Brent O. Gunts, 86, broadcaster who became executive of WBAL

February 27, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Brent O. Gunts, a pioneering on-air Baltimore broadcaster who was later vice president and general manager of WBAL-TV for 14 years, died of complications from a stroke Wednesday at the Roland Park Place retirement community. The former Homeland resident was 86.

"Brent was a legend in Baltimore. He was a thoughtful, innovative, sincere and honest human being. He was community-minded and never blew his own horn," said Vince Bagli, retired WBAL-TV sports anchor.

"He set the tone for the station in every way -- not just on the air, but in how we treated each other. He was also ahead of his time. He believed that a television station had a responsibility in giving back to the community," said Rolf Hertsgaard, former longtime WBAL-TV news anchor.

In 1973, when Mr. Gunts resigned from WBAL, an on-air editorial praised his years at the station: "It is, in great measure, due to Brent Gunts that the quality of television news and public affairs programming in this town is as high as it is. He set many of the standards. He prodded television news in Baltimore to grow up, and today, it no longer depends, as it once did, on two-alarm fires and expressway accidents."

Born in Baltimore and reared in Roland Park, Mr. Gunts was a 1935 graduate of City College and attended the Johns Hopkins University.

As a child he was taken to the Auditorium Theatre on Howard Street, where he saw the musical comedy Sally, Irene and Mary and years later was fond of telling friends that was when he became stage-struck.

He later took part in amateur shows at school, and when several friends were hired to read such comics strips as the Katzenjammer Kids, Flash Gordon and Maggie and Jiggs on a Baltimore radio station in 1934, they paid Mr. Gunts $5 a week to provide the sound effects.

While attending Hopkins, he began working at radio station WFBR part time. He joined the station full time in 1936 and began writing and directing radio programs. Other duties included announcing and serving as a radio master of ceremonies.

Between 1936 to 1941, he wrote and produced such well-known shows as Community News & Views, Musical Geography, Let Yourself Go, Carnival of Fun, Club 1300, Military Matinee, Spelling Bee and Quiz of Two Cities, which was in national syndication for 12 years.

Mr. Gunts hired Thomas Garrison Morfit, a former City College student who later became known on network television as Garry Moore, as host of WFBR's The Varsity Club, a variety show with a swing band.

In 1941, Mr. Gunts enlisted in the Army and served as a public relations officer for a 17,000-troop replacement training center. He attained the rank of major and was later appointed chief of the radio section of the U.S. Savings Bonds Division of the Treasury Department.

After the end of the war, he moved to New York City and established Entertainment Enterprises Inc., which produced programs for the Mutual Broadcasting System and ABC.

He returned to Baltimore in 1949 and founded Brent Gunts Productions, which produced such memorable radio shows in the early 1950s as Return Engagement, Hello Baltimore, Kitchen Karnival. Some of his early TV shows included Shadow Stumpers, You Said It, Bob Jones Show, Luncheon with the Ladies, Surprise Show, Quiz Club and What Do You Think.

He had been involved with 50 shows through the years, including The Brent Gunts Show, a one-hour, five-day-a-week TV variety show, on which Jay Grayson was his co-host.

Mr. Gunts, who was appointed vice president and general manager of WBAL-TV in 1959, made racial harmony a cornerstone of his tenure at the station. Years before the 1968 riots, he scheduled and moderated programs that promoted interracial understanding between blacks and whites.

A Conversation with James Emory Bond, an interview with an elderly black man who lived in West Baltimore, revealed the growing rift between whites and blacks. The show, which was aired on stations throughout the nation, won a Peabody Award.

"He hired Reverend Vernon Dobson, a fiery black minister, to deliver editorials on the air, at a time when blacks weren't on local TV," said a nephew, Edward Gunts, The Sun's architecture critic.

"He considered hiring African-Americans one of the most important things he had done as general manager. He also felt it was his job to inform and educate the community. These were the things he considered benchmarks of his career," said his son, Brent O. Gunts Jr. of Wilton, Conn., who is head of Olympic production for NBC.

He had an eye for young talent and programs that instantly connected with viewers.

"We did the weather with puppets because Brent said people didn't care about highs and lows. What they wanted to know was whether they'd need an umbrella or not," said Rhea Feiken, who had been host of the station's Miss Rhea and Sunshine, a live children's program.

During the 1970s, he created, produced and was host of Is That Right on WMAR-TV. He also initiated a corporate underwriting program with Maryland Public Television.

"He loved his craft and he loved the business," said Harry R. Shriver, a retired Baltimore broadcasting executive who had been WCBM general manager.

Mr. Gunts was married for 41 years to the former Eleanor Jordan Collenberg, a fashion editor, who died in 1986.

He was involved in many philanthropic organizations and was a former president of the Advertising and Professional Club.

He was a communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St., where a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday.

In addition to his son, survivors include a daughter, Holly Stewart Gunts of Towson; and six grandchildren.

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