June B. Thorne

Veteran actress was the first African-American woman to host a Baltimore TV show in the late 1960s

March 24, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

June B. Thorne, a veteran Arena Players actress who was the first African-American woman to have her own show on Baltimore commercial television when she hosted "The Woman's Journal" on WMAR during the late 1960s, died Saturday of complications from dementia at Copper Ridge nursing home in Sykesville.

Ms. Thorne was 82.

June Butler, the daughter of an American Oil Co. stock clerk and a teacher, was born in Baltimore and raised in the 2400 block of Madison Ave., better known as Sugar Hill, the prosperous neighborhood that was between Druid Hill Park and North Avenue.

Ms. Thorne was a 1944 graduate of the old Frederick Douglass High School at Calhoun and Baker streets, and earned a bachelor's degree from what is now Coppin State University.

"Growing up, we really had no idea that we were segregated, that we lived in a segregated world and didn't have what others had. We had parents and teachers and a neighborhood that nurtured us and insulated us," Ms. Thorne told The Baltimore Sun in a 1993 interview.

She later earned a master's degree in education from New York University and completed additional postgraduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

She began teaching first grade in 1948 and later became a senior teacher and assistant principal at School No. 60 at Gwynns Falls Parkway and Pulaski Street.

Ms. Thorne also served as a special liaison to Roland Patterson, who was then superintendent of city public schools, until her retirement in 1975.

Ms. Thorne's interest in acting and theater dated to her childhood, said her sister, Shirley B. Woods, retired mathematics department head at Fallstaff Middle School and an Owings Mills resident.

"She was very active in the Madison Avenue YWCA and appeared in plays there," her sister said.

In 1960, she joined the Arena Players Inc., which had been established by her close friend, Sam Wilson, and "soon she became an outstanding sought-after leading lady," Mrs. Woods said.

"For 50 years, she starred in comedies, tragedies and musicals. She also secured bit parts in several movies that were filmed locally," her sister said.

"The Arena Players means a great deal to me," Ms. Thorne told The Baltimore Sun in a 1996 interview.

"Not only was it the place where I honed the talents God blessed me with, but led to an audition with Channel 2, where I became the first black woman in Baltimore to host a talk show," she said.

"The Woman's Journal," which aired at 1 p.m. Saturdays from 1968 to 1977, was cited by the Baltimore City Fair Inc. in 1971 as the "outstanding community service program in the local broadcasting field."

"Everyone liked June. She always had a smile on her face," recalled Jack Dawson, veteran WMAR sports director, who retired in 1992. "She did the kind of show that Sylvia Scott had done earlier."

Lou Cedrone, retired Evening Sun entertainment critic, described her Tuesday as being "very cordial and pleasant."

James A. Brown got to know Ms. Thorne at Arena Players, where he worked as the theater's technical director.

"I remember watching her [on TV] as a child and wanting to meet her more than I wanted to be on 'Romper Room,' " said Mr. Brown.

"She was so inviting on the screen; her charm and good looks were just the cherry on the sundae, because her professionalism was the dish holding it," he said. "Baltimore may not have given Oprah a first look had it not been for June, who opened the door for black women in media."

"She certainly paved the way for Oprah Winfrey," her sister said.

In addition to appearing in industrial films and making radio and TV commercials, Ms. Thorne had roles in several Hollywood feature films, including "The Seduction of Joe Tynan," "... And Justice for All" and "The Man With One Red Shoe."

Her TV work included parts in "Homicide: Life on the Street" and two miniseries, "Kennedy" and "George Washington."

But Ms. Thorne's heart remained close to the Arena Players, where she appeared in various productions and remained active since its founding in 1952.

"She was active here for 57 years, which is darn near the life of the theater," said Ben Prestbury, a Baltimore actor, director, playwright and producer who became friends with Ms. Thorne when he joined Arena in 1960.

"When I went to a meeting and first met June, I thought, 'We have a beautiful Ruby Dee right here,' " said Mr. Prestbury, who later performed with Ms. Thorne on stage and in commercials.

"She totally lost June Thorne when she went on stage and was totally engrossed in that change. She became that character. She was it," he said. "She could do comedy or serious things. The only thing she couldn't do was sing."

He described Ms. Thorne's speaking voice as being akin to a "lullaby."

Mr. Brown said that Ms. Thorne "could light up a room and a stage."

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