gentle yet odd creature Ggoorrrsstt the Friendly Frpl; clumsy handyman Leroy Frump; the mysterious Zenobia; the Swami of Pastrami; Sturdley the Bookworm; and, come December each year, a sometime bumbling Santa Claus.

Bob joined the program in 1960, and essentially created a role for himself when, working in a technical job off camera, he called out to J.P. in a falsetto voice while J.P. was pretending to speak with an unseen and unheard telephone operator named Gertrude. Soon, Newman was dressing up like a life-sized Raggedy Anne – complete with house dresses borrowed from his mother, a mop wig and heavy make-up – to appear on-camera as Gertrude.

For a few not-so-long-ago decades, Gertrude and J.P. were like rock stars in the Pacific Northwest, and their popularity during the Golden Age of local television can’t be overstated.

The two were among the most recognizable and most universally beloved characters on TV in the region throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and their chemistry together as live performers is unmistakable, even on some of the earliest video clips that survive. But, once the program went off the air in 1981, their fame continued to grow, through VHS tapes, appearances on public television and numerous live performances at private parties and special programs at venues such as the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI). From 2000 to 2004, Bob and Chris hosted the “Northwest TV Holiday Reunion” at the museum, along with other figures from local children’s TV, including KING’s Stan Boreson and KTNT/KSTW’s Brakeman Bill McLain.

After 26 years at KIRO TV, Bob later worked part-time for many years at KCTS Public Television, applying makeup to station personalities as well as guests on talk shows and other programs that were filmed in-studio. Prior to working in television, Bob was also a radio broadcaster in the early years of KUOW FM at the University of Washington, where he studied communications in the 1950s. For his more than half century of work in broadcasting, Bob was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter’s Gold Circle in 2014. It meant a lot to Bob to be recognized by his fellow broadcasters.

In 2008, a life-sized bronze statue of Gertrude and J.P. was dedicated in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. Excess funds raised for the statue were donated to Seattle Children’s Hospital. Chris Wedes passed away in 2012.

Newman’s personal life

Bob Newman was the youngest son of Lee and Ruth Newman, and grew up on Mercer Island. He had two older brothers, Russell William Newman and Steven Newman. Bob was just four years old when his brother Steven drowned in Lake Washington after falling off the family dock. Throughout Bob’s life, he made a point of seeing to it that children in his family and social circles learned to swim, and he always insisted on lifejackets and other water safety measures for kids on boats or near bodies of water.

Following graduation from Garfield High School in Seattle, Bob joined the US Marine Corps and served as a frogman in Korea. Bob loved being a Marine, and in later years, he often said he wished he’d remained in the Corps longer. It was a true passion for him, and an organization where, his nieces and nephews say, he was able to carve his own distinct identity from that of his father and brother, who were both attorneys.

In the 1990s, Bob was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The disease slowed him down a bit and forced him to walk using a cane or crutches. But Bob remained a positive force, driving a bright yellow Corvette and still getting out and about to make appearances with Chris Wedes or to dine at the Nickerson Street Saloon where he was a regular for many years, and where he made a lot of friends. During many of those active years, Bob lived aboard his boat the Zaba Zaba, which was moored nearby at Canal Marina. For the past decade or so, Bob resided in a series of assisted living centers as his multiple sclerosis progressed and his mobility decreased.

Bob had a terrific sense of humor. He was a master of self-deprecation and displayed comedic levels of exaggerated self-confidence – and he was also a thoughtful listener and talented storyteller, too. Decades ago, Bob gave himself the intentionally over-the-top “Fabulous Bob” Newman nickname – which he had tattooed on his forearm – and he often responded to compliments from friends or fans with a quick and off-handed “When you’re great, you’re great!”

Survivors include his son John Newman, and John’s son Andrew; his son Paul Newman, Paul’s wife Melissa, and Paul’s daughter Micah Patrick and sons Montana Johnson and Hunter Newman; as well as numerous nieces and nephews.

He was preceded in death by his brother Russ Newman in 2010. Bob was cremated, and his remains will be interred in a private ceremony at Tahoma National Cemetery. A public remembrance will be held sometime in 2021, once the pandemic has passed.

The family wishes to thank Sherianne Sam Molzahn Caldwell and Jeff Swanson for the many years they spent visiting with and unselfishly attending to Bob during his time residing in care facilities. Sherianne and Jeff made sure Bob and his many fans kept in touch with each other through social media, holiday card-writing efforts, and other priceless personal gestures that created a virtual community of constant love and support for Bob.

Contributions in memory of Fabulous Bob Newman may be made to the Greater Northwest Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, 192 Nickerson St, Suite 100, Seattle, WA 98109.

We miss you and love you, Bob, and are so grateful to you for all the years of laughter. You are and always will be fabulous, because when you’re great, you’re great!

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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