Today they grieve for a guy who made folks laugh

MICHAEL OLESKER

July 25, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Everybody who knew Walter "Skip" Ball wishes to think of Walter Brennan today. Or Broadway show tunes sung intentionally off-key. Or Ethel Merman crying out to Ernest Borgnine during the most famous one-week marriage in pop history.

"Ernie," Skip would sing out in that Mermanesque voice like a fire alarm clanging in some cheap hotel room at 3 in the morning, "whattaya want for breakfast?"

Everybody wants to remember Skip in his element: A room where people are laughing, mostly because of him. Or a track where the horses are running fast and Skip's making them immortal. Or a studio with lights and cameras where Skip's keeping everybody cool.

At the age of 54 years and in the prime of his ad-libbery, he was taken by cancer last week, and nobody wants to think of it because it's breaking everybody's heart.

So think about this: For the past three decades, Skip Ball was one of the great thoroughbred horse racing photographers around here, and one of the great unknown soldiers of television, too.

The racing photos? Well, there's a slew of citations, including the Eclipse Award, for the top national racing photo of the year, when he caught Spectacular Bid on the home stretch of the Kentucky Derby, with the Churchill Downs spires in the background and the great horse's legs all up in the air as if he might defy the very laws of gravity.

"Just lucky," Skip shrugged when they handed him the award. "You point the camera and hope something comes out good."

He neglected to mention that three of the five finalist entries that year, from all across the country, were his.

And yet the still photography was a sideline. For the last 34 years, he was a guy just outside camera range at WJZ-TV: a photographer and stage manager for the evening news, and for "People Are Talking" when it starred Richard Sher and a woman named Oprah Winfrey.

When Oprah heard Skip was ailing, some months back, she sent dozens of yellow roses. When she heard, several weeks ago, that he'd gotten worse, she quietly flew here from Chicago, stayed with Skip for several hours at Johns Hopkins Hospital, then flew back.

Outside his hospital room, people gathered for a glimpse of Oprah and kept asking, "Who's this guy? Who's Skip Ball to bring Oprah here?"

Here's a hint: When Oprah was filming "The Color Purple," she asked Skip to stay with her, for friendship and perspective. When Jerry Turner used to crack up on the air for reasons sometimes inexplicable to viewers, it was invariably Skip doing it to him, off-camera. When Skip was running through his dead-on mimics of Walter Brennan, or Katharine Hepburn, or singing songs nobody else remembered from obscure Broadway shows, was covering an intellect that devoured the New York Times every day and approached journalism with a passion.

What you saw, mostly, was this elfin Irish presence doing shtick: jokes, stories, grand mimickings that might have been pulled from some old, bottomless show biz trunk.

"You know what he told me when the doctors gave him the bad news about the cancer?" pal Billy Kowalsky was saying last week. "He said, 'Damn. Now I'll never get a high-definition TV for my house.' "

That was Skip: He really did love all the high-tech stuff, but he always needed to take the edge off things for everybody around him. And so he offered that comic persona even when things were grimmest.

"One time," the news anchorman Al Sanders was saying last week, "my wife and I met Skip in Las Vegas. There was a National Association of Broadcasters convention there. The three us went to dinner at a pretty fancy place, but there was a long line. And Skip said, 'Watch this.'

"He decided to show us how to get a good table without waiting. Hewent up to this maitre d' and slipped $20 into his hand. But the $20 immediately slipped to the floor, and the maitre d' and Skip both bent over to pick up, and they knocked heads.

"The more I think about it, I'm not so sure Skip didn't do it on purpose, just to get a laugh."

He could be damned serious, too. Entering television at age 20, he was in the generation that brought the medium into the modern technological age.

"He was always interested in TV," his son J. R. said. "He'd show me the farm where he grew up in Bel Air. All the kids would play baseball, but he'd sit on the roof of the barn with a cardboard camera he made, and he'd 'televise' the game. Early on, he knew what he wanted to do."

What he always did was give people the joy of his company, and his professionalism.

"As a stage manager," said free-lance producer Arleen Weiner, "Skip was the best. And he's not gonna stop doing what he's always done. He'll just do it for a higher authority now. He'll be a great stage manager for God."

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