Variety show host Garry Moore, 78

November 29, 1993|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Staff Writer

Garry Moore had a secret: As a child, he liked to shadow the lamplighter around his Bolton Hill neighborhood, shinny up the posts and snuff out the flames.

That humor would serve him well in later years as a popular radio and television personality: He was host of four network TV shows in the medium's early years and also won an Emmy.

Garry Moore died yesterday, of emphysema, at his home on Hilton Head Island, S.C. He was 78.

It was on his last visit to Baltimore six years ago that Mr. Moore -- born in Baltimore as Thomas Garrison Morfit -- told the truth about some of the adolescent high jinks that helped shape his career as a comedian.

"Dad showed me around the old neighborhood. It was a very nostalgic trip for him," his son, Thomas Garrison "Garry" Morfit Jr., said yesterday. "He remembered slipping scripts under the door of a radio station [WBAL] and running home after school to see if the jokes got on the air. Often they did.

"He loved growing up there."

The city embraced Mr. Moore as well. In his prime, as the bow-tied host of the quiz shows "I've Got A Secret" and "To Tell The Truth," he trailed only John Unitas as Baltimore's best-known crew-cut.

He was born on Jan. 31, 1915, the son of Mason and Eleanor Morfit. He attended McDonogh School, Roland Park Public School and City College in the early 1930s, where he began performing at dances and variety shows.

At City, he wrote a humorous column, "Diary of a Freshman," for the high school's newspaper. He also penned a gossip column for a neighborhood tear sheet under the pseudonym "Walter Watchall."

"Garry was a comic all the way," said Brent Gunts, a fellow student at City College. In 1936, Mr. Gunts, then a young radio producer at WFBR, hired Mr. Moore to be host of "The Varsity Club," a live variety program with a swing band. Mr. Moore's comedic talents were quickly evident, he said.

"What a delightful guy," Mr. Gunts, former general manager of WBAL-TV, said yesterday. "Garry never had any delusions about himself. At the height of his career, he was the same down-to-earth man as he was at City College."

Mr. Moore moved to WBAL radio as a $25-a-week comedy writer but soon went behind the microphone as a morning disk jockey.

He also was host of the popular "Dr. Pepper Treasure Hunt," airing clues to the location of prizes hidden all over Baltimore.

"Thousands of people would listen to Garry, then get in their cars and drive all over town, looking for treasure," Mr. Gunts recalled.

In 1938, Mr. Moore married Eleanor Little of Richmond, Va., and set out for Chicago, where he became host of a network radio show and staged a contest to change his name from Morfit. A Pittsburgh woman won $50 for suggesting "Garry Moore."

The next stop was New York, where Mr. Moore met and teamed up with the late Jimmy Durante for a weekly radio show that had an audience estimated at 4 million listeners.

When TV beckoned in 1950, Mr. Moore responded with the first of two programs called "The Garry Moore Show" on CBS.

Carol Burnett, Don Knotts, Alan King and Jonathan Winters were among entertainers Mr. Moore introduced on his variety show, which last aired in 1967.

He later served as the easy-going, likable moderator of the long-running "I've Got A Secret" from 1952 to 1966 and "To Tell The Truth" from 1969 to 1976.

Mr. Moore retired from broadcasting in 1976, when he was stricken with throat cancer. He triumphed over the illness and lived his remaining years at Hilton Head.

His first wife died in 1975.

In addition to his son Garry of Hilton Head Island, S.C., he is survived by his wife, Betsy DeChant Morfit; another son, John Mason Morfit of South Freeport, Maine; a brother, Dr. Mason Morfit of Denver; and a sister, Penny Brede Horn of Charlottesville, Va.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at the First Presbyterian Church of Hilton Head.

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