Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Famous, But Invisible

People heard their voices on the radio but never knew who they were—guys like Bill Hanrahan, Mel Brandt, Howard Reig, Gene Hamilton. They were among the men who said “This is NBC, the National Broadcasting Company” before the electronic G-E-C chimed out over the air.

Many of NBC’s staff announcers toiled anonymously for years, giving network IDs and announcements. Some rose from the ranks to host programmes; Wayne Howell, for example. And a select few found themselves with regular and high-profile television announcing jobs where everyone recognised their name and voice. Bill Wendell was one. But maybe the best example was Don Pardo.

Depending on your age, you might have heard Pardo reading late night radio news in the mid-1940s. Or you might have caught Bill Cullen asking him to tell a contestant what they won on the original The Price is Right, or elucidating about the World Book Encyclopedia to viewers of the original Jeopardy! (executive producer Merv Griffin was big on the announcer being thanked, so host Art Fleming thanked Pardo for his introduction five times a week). But a different generation gave him his biggest fame as he stretched his vowels opening “Saturday Night Liiiiiiive!!!” for years. Pardo had a wonderful ability to self-kid his announcing style without being a self-parody. He was very professional about what he did, but even he seems to have understood it was somewhat ridiculous for a grown man to buoyantly bleat “It’s a mink stoooooole!” or “A two-week stay in Bermuudaaaaaa!”

We’ve talked about Pardo’s career in this post, and in this post about the time Pardo was suddenly faced with handling a bomb threat in his studio. Here’s another newspaper clipping, this one from February 25, 1978. Writer Frazier Moore is with the Associated Press out of New York these days, but I gather he did this on a freelance basis while living in Florida.

By Frazier Moore

NOBODY SAYS “Jeopardy” like Don Pardo. He revs up like a firetruck’s siren (Jeeee-ep), the rides a steep but graceful slope of resonance until his voice glides to a rest (“- -pard-deee”).
Pardo, the man with a voice like a firm but soothing rubdown, introduced the TV gameshow “Jeopardy!” five times a week for more than a decade. He was the off-camera announcer, but even after grinning emcee Art Fleming took the stage each day with a squeaky “Thank-ya Don Pardo,” the voice of his unseen sergeant-at-arms still hung in the air.
Years before “Jeopardy!,” Pardo had announced for “The Price Is Right,” the original version in the ‘50s, when Bill Cullen hosted. And Pardo—not Sir Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles—acquainted innumerable youngsters with the majesty of the speaking voice, even as he recited something as mundane as where to send for free tickets to the show.
Now Pardo’s career has taken a curious twist, thanks to his role for the last two years as announcer on “Saturday Night Live,” NBC’s live-from-New-York satirical loony bin which can be seen tonight from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. on WSB-TV, Channel 2 in Atlanta. During each segment’s 90 minutes, Pardo’s buoyant voice periodically bobs up from the sea of insanity. His deep dragline voice dredges up beauty-mud diction as he scoops a path amongst the cast’s precocious young hipsters.
But who is this man with the ear-cuddling splendor, the man who plays second fiddle with a Stradivarius?
It was a little after 4 p.m. a couple of Fridays ago, and Pardo was roosted in the NBC announcing booth, snug in Manhattan’s RCA Building. He greeted the report’s phone call graciously.
He had just arrived at work, and would stay until 7—“and that’s my day,” he crooned into the receiver with the same transcendent tones that tickle airwaves from coast to coast. “It’s pretty deadly, but it’s not bad. I’m sort of sitting back and enjoying my three hours a day.”
Pardo’s day-to-day job is that of staff announcer, which means he sits before a microphone for a given shift and makes all the needed announcements, live. Pardo, a native of Westfield, Mass., has had such a position at NBC since he arrived in New York City in 1944, at the age of 26, after a short stint at a Providence, R.I., radio station.
He’ll [sic] was 60 Wednesday, Feb. 22. And now, one of a dwindling breed thanks to tape cartridges and the TV industry’s exodus to Hollywood, Pardo is a party to a “contract of attrition,” which protects him and his remaining 13 colleagues from dismissal, then terminates each slot as each announcer retires.
So here was Pardo, sitting, waiting until the 4:30 p.m. station break, and welcoming a chat.
Things hadn’t been so rosy a few days before. Then the voice that claimed to be Don Pardo’s sounded like a dime-store photograph; he had a cold.
“When I catch a cold, it goes straight to my pipes,” he was saying now, his voice back in the stirrups and spurring every word. “And that’s my Achilles heel. I wind up with laryngitis.”
It recalled another case, 34 years ago.
“I must have been here about six weeks or so. Then, (veteran newsman) Lowell Thomas was on for Sunoco, from 6:45 to 7, and one afternoon I was rushed into the studio because his announcer ad laryngitis and couldn’t do it. And I went in there—and you think I wasn’t terrified?”
“Lowell Thomas used to come in at the last minute. Sometimes he used to come in when they had the beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep sound going on, and there’s nobody there, and this is L-I-I-I-I-IVE, and I think ‘What the hell do I do?’ ‘cause the moment you get through with the beep-beep-beep, “... And now, Lowell Thomas’—that’s your introduction. ...” Pardo halted, to let the potential horror of the situation sink in.
“But, by George, he’d just make it to the studio. Wouldn’t even take his hat off. But I remember I thought I was gonna have a cardiac arrest, right then and there. Oh, my God!” And he laughed a husky laugh—his laugh a worthy partner to the Pardo voice—at the memory.
Throughout his NBC careet, Pardo has been on hand for broadcasting’s grand parade, which he witnessed, rain or shine, day in, day out, from the reviewing stand his job provided. He’d been at NBC a long time, but his brimming memory began to spill out recollections.
“All the years I’ve been around here, and all the shows I’ve been affiliated with, good heavens!,” he marveled, as if his lengthy tenure had just occurred to him. “I did just about everything . . . ‘Caesar’s Hour,’ with Sid Caesar, and ‘The Martha Raye Show’ for five years. . . . I did the first two soaps that were ever on television—two 15-minute shows, ‘Follow Your Heart’ and ‘Three Steps to Heaven.’ . . .
“There was ‘The Colgate Comedy Hour; starting in 1950, and all the great stars we had on that. Martin and Lewis, Eddie Cantor, Abbott and Costello, the whole lot. . . .
“And I did Fred Allen’s only TV show, ‘Judge for Yourself,’ in 1953, and there was ‘The Kate Smith Hour,’ and ‘The Four Star Revue,’ with Martha Raye, Danny Thomas, Jackie Gleason and Jimmy Durante—every Saturday they would rotate. . . . And the ‘U.S. Royal Showcase,’ and Jonathan Winters’ 15-minute show. That’s where I met Art Fleming. He did the commercials.”
Then there was “The Price Is Right,” “Winner Take All,” “Jackpot,”—“for 11 long, beautiful years,” says Pardo.
Many of these projects were freelance jobs supplementing his staff chores. For Pardo, “Saturday Night Live” is such a sideline.
“Everybody on the show is about 32 or younger,” Pardo said. “The gimmick was to get a veteran announcer. (Producer) Lorne Michaels and (writer) Herb Sargent had grown up with me, ever since they were little tots, hearing ‘Don Pardo, Don Pardo’ on the air—I’ve been at NBC longer than Lorne has been on earth. So they called me in, looked me over, and that’s how I was hired.
“We coming up?” he asked suddenly, speaking to somebody else. “We got the director over there going bananas,” he said. “There’s a break coming up. . . .” A few seconds’ pause, then Pardo’s voice returned in a slightly richer, much more forceful manner: “It’s ‘The $100,000 Name That Tune,’ tonight at 7:30. . . . “Now we’re set,” he said into the telephone, sliding his voice out of hiking boots and into suede slippers.
Three weeks ago he got to “die,” when “Saturday Night” concluded its show in ultra-bizarre fashion with an onslaught of “giant atomic lobsters the size of helicopters.” Pardo, along with the rest of the cast, crew and studio audience (and for that matter, the whole of the Northeast United States( expired at their hands—er, claws.
And he’s even had a starring role. Once, a “Saturday Night” sketch cast Pardo in a tribute to himself. And lo and behold, Don Pardo was exposed as an INVISIBLE MAN!
Is it true?
“I’ll send you a picture,” Pardo replied, then went on to explain that his recent anonymity isn’t part of a conspiracy to keep him under wraps. In many of the series in which he participated during the ‘50s, he worked on-camera. In a series of long-ago TV commercials, he put a Benrus watch through its paces by swimming laps with it strapped on his wrist. He hosted his own local kids’ show in New York City. “And on ‘Jeopardy!,’ I was seen once a year,” he said, “when I’d wheel out the anniversary cake.”
Otherwise, the fact that no one knows what Don Pardo looks like, “Why, that’s one of beauties,” he said. “I’m free as a bird. But on ‘Saturday Night,’ I get out there for a few minutes and do a warmup, and the minute I open my chops and say, ‘Good evening, I’m Don Par. . .’—‘Yayyyyyyyyyy! That’s him!’ they scream. ‘THAT’S the one!’
“I’ve never in my life seen such a group of people,” he said of The Not Ready for Prime Time Players, the show’s seven-member repertory company. “Changes are made up until airtime, but they only have to be told once, and you wonder how they do it. I’d flip out. They’re a most talented bunch.” Pardo is a stranger in a strange land, and “Saturday Night Live” is his passport.
“Last Christmas (1976) we had (rock avant-gardist) Frank Zappa on the show. I didn’t know he was fond of me, but it turned out he had kind of grown up with me on television.” So Zappa recruited Pardo to join his troupe during a four-show engagement at a New York-area concert hall.
“I was dressed in a white tux and tails, the whole thing, and they practically tore me apart, those kids. I ran up and down the aisles, and, Christamighty, they floored me. They grabbed my cape, tore everything apart. And I got kissed by a few fellas. Man, I tell you, what a crowd, what an experience that was! “And they were selling posters. I’m like Farrah Fawcett-Majors, on these big posters. There as a sign, ‘Don Pardo posters, $1.’ And the last night: ‘Free! Don Pardo posters, with every purchase of a Frank Zappa shirt.’” He laughed. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Boy, how the mighty have fallen.’ Used to be, when Pardo was doing the live-TV grind every day, he kept an apartment in Manhattan to save commuting during the week. This
time-saving arrangement led to time squandered every evening in bars, he confessed, which inspired this question: Does Pardo’s perma-pressed voice succumb to wrinkles when he has a few drinks?
“I wouldn’t dare, if I’m going on the air, I’ll tell you that,” Pardo said, with a laugh. “Man, it’s sound like, “And now, it’s ‘Saturday Night Liii-i-i-i-i-i-ive.’ You know, your diction would be slooo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ow; ‘Gillll-l-l-l-l-llida Radner-r-r-r-r-rrrrrr,’” he demonstrated, his voice ebbing and flowing with the names of the stars, “Laraine Newwwwman-n-n-n-nnn. John belushiiii-i-i-i-i-i-i-i...”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
But announcing isn’t as easy as it sounds, Pardo warned. “There’s a lot of tension, my friend. You need the voice, and endurance”—he laughed—“and personality. Be different.”
Along the way, Pardo had interrupted the conversation for another announcement: “Visit the New York Public Library,” he boomed. No one could have said “visit the New York Public Library” quite that way.
“That’s it,” he said a moment later. “My next break is coming up in about 2/4 minutes, when I say ‘Chuck Scarborough and News Center 4—next.’”
Shortly after 7 p.m. he would be through for the day and, since there was no “Saturday Night” that weekend, for the week.
For now, Don Pardo, The Voice, had spoken his piece.


  1. Robert Klein had a routine back in the early 1970s on his appearance on 'Jeopardy!' which included the aside "By the way, Art Fleming is Don Pardo." Such was the anonymity Pardo had other than his name in the pre-"Saturday Night Live" era.

    SNL helped Pardo eclipse Johnny Olsen as the best-known 'celebrity' announcer, after Johnny held that title in the 1960s with his work on shows like "What's My Line?" and Jackie Gleason's efforts, first in New York and then Miami (the irony I suppose is Pardo's prominence came at a time when Olsen was then best-known for doing the job Don used to handle at NBC, as announcer on "The Price Is Right").

  2. I remember the "Saturday Night Live " skit well when Pardo was exposed as " The Invisible Man ". Pardo, Olsen, Wendell and many others, they were more than just a faceless voice, never faded into the woodwork. They brought their bigger than life style to every show they announced....all missed.

  3. One other NBC announcer I recall was "The Other Don Rickles" (no relation to the comedian), who announced the movie presentations and other prime time shows.
    Pardo retired from NBC in 2004, after 60 years with the network. Lorne Michaels kept him as the SNL announcer on a freelance basis, literally phoning it in from Arizona till he died.