Tuesday, August 19, 2014

That Voice

Don Pardo during an audience warm-up on the set of "Saturday Night Live" in 1979.  NBC photo via Getty images.

Jimmy Fallon said it best: nothing is like the moment when Don Pardo says your name.

And now, that legendary voice has been silenced; Mr. Pardo, the NBC staff announcer whose career literally spanned the history of television--and a wide swath of pop culture--has died at the age of 96.

A spokesman for his family confirmed that Pardo passed away Monday night at his home in Tucson, Arizona.  Mr. Pardo moved to Arizona in 2004, after retiring from his daily duties as a network announcer, though he remained the voice of "Saturday Night Live" through the 2014 season that ended in May. 

For viewers of a certain age, Pardo was best known as the off-camera announcer on the iconic comedy show that first aired in 1975.  But when Lorne Michaels hired him for SNL, Pardo had already been a member of the NBC announcing staff for 31 years, and his resume included such assignments as the Colgate Comedy Hour; Your Show of Shows, All Star Revue, the original Price is Right (alongside Bill Cullen), the network version of Jeopardy! (hosted by Art Fleming), along with dozens of other programs, specials and occasional work in news.  He provided war coverage on NBC radio during his early days at the network and decades after moving to TV, he appeared on-screen for WNBC's "Live at Five," introducing the local anchor team.                       

For whatever reason, Pardo's assignments with NBC News were infrequent; the announcers most associated with the network's nightly newscast were Bill Hanrahan and Howard Reig, while Fred Facey was the long-time voice of the Today show.  But as fate would have it, Don Pardo was in the announcer's booth in the early afternoon on November 22, 1963, when a news editor shoved a bulletin in front of him and told the announcer he would be reading it live--over the network--in a matter of seconds.  No time to review the copy or rehearse.  Just deliver one of the biggest stories of the 20th century to millions of viewers:

"In downtown Dallas, President Kennedy was shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy. She cried, ‘Oh no.’ The motorcade sped on. A photographer said he saw blood on the president’s head. It was believed two shots were fired. Keep tuned to your NBC station for the later news.”

And here is how it sounded; for years, it was believed that no audio copy of the Pardo's bulletin existed.  In those days, NBC didn't have the capability to "go live" from the network newsroom in New York, and didn't begin recording its coverage until Chet Huntley, Frank McGee and Bill Ryan went on the air in a small studio.  Pardo's original report was captured by a viewer who had been experimenting with an audio recorder set up next to his TV and discovered them years later.

The bulletins represent only a brief moment in a storied career, but they not only illustrate Pardo's consummate skill, but the value of having a "live" announcer who could handle anything.  In this era of voice tracking, careful "imaging" and pre-recorded segments, it's hard to believe that each broadcast network once employed as many as two dozen announcers, adept at voicing anything from commercial billboards and promos, to public service announcements and even news bulletins.  Anyone who has ever slaved over a "hot" microphone will tell you that Pardo's "cold read" of the initial update is very impressive. He makes a rare, minor flub in the second bulletin, but it's still an extraordinary performance, under the most difficult conditions.  Compare that to the breaking news segments of today, where anchors often flail and speculate, and Mr. Pardo's work is even more impressive.    

It was that same, authoritative sound that won Pardo his most famous gig.  "Jeopardy" had ended its NBC run as Lorne Michaels was putting together SNL.  He told The New York Times he liked Mr. Pardo for the job as a sort of counterpoint to the wackiness of the show.  “It couldn’t have been a more different culture,” Mr. Michaels said. “But it was perfect for us.”

Pardo remained with the show for 38 of its 39 seasons.  He left SNL in 1980 (along with Michaels and the original "Not Ready for Primetime Players) but the re-tooled program quickly sank in the ratings.  Pardo--who had been replaced by another NBC staffer, Mel Brandt--returned to the announcer's booth in 1982 and remained with the show for the rest of his long career. 

He hinted at retirement after leaving NBC as a full-time announcer in 2004, but Michaels persuaded him to stick with SNL, flying to New York for the broadcasts, or taping his material from a studio in Arizona.  On the rare occasions when Pardo was unavailable, cast members like Joe Piscopo and Darrell Hammond filled in, mimicking that unmistakable voice.  Reportedly, Hammond's impersonation was so spot-on that it once fooled Pardo's wife. 

Some of Don Pardo's best work is preserved at YouTube, including an extended interivew with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2006.  In that conversation he covers a number of subjects, including his trademark, elongated announcing style that developed during his stint on the original "Price is Right."  In the early days of TV, it took cameras a few seconds to track and focus on the product being described, so Pardo learned to stretch his narration, so it matched what appeared on the screen. 

To this day, Pardo is the only announcer in the television academy's Hall of Fame.  He is certainly deserving of the honor, but there are many other announcers who are worthy of the recognition.  Perhaps the passing of Don Pardo will cause the academy to reconsider the many announcers who were instrumental in the medium's development. 
ADDENDUM:  As Mr. Pardo described in the television academy interview, he originally set his sights on being an actor.  But the manager of WJAR radio in Providence, Rhode Island (where Pardo's acting troupe occasionally performed on the air), persuaded him to give announcing a try.  Pardo's wife encouraged him to take the job, though it meant a pay cut from the $58 a week he was making as a machinist. 

With only two years of experience, he joined the network staff in 1944, after auditioning with another Providence-based announcer, Hal Simms.  WJAR was an NBC affiliate, so Pardo auditioned for that network and was hired, while Mr. Simms (who worked for a competing station) was turned down at CBS.  Simms joined the CBS staff a few years later, and spent 41 years with the network, where he was best known as the announcer for the soap opera "The Edge of Night."

Mr. Pardo was, by all accounts, a very unassuming and approachable man, despite his celebrity status.  More than a few aspiring announcers, seeking guidance from a legend in the business, called the NBC switchboard and asked for Don Pardo.  Most were stunned when the operator put them through and they found themselves talking with one of the greats.   And I have yet to see a post or tweet from an SNL performer, writer or production staffer who didn't describe him in gentle and glowing terms. 

He will be missed     




1 comment:

Old NFO said...

Yep another class act gone. May he RIP!