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The son of Jewish immigrants from Austria, Heatter was born and raised in Brooklyn. Young Heatter, who found school difficult but had a passion for reading, became a sidewalk-campaigner for William Randolph Hearst during Hearst's 1906 mayoral campaign. After his high school graduation, Heatter became a society reporter for the tiny weekly, The East New York Record before joining the Brooklyn Daily Times, which led to his being offered a job with Hearst's New York Journal.
To the air
In December 1932, he was invited by Donald Flamm, owner of New York's WMCA, to debate a Socialist on radio, and when the Socialist was unable to make the date, Heatter had the program almost to himself. His performance impressed both Flamm and listeners. A few months later, he went to work for WOR, as a reporter and commentator. His audience expanded when in 1934, WOR became the flagship station of the newest network, Mutual Broadcasting.
Heatter covered the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, the man accused of kidnapping the infant son of aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. In 1936, he had to report on Hauptmann's execution. It was delayed, forcing Heatter to continue ad-libbing while awaiting word of when it would occur. His professionalism under pressure and his ability to keep the audience informed without resorting to sensationalism earned him critical praise.
On January 11, 1948, Heatter's Sunday night program changed format and title. As Brighter Tomorrow, the show had focused on "typical American success stories." In Behind the Front Page (the new title), a dramatic format was used to portray "current human interest stories." The weekly program was in addition to Heatter's 15-minute nightly newscast. Both were on Mutual.
"There's good news tonight!"
During World War II, American forces sank a Japanese destroyer. Heatter opened his nightly commentary accordingly: "Good evening, everyone—there is good news tonight." The phrase sparked a small flurry of letters and calls, almost all in his favor.
Heatter was already well known for trying to find uplifting but absolutely true stories to feed his commentaries. (He was especially known for a fondness for stories about heroic dogs.) In April 1939 he gave the first national broadcast exposure to the burgeoning self-help group Alcoholics Anonymous. Reflecting this reputation, the critic (and sometime rival) Alexander Woollcott composed the doggerel couplet: "Disaster has no cheerier greeter/than gleeful, gloating Gabriel Heatter."
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Heatter remained with Mutual until, like many of the Depression and wartime broadcasters and commentators, his influence gave way to a newer generation of broadcasters - those who made the transition to television, or started in TV bypassing radio entirely. By the 1960s, Heatter was all but retired. After his wife's death, Heatter lived in retirement in Miami, Florida with his daughter until he died of pneumonia in 1972.
His daughter is the cookbook writer Maida Heatter. His granddaughter was the artist Toni Evans. His son is the novelist Basil Heatter. His nephew Merrill Heatter is a television writer and producer (Heatter-Quigley Productions).
In popular culture
Heatter was also heard, but not seen, as one of four broadcast journalists portraying themselves in the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. Heatter is referred to in the recited portion of Yogi Yorgesson's 1949 comedy song "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas".